Mises Daily Articles
Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution: 25 Years Later
The Velvet Revolution, a victory of the people, a victory of the individual, took place on November 17, 1989 when a relatively small group of people in Czechoslovakia put events in motion that could not be stopped. They brought an end to communist rule of their lands, and by the end of the year, a dissident — Vaclav Havel — imprisoned many times by the regime would sit in Prague Castle. At the same time, a beloved reformer — Alexander Dubcek — long ago chased from power by the Soviets, and relegated literally to the backwoods of Bratislava, would be chairman of the federal legislature. Many small victories for the people continue to take place every day in the lives of millions of Slovaks and Czechs as they exert their wills freely over their own individual lives.
Moreover, in 1989, the people of Czechoslovakia took a decisive step away from the nanny state: a state that sought to control all aspects of life.
Those aspects included: what a child studied, what career options a person would have, if an artist or writer would be allowed to participate in official culture, where a person would live and with whom, if a person would travel, how many imported purchases a person would have access to. These are just a few examples, and all such decisions and initiatives were directly controlled by the state, apparent for all to see.
Controlling an Entire Economy
There were many other aspects of a person’s day-to-day life that were not recognized during totalitarian times as directly caused by the failures of the state, but which certainly were failures of the state, and are failures that are easily repeated wherever a state sees it best to control an economy.
In Czechoslovakia, this included tangerine shortages that made tangerines an exciting, hard to get, exotic St. Nicholas Day present for children each December 6. The popularity of the tangerine as a special gift is an indicator of how relatively impoverished Czechoslovakia was.
There were underwear shortages that left people walking around in tattered rags for underpants, causing young men embarrassment when they found themselves in a romantic encounter equipped only with tattered underwear (as depicted by Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being).
There were condom shortages that left abortion as a multiple-occasion de facto method of standard birth control used by many for family planning.
There were doctor shortages that made a small bribe of a bottle of alcohol or something similar an almost mandatory aspect of rudimentary medical care.
The disruptive and burdensome attitude that anyone who did not steal from the state was stealing from their own family eventually became commonplace. The economy was largely forced into the incapable hands of the state as many reasonable and entrepreneurial people took to one of the only methods of social advancement — pilfering — in order to provide for the family. This system became an even greater drain on the economy.
This all led to a lack of economic development that put Czechoslovakia further and further behind the freer parts of the world, year after year.
It was easy to see the bribery and lack of services and goods, but so much more went unseen, and the “unseen,” which Frédéric Bastiat and Henry Hazlitt so effectively described, was the missed opportunities that were occurring everywhere. Consequently, every Slovak today was in a sense betrayed by every ancestor who allowed a less free Slovakia to exist, and every Slovak today was in a sense given a gift by every ancestor who allowed a more free Slovakia to exist.
Meanwhile, In the West
Today, even in the most free-market Western countries, governments participate in massive economic intervention, as if they have learned none of the poignant lessons offered by Soviet-style controlled economies. Government intervention is praised in the West by those who do not have an understanding of markets and tend to confuse the concept of a free market with crony capitalism.
With medical care, pharmaceuticals, and education, for example, the West insists on hindering itself by undermining the market. In doing so, it almost certainly punishes the weakest members of society. Just as the central planners of Czechoslovakia in the last century claimed to act on behalf of “the people” while acting to their detriment, the social democrats of the West in this century follow in those footsteps.
In contrast, personal computing, telecom, the Internet, and burgeoning technologies are areas where technology has moved with such dramatic creativity that governments have been nearly incapable of restraining the markets.
Every year, the government-regulated industries become less efficient and more expensive while the market-regulated industries become ever more efficient and less expensive.
Skepticism toward any political and economic system is understandable in Central Europe. There have been some unpleasant attempts at using government and economics to control the people. Many look back at 1989 critically and wonder if the right decisions were made during the transitions. Some even look at the time before that with rose-colored glasses and long for what was. Some prospered in the old system and miss it. While the old system promised comfort to some, it was not a system of individual freedom.
But, each day statists and individuals do battle in this place where East meets West, and overwhelmingly, it is the spirit of 1989 and not the spirit of 1948 that wins the battle. From the West (sadly) and from the East (as can be expected) these people face regular encouragement to backslide into their statist past. Many, however, maintain a firm resolve. The most simple village farmer in this part of the world understands how a central bank works better than many economics students in the West, and the least of the economics students of this land understand the breadth of free market economics seemingly better than the handpicked central bankers of the West. The spirit of ’89 was alive and well here long before 1989 and remains to this day.