Sunday, August 21, 2011

Berlin Walls, real and metaphorical, fail

Published in The Tennessean, Sunday, August 21, 2011

by Richard J. Grant

When I passed through Checkpoint Charlie for the first time, the Berlin Wall was already 19 years old and its final construction had just been completed. It was more than just a wall. Physically, the 12-foot-high concrete slabs that formed the Wall's face to the West were paralleled on the East side by smaller walls, fences, and buildings. In between was the 100-yard-wide “Death Strip,” with various obstacles and little cover for those daring enough to cross it without authorization. East German and Soviet troops patrolled the strip.

Looking beyond the physical, West Berlin was like an island of freedom surrounded by a prison. The Wall was designed to keep East Germans inside East Germany. Before the barriers went up, millions of East Germans had “voted with their feet” and crossed to the West through Berlin.

The contrast between East and West Berlin reminded one of the sudden change from black-and-white to color in the Wizard of Oz movie. The streets and buildings in the East wore a drabness that reflected the sense of life. Food stores offered mostly beets, potatoes, and shriveled apples. Soft drinks contained un-aesthetic sediment. Bookstores offered rows of Marx and Lenin before one found a few other selections at the back.

Passing a pair of soldiers on the street, it was hard not to return their cold stares. I was fresh out of the army and still looked it – a Westerner at that. Their uniforms bore, not coincidentally, an unmistakable resemblance to those that we saw in training films and to those on the pop-up targets that I once happily perforated.

Looking at life in East Berlin, even as a tourist, would make one wonder how it could possibly last. The contrast was too great, and the flow of information could be hampered but not stopped. In the East, the people were forced to live political correctness to its logical conclusions. They lived in a philosophical reign of terror that played out like Muzak in their lives and became the theme for the economic stagnation that eventually, and invariably, comes with it.

As it turned out, the Wall did fall nine years later. I couldn't know then that, 25 years later, I would have an office in the former Communist Party headquarters of a breakaway Soviet republic, and that my home would look across at a former Soviet army base, complete with an old MIG on a pedestal.

Had West Germany continued the price and product controls of the postwar military administration, its economic future might have differed little from the East's. But on the initiative of Ludwig Erhard, many of those controls were removed, clearing the way for the German “economic miracle.”

It was a miracle only to those who did not understand economics; but those were the people with whom one had to compromise. Thanks to Erhard, the “social market economy” that later emerged retained a respect for private property and free enterprise. That made all the difference.

Construction of the Berlin Wall began 50 years ago this month. It was knocked down 28 years later by a people no longer afraid of their Communist masters who were rendered impotent by decades of having their own socialist way.

The Berlin Walls that we face in daily life are not made of concrete. Let us recognize them for what they are.


Richard J. Grant is a professor of finance and economics at Lipscomb University and a senior fellow at the Tennessee Center for Policy Research. His column appears on Sundays. E-mail: rjg@richardjgrant.com

Copyright © Richard J Grant 2011