For readers who may be interested, many of Vaclav Havel’s writings and speeches are available for free in English translation at his official website. Havel, who passed away on Sunday, was a great writer and the leader of the anti-communist dissident movement in Czechoslovakia. In addition to such classics as The Power of the Powerless, there are lesser known works such as “Stories and Totalitarianism” (1987), which includes the following interesting discussion of economic liberty:
The history of the system I live in has demonstrated persuasively that without a plurality of economic initiatives, and of people who participate in them, without competition, without a marketplace and its institutional guarantees, an economy will stagnate and decline….
When he can no longer participate with relative autonomy in economic life, man loses some of his social and human individuality, and part of his hope of creating his own human story.
I mention this now because although the standardizing and therefore nihilizing impact of political and intellectual centralization is clear, the analogous impact of economic centralization-as one of the indirect methods of manipulating life in general-is far from being so obvious. And that is what makes it more dangerous.
Where there is no natural plurality of economic initiatives, the interplay of competing producers and their entrepreneurial ideas disappears, along with the interplay of supply and demand, the labor and commodity markets, and voluntary employer-employee relations. Gone too are the stimuli to creativity and its attendant risks, the drama of economic success and failure. Man as a producer ceases to be a participant or a creator in the economic story, and becomes an instrument. Everyone is an employee of the state, which is the one proprietor of economic truth and power. Everyone is buried in the anonymity of the collective economic “non-story.”
When economic plurality disappears, the motives for competition in the marketplace of consumer goods disappear with it. The central power may talk all it wants about “satisfying differentiated needs” but the pressures of a nonpluralistic economy compel it to do exactly the opposite: to integrate production, standardize goods, and narrow the range of choice. In this artificial economic world, diversity is merely a complication.
Not only do consumers have to depend (as all who live in modern industrial societies do) almost exclusively on commodities they have not produced themselves; they do not have a choice of different commodities, and cannot express their individuality even in this limited way. All they have is what has been allocated by the monopoly producer: the same things that have been allocated to everyone.
Havel was no libertarian, and he favored a much larger economic role for the state than I would. But because of his experiences under communism, he understood the importance of economic liberty much better than most Westerners.
Another of my favorite Havel works is his 1990 speech delivered soon after becoming first post-communist president of Czechoslovakia:
For forty years you heard from my predecessors on this day different variations on the same theme: how our country was flourishing, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we trusted our government, and what bright perspectives were unfolding in front of us.
I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.
Our country is not flourishing. The enormous creative and spiritual potential of our nations is not being used sensibly. Entire branches of industry are producing goods that are of no interest to anyone, while we are lacking the things we need. A state which calls itself a workers’ state humiliates and exploits workers. Our obsolete economy is wasting the little energy we have available. …
We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. In other words, we are all – though naturally to differing extents – responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery. None of us is just its victim. We are all also its co-creators….
If we realize this, then all the horrors that the new Czechoslovak democracy inherited will cease to appear so terrible. If we realize this, hope will return to our hearts.
In the effort to rectify matters of common concern, we have something to lean on. The recent period – and in particular the last six weeks of our peaceful revolution – has shown the enormous human, moral and spiritual potential, and the civic culture that slumbered in our society under the enforced mask of apathy. Whenever someone categorically claimed that we were this or that, I always objected that society is a very mysterious creature and that it is unwise to trust only the face it presents to you. I am happy that I was not mistaken. Everywhere in the world people wonder where those meek, humiliated, skeptical and seemingly cynical citizens of Czechoslovakia found the marvelous strength to shake the totalitarian yoke from their shoulders in several weeks, and in a decent and peaceful way…..
We had to pay, however, for our present freedom. Many citizens perished in jails in the 1950s, many were executed, thousands of human lives were destroyed, hundreds of thousands of talented people were forced to leave the country. Those who defended the honor of our nations during the Second World War, those who rebelled against totalitarian rule and those who simply managed to remain themselves and think freely, were all persecuted. We should not forget any of those who paid for our present freedom in one way or another….
We must also bear in mind that other nations have paid even more dearly for their present freedom, and that indirectly they have also paid for ours. The rivers of blood that have flowed in Hungary, Poland, Germany and recently in such a horrific manner in Romania, as well as the sea of blood shed by the nations of the Soviet Union, must not be forgotten. First of all because all human suffering concerns every other human being. But more than this, they must also not be forgotten because it is these great sacrifices that form the tragic background of today’s freedom or the gradual emancipation of the nations of the Soviet Bloc, and thus the background of our own newfound freedom.
UPDATE: Unfortunately, many of the links to individual items on the Havel website don’t seem to be working properly. However, you can find these works yourself simply by going to the site yourself and looking for them.