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The Fall of the Berlin Wall: 15 Years Later By: Edwin A. Locke
Ayn Rand Institute | Tuesday, November 09, 2004


The 15th anniversary of the destruction of the Berlin Wall is today. This event is widely taken to symbolize two things: the demise of Communism, and the global triumph of political freedom and capitalism. Unfortunately, the second has not occurred.

The Soviet Union was certainly an evil empire, with mass slaughter, enslavement and poverty as its only legacy. But the destruction of the bad does not ensure the emergence of the good. When a tyrant is overthrown, he may simply be replaced by another one. In fact, much of world history, from ancient Egypt to modern China and Iran, has followed this very pattern, with rebellions leading only to the supplanting of an old system of despotism with a new one.

The United States of America was one of the rare exceptions to this pattern. British monarchy was replaced by a constitutional republic; from this sprang political and economic freedom that has endured for more than 200 years. What made us different?

The American Revolution was fought not simply against tyranny, but for freedom. It was a revolution in defense of a specific political philosophy that gave freedom its meaning and validation. Three principles formed the core of that philosophy: (1) that reason--rather than the mysticism entailed in faith or superstition--is man's means of knowledge and proper guide to action, thus leaving no room for rule by "divine right"; (2) that individual happiness--rather than sacrificial duty to the collective--is man's proper moral purpose; and (3) that the role of government is not to force the citizen to serve the state, but to protect the rights of each individual--rights which were then recognized by the Constitution.

Without these principles, the rule of King George III might have been replaced not by a constitutional republic but by an American monarchy. In fact, there were those who wanted George Washington to become a king, but Washington, true to American ideals, refused. The result was a country of unimagined freedom and unimagined wealth.

Compare America with Russia, for example. Russia never went through the Enlightenment, proceeding instead from monarchy to Communism. An axiom of Communism was that man must not seek his own happiness but must sacrifice his life to the state (or party). Russia's current form of government almost defies description, but it is certainly not one that upholds freedom. Rather, it is some corrupt amalgam of statism and gangsterism. Russia remains an authoritarian state, because it lacks a pro-individualist philosophy.

Compare America with China. China endured centuries of tyranny but never discovered the concept of individual rights. Now, desperate to escape the mass poverty caused by socialist economics, the Communist bosses are trying to combine political dictatorship with quasi-capitalism. But their attempt to embrace some elements of capitalism has no principled foundation; it is strictly an expedient measure driven by the whim of the ruling elite. Even the collapse of the Communist Party would not necessarily result in a free society.

Finally, compare America with the Islamic states of the Middle East. The philosophy of those oppressive countries is the enshrinement of religious dogma. Those who openly oppose theocracy and seek the separation of mosque and state are routinely denounced, persecuted or killed. In any conflict in those countries between religion and reason, it is reason that invariably loses. In such countries, therefore, the death, or the ousting, of any particular ruler accomplishes nothing. Indeed, it is likely that Saddam Hussein's dictatorship will be replaced by a democratically elected Islamic theocracy--an event President Bush has declared he will not oppose.

Freedom can never be won simply by eliminating those who are against it. Demolishing the Berlin Wall does not build the Washington Monument or the Jefferson Memorial; it does not create the crucial values these latter symbolize. Many people pay lip service to liberty, but liberty can be gained only by espousing a philosophy that upholds the ideas on which freedom rests: reason, individualism, individual rights.

It is essential for Americans to defend these three pillars of freedom, particularly since they are under growing attack today by both conservatives and liberals. Conservatives increasingly want the individual citizen to be subordinated to the dictates of faith; liberals increasingly demand that the individual citizen be sacrificed to the desires of the collective. (And at the very forefront of these attacks are our mainstream academics, who teach that reason is an illusion and that the individual is merely a product of society.)
 
A genuine celebration of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall would call for a re-affirmation, not merely of the immorality of Communism, but also of the morality of capitalism. That would help make the event a symbol, not just of Communism's fall, but of freedom's rise.


Mr. Locke, a professor of management at the University of Maryland at College Park, is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Marina del Rey, Calif. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.


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