Thirty Years After: Why The Berlin Wall Warns of The Ethical and Economic Horror of Collectivism

P. Gardner Goldsmith | November 13, 2019
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Thirty years ago, I watched on a small black and white television as East and West Berliners climbed over the thirty-year-old cement wall the Soviet Union had erected in the middle of the city, as the people of East and West overcame decades of deadly threats, killings, state-run theft, speech control, leftist propaganda, and hardship to welcome a brighter future.

Boosters of the free market knew it would happen eventually, because they understood ethics and economics, and how any political system that does not allow personal liberty and respect for one’s neighbors will – regardless of how militaristic it is and how much it expands to suck off the wealth of other nations – collapse.

So, for the purposes of this message to you I will forgo a detailed history of the 1917 Russian Revolution, its bloodthirsty organizers and the vile manner in which generations of pop media talking heads and writers not only turned blind eyes to the evils of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but openly praised it and, in some cases, worked for it.

I'd like, instead, to offer some context about that stark physical barrier, and why it is a warning…

My uncle, E. Gardner Goldsmith, was on Patton’s general staff. He and my father spoke about how Patton implored his guys to get to Berlin as quickly as they could, because Patton knew that if they didn’t beat the Soviets, the German population would be trapped by communism. He spoke about how FDR had already calculated that those poor German people would be, in essence, sacrificed to Stalin, how FDR literally resisted Patton’s calls for more fuel, how Patton’s soldiers were sent into the hinterlands to steal fuel in order to keep them going: American men trying to save German people from Soviet doom.

But with the Soviets firmly entrenched in much of Germany by the time the western allies arrived, the US, Brits, and French bowed to Soviet aggression. As notes:

After World War II, the Allies partitioned the defeated Germany into a Soviet-occupied zone, an American-occupied zone, a British-occupied zone and a French-occupied zone. Berlin, the German capital city, was located deep in the Soviet zone, but it was also divided into four sections.

In June of 1948 the Soviets began to shut down railroad and street supplies to the allied sectors in Berlin, thus sparking the US government to – contrary to the US Constitution – become involved in the well known “Berlin Air Lift”, dropping food and supplies to the beleaguered Berliners struggling inside the ever-tighter Soviet noose.

Months passed. West Germany, which would allow property rights and free trade under what was supposed to be a limited government (we all know how even “limited” governments become more and more oppressive), remained allied with the so-called “capitalist” nations, while East Germany not only remained a satellite of the collectivist Soviet Union, its Soviet-backed police state in 1968 began to construct a barrier between East and West Berlin.

Thus, from its early days as barbed wire, to its final, monstrous literal and metaphorical visage, the Berlin Wall saw families split, businesses destroyed, hundreds of escape attempts foiled at the ends of guns and bayonets, courageous and fortunate escapees fleeing on foot, through tunnels, and even using air balloons – and all, not to go from West to the collectivist East, but to escape the collectivism of the East.

It was a prison, to keep people trapped in the USSR.

From 1968 to November of 1989, this is something many observant Americans knew, despite the drumbeats of the pop media and collectivist school systems here, despite Baby Boomers telling us that the news of death camps, gulags, secret police, torture, and deprivation were simply “fake news”.

We also knew that the collectivist system could not last. It couldn’t last because it did not recognize the simple, foundational ethic of self-ownership and the economic reality that springs from it.

The ethics of individualism are clear, and easily felt. Most humans seem to have an innate revulsion to theft, aggressive violence, threats of aggressive violence, fraud (another form of theft), and lies.

But how individualism is essential in economics is often missed, so the Wall is a monumentally important reminder…

It reminds us that without the concept of self-ownership and control of private property, no economic system can long survive, let alone prosper.

These economic reasons are twofold, and assiduously avoided by collectivists.

First, as the settlers at Plymouth Plantation discovered, and as Governor William Bradford wrote in his notes, forced collectivism promotes sloth and indolence at the same time that it fuels resentment in those who work hard and see their toil being syphoned away by the lazy.

Second, collectivism cannot handle what is called “the calculation problem” to allow resources to be discovered, recognized by consumers, and allocated according to how people value them.

Under the Soviet system controlling East Berlin, no one was allowed to claim private property or engage in free trade. As a result, as Ryan McMaken observes for the Mises Institute, the great free market economist, Ludwig von Mises, predicted the fall of the USSR because collectivism destroys private property, which, in turn, destroys the price system, which, in turn, makes it impossible to drive resources where people want them.

Decades before (the fall of the wall), Mises had shown that a socialist economy (by which he meant a centrally planned economy) could not possibly know what to produce, when to produce it, or for whom to produce. In explaining this, Mises proved that the Soviet Union, regardless of any victories it might have in remolding human nature, was economically impossible.

Deprivation, starvation, and hardship always ensue. Hence East Berlin was a bleak wasteland full of hungry, desperate people, while West Berlin was prosperous – akin to the difference between North and South Korea today.

And so, on this anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, one looks upon its legacy with mixed emotions. At turns, one can be drawn to tears thinking about the horrors of the collectivist system, a system many contemporary Americans ignorantly promote. Heck, Antifa members (we might remind them that the Soviets erected the Berlin Wall under the pretense of “fighting fascism”) fight to impose the very failed collectivism that the evil Berlin Wall represented.

But, at the same time, one can celebrate the end of that system, and see the important value in being able to learn why it failed because of its lack of individualist ethics and its attacks on private property and trade.

I happen to own a piece of the Berlin Wall.

Before governments like that of Germany and the ultra-government of the UN made the ironic moves of using taxpayer cash to take pieces of the wall – a wall that was put up using Soviet taxpayer cash, a few wily East German capitalists broke large chunks of it and sold them for profit – a fitting thing to do after so many years of oppression.

The chunk I have is a few ounces, about the size of a tennis ball, and it makes me think of all the noble and tragic souls who were separated by government threats, all the lives and loves and opportunities that were lost because of a deceitful, anti-human ideology that would deny men and women the right to be free.

And I see it as a lesson.

It’s a lesson to beware those who either refuse to acknowledge the crimes of collectivism, or refuse to learn from them, even as they build the United States into a collectivist nightmare that future generations might need to escape.