When I was a teenager, I took a school trip to the former Soviet Union before its official economic collapse in 1991. I had no formal or proper understanding of economics at the time, but my exposure to life under communism kick-started my journey to becoming an economist and my desire to understand what I witnessed. It also impressed upon me that communism can never bring true flourishing.
The Failure of Communism
When we arrived in Moscow, we were greeted by an official Soviet liaison who was by our side the entire trip. We were forbidden from seeing the destitute life of subsistence farming in the rural regions as we toured the city. Although the Soviets tried to give the appearance of flourishing, it was easy to see through the ruse. The beautiful Kremlin and colorful domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral were veneers attempting to hide the godless culture and gray desperation that enveloped everyone.
When a government takes over all economic activity, there are drastic consequences. Controlling all economic activity requires a strong dictatorship and totalitarian measures of oppression and violence. Individuals are required to divorce themselves from who God created them to be and serve the state instead. With this comes state-sponsored atheism and an effort to control culture and destroy individual entities.
Cultures and countries fail when leaders construct a society that operates opposite of God’s design. The Soviet Union was a failure because it revolted against God’s design and desire for creation. It failed because it denied people the ability to live into who God created them to be. It stripped citizens of their personal choices and provided no incentives for them to unleash their creativity in productive ways.
My experience in the Soviet Union demonstrated to me what life looks like without economic freedom. The words of Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan were a reality:
No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.
Everyone lived in a real fear of violent death, if not a quick death by the gas chamber, then a slow death by starvation.
Boris Yeltsin’s Famous Trip to an American Grocery Store
I want to end with a famous story which I first read in Thomas Sowell’s book Basic Economics that illustrates the stark difference in societies that embrace economic freedom and those that try to stamp it out. It is a true story of Boris Yeltsin, who came to the United States in 1989. Yeltsin was newly elected to the Soviet Parliament and the Supreme Soviet. At this time, the economic collapse of the Soviet Union was looming but had not yet happened.
Yeltsin and his cronies were visiting the Johnson Space Center in Texas. After they left, they made an unscheduled trip to Randall’s Grocery Store in Houston. That grocery store experience changed Yeltsin forever. He would later write about it in his autobiography.
Yeltsin roamed the aisles to see products in wide variety waiting for customers. The store was offering free cheese samples. Yeltsin was overwhelmed. He could not believe the bounty before him. He also couldn’t believe there was no fanfare about it – it was just an ordinary day in America. Yeltsin said that even the elite Politburo did not have these choices. He asked the store manager if he required special education to manage a store like Randall’s.
Yeltsin was a powerful, elite, and politically connected man. He was more powerful than most of us will ever be in political terms. Economically, he was powerless. Despite his intellect and numerous connections, he could not make grocery stores like Randall’s happen in the Soviet Union. The house was built on sand, without property rights, incentives to create, and freedom.
One year after visiting Randall’s, Yeltsin would talk about it despondently. Craig Hlavaty reports Yeltsin’s reflections in the Houston Chronicle:
“When I saw those shelves crammed with hundreds, thousands of cans, cartons and goods of every possible sort, for the first time I felt quite frankly sick with despair for the Soviet people,” Yeltsin wrote. “That such a potentially super-rich country as ours has been brought to a state of such poverty! It is terrible to think of it.”
It is terrible to think about because it’s not how things are supposed to be. The Soviet episode occurred because leaders wanted their own power at the expense of humanity. When we take God out of our decisions, we become deluded with power and the desire to hurt others to accomplish our selfish goals. The Soviet Union was an economy-wide effort in doing this. The only predictable things over the seventy-one years of that reign were suffering, violence, and terror. People starved at the hands of the state. We must be free in every aspect to live as God intends in order to experience the greater flourishing that glorifies God.