Learning from a Life Under Communism

I had the pleasure of eating lunch with a new friend today.  He lived the first three decades or so of his life under Communism in Romania.  As a person who writes about politics, I took full opportunity of the chance to pick his brain.

When we began, he told me about how poor he thinks American public education is.  As a parent, he felt his daughter was receiving an education inferior to the one she would have gotten in Romania.  That interested me.  I asked him whether he would say that American society is otherwise superior to what he experienced in the Soviet satellite.  He was quick to affirm that it is.  We talked about shortages of goods, inferior goods, forced adherence to Communist ideology, and other things.

Okay, then, if that is all true, I asked him, then why do you think Romania and its superior educational system came up so short of the U.S. overall?  He responded indirectly by describing life in his former country.  It amounted to a society in which the ultimate goals are political goals.  In other words, politics sets the agenda for the society and for individuals in the society.

If political goals are the most important, I suggested, then it may be the case that some of the things that come with freedom, such as technological progress, would be stunted.  He thought about that.  He said that I was using the word politics, but he would rather speak of corruption.  For him, politics are the occasion for corruption.  If everything requires permission from the state and its functionaries, then the system creates seemingly endless replicas of little political tollbooths.  Each occupant of a tollbooth (and this could be a state official, a doctor, a nurse, a manager, a utilities worker, etc.) recognizes the opportunity to collect a little fee in order to allow you to pass through to the other side.

I said politics.  He said corruption.  There is an interesting relationship there.  Politics is not synonymous with corruption, but politics possesses incredible potential to create opportunities for corruption.  Don’t be too quick to ask politics to do the job that we can do otherwise lest you multiply those little tollbooths.

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