Bryan Caplan  

Who Wants to Privatize Lenin?

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Who is most open to privatizing Lenin's mummy? You might think that it would be people to suffered under Communism, and want to turn their backs on anything tainted by it. But "Goodbye Lenin (or not?)" a fascinating paper by Alberto Alesina and Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln, suggests that exactly the opposite is true. Despite their negative first-hand experiences, people who grew up under socialism are more anti-market than people who did not. As Alesina and Fuchs-Schündeln explain:

If political regimes had no effect on individual preferences, one should not observe any systematic differences between East and West Germans after reunification. If Communism had an effect, in principle one could think of two possible reactions to 45 years of Communist dictatorship. One is that people turn strongly against the “state” and switch to preferences in the opposite direction, namely in favor of libertarian free markets, as a reaction to an all intrusive state. The opposite hypothesis is that 45 years of heavy state intervention and indoctrination instill in people the view that the state is essential for individual well being. As we shall see, we quickly and soundly reject the first hypothesis in favor of the second. In fact, we find that the effects of Communism are large and long lasting. It will take about one to two generations for former East and West Germans to look alike in terms of preferences and attitudes about fundamental questions regarding the role of the government in society.

A lot of economists would assume that East Germans are less pro-market than West Germans because they are poorer. But Alesina and Fuchs-Schündeln show that large differences persist controlling for income. And while there are several ways to interpret this result, I think the simplest is also the most plausible: Brainwashing works to a fair extent. The East German government failed to make its citizens love the Berlin Wall, but the quality of its mind-numbing propaganda was a modest triumph of socialist production.


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The author at The Club for Growth Blog in a related article titled You Can't Teach Old Commies New Tricks... writes:
    Bryan Caplan points to an academic paper that suggests older people who lived under the boot of communism are still attached to the idea that a strong government is an essential part of their lives. And that it will take... [Tracked on October 18, 2005 7:50 AM]
COMMENTS (9 to date)
Barkley Rosser writes:

Hmm, looks like people are avoiding this one.

Well, "brainwashing" is a very negatively loaded word. It was originally used to describe what was done to US POWs who were tortured during the Korean War.

Citizens of the former DDR (aka GDR, aka "East Germany") were citizens of the highest income, technologically leading member of the Warsaw Pact and the CMEA, if any of you remember what any of these now dead entities were. They could look down their Teutonic noses at their fellow Soviet bloc members (and they did), even as they looked over their shoulders at their local neighbors who might have been Stasi agents. Now they are pathetic "Ossis," whiney and backward losers in a unified Germany that is not doing so well in a sort of unified Europe.

Careful studies suggest that they were not all that far behind their western neighbors in living standards. Cars were lousy and expensive, but rent was low, and similar comparisons could have been (and were) made. The CIA had them having almost caught up with the FRG in real per capita income, only to be embarrassed after the Wall fell to find that their workers could only earn 30-60% of the wages of the westerners, and that only with a lot of subsidies from the FRG, which have arguably been a major factor in putting Germany into its current general economic funk.

Anyway, it is not surprising that Ossis are nostalgic about their former position. Sure, some got shot trying to escape across the Wall and dissidents got thrown into prison, but this was not the lot of the majority of the population, all those "good East Germans." These people have suffered real losses in status and real income, and it is not surprising that they are not jumping up and down for joy over their right to vote for Angela Merkel.

BTW, one can say what one wants about all the many sins of Vladimir Ulyanov (aka Lenin), but his own final Will asked that he be buried in the city now bearing its original name, St. Petersburg, next to his mother. I see no reason why his final wish should not be respected.

Max writes:

Well, I must say that I concur with your statement, that the DDR had closed in on the wealth of the FDR. The reason is that the DDR was a show-off for the whole soviet bloc. It was the only area that would let outsiders in without much difficulties. Here, Western tourists could see the effect of Communism first hand.
Therefore, the DDR was one of the wealthiest countries in the Soviet bloc, because it got sponsored with all the ressources from the other ressource-rich countries in the Warsaw Pact.

But if you looked at the technology rather than the income as a means to rate the countries, the FDR had outdone the DDR in many ways.

ed johnson writes:

I'm not sure I buy this argument. It might be true for the GDR, but I don't think the citizens of Poland or the Czech Republic are particulary left wing. In fact Vaclav Klaus is perhaps the most successful libertarian politician in the world. Most people in those countries are quite anti-communists, and their Social Democratic parties probably aren't too different from those in the west. If brainwashing works, why didn't it work in Poland and the CR?

Barkley Rosser writes:

Each of these countries has its own particular experience and conditions. The former East Germany went from top of the heap in the Soviet bloc to poor relative in a newly reunified Germany. Poland and CR went from second tier players in the Soviet bloc to independence from rule by the hated Russians.

One reason that relatively libertarian Klaus has done well in CR (and he succeeded essentially social democratic Havel), is that there is still a hard lining Communist Party that has substantial representation in the parliament. However, because of the memory of its association with the brutal crushing of the 1968 "Prague Spring," no one wants to form a coalition with it. That party is in some sense the equivalent of the also non-ruling Party of the Left, which succeeded that Party of Democratic Socialism, which succeeded the Communist Party in East Germany, and which is quite popular in that region of Germany, although the one in CR is much more hard lining and traditionalist Marxist.

Poland is somewhat different and far more confusing. The current election has a runoff between two supposedly "right," anti-Communist candidates, although one (Tusk) would seem to be somewhat more libertarian than the other. However, they are succeeding a long ruling president (Kwasniecki) who is a former Communist, but became more liberal in the classical sense and was fairly popular through most of his rule. The former Communists, much more democratic and liberal than the ones in CR, came to power largely in reaction against the full implementation of shock therapy in Poland: aggressive anti-inflation policies were OK, as were strong moves to establishing fairly free markets, but there was resistance to cutting the social safety net and to rapid privatization. The former Communists offered a more gradual route in these areas.

One can find varying situations regarding these matters across the full set of the former members of the Soviet bloc in East and Central Europe, including the former republics of the USSR.

Paul N writes:

I agree with Bryan's depressing bolded conclusion, but I think the authors' observation would hold true even in the absence of brainwashing: people get used to having their livelihoods being supported by the state, so that's how they expect it to be.

aaron writes:

I think the effect is similar to the psychology of learned helplessness. Rather than random punishment, there is an absense of reward. There becomes a lack of association with behavior and outcome.

MQ writes:

Oh, come on. Brainwashing? Isn't libertarianism supposed to be about respecting peoples knowledge of their own preferences? But when those include a preference for a strong state role in the economy then it must be due to "brainwashing"? A much more sensible approach emphasizes loss aversion. That is to say, there were certain advantages and good things in the east german way of doing things (even if on net it was worse), people got used to and adapted to those advantages, and losing them hurts. You can call that "learned helplessness" if you want, but I'd also say that is propaganda -- an ideological belief that your preferences as a libertarian must be superior to the expressed preferences of people who are different from you.

Turloch O'Tierney writes:

Note that old people in former Eastern Block countries have every right to prefer left wing approaches, their state pensions depend on it. It is extremely rational for them to vote for their economic benefit, whether the long term good of the state, or the good of the financial markets which want private pension money invested in them, suggests otherwise.

Chris Bolts writes:

I don't think this behavior is exclusive to Soviet Russia. Today we're getting ready to celebrate the 70th year of Social Security and any talk of paring it down for future generations is wrought with discontent and uncivil discourse. Many people believe that Social Security is a right they have earned from working so many years and reading some of the publications that the SSA puts out leads many to believe this is the case.

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