Russia's seven new spirits

When you sweep out the house, be ready for the next tenant

Issue: "Fleeing Hurricane Floyd," Sept. 25, 1999

Suppose that instead of having been born in America (our demographics suggest you probably were), with a strong ideological inclination toward the free market system, you had been born instead a generation or two ago in the Soviet Union. For the past few decades, you would have been brainwashed with the accusation that capitalists are perpetually greedy, self-serving manipulators-and that the only just and fair approach to economics, and to life itself, is a system of central governmental planning.

You would have believed this for much of your life. Sometimes, when you got glimpses of the prosperity that Americans and western Europeans were enjoying, you had some doubts. But most of the time, you trudged loyally on, secure in the evenness of existence the Kremlin seemed to be providing. Even if life was a little gray, at least it was steady.

Then came the 1980s. McDonald's and Pizza Hut came to Moscow, along with the thundering hordes of other capitalists. The Berlin Wall came crashing down, and not long after that, the Soviet empire itself. If before you had entertained a few niggling doubts about the collectivist system, now those doubts ballooned first into open skepticism and now and then into open disbelief. Clearly, somebody had been lying to you all these years. What's so terrible about increasing the number of choices available to you in the marketplace? You began to get a little heady on this new way of looking at things.

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Through those years leading up to that big change, there hadn't been much place in Soviet life for the Bible. That's too bad, for with just a little more biblical awareness, someone might have remembered Jesus' teaching when he told about a house having been swept a little too clean. A wandering evil spirit, Jesus said, "goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first" (Matthew 12:45).

Jesus' vignette is an apt picture also of Russia in the late 1990s. If the terrible evils of collectivism and totalitarianism were indeed largely swept away during the Reagan and Bush years, nobody seems to have taken much care to ready the premises for a worthy new tenant. And if it was in fact a true free-market system that then moved in, no one should be too surprised if all your old skepticisms and doubts about capitalism have now returned full force. The spirit now in charge is very evil indeed.

Those of us who are committed to free-market economics have formed that loyalty in the context of particular conditions. Capitalism works quite well in America, for example, partly because our country's founders took seriously the doctrine of original sin-and formed our government with the assumption that certain restraints against evil had to be built in.

The transition from collectivism to the free market in Russia over the last decade has failed utterly in taking such considerations into account. A friend who had just returned from Moscow told me his most enduring image of his weeks there included the "people collision" that takes place every time elevators open in any commercial or residential building. "Those waiting to get on the elevator never wait for those who are already on to get off," he said. "Everybody just pushes." It's one of the little assumptions about life that can't be assumed these days in Russia.

The big assumption is that while there will certainly be selfish, pushy people, there will also be restraints in place-hopefully both within our moral selves and also within governmental structures-that put limits on evil impulses. Over the last few years, of course, the Clinton administration has apparently not only failed to ensure that such safeguards are in place in Russia, but has actually encouraged the abuse of such safeguards along the way. The evidence mounts that U.S. officials-including Vice President Al Gore-had more than passing awareness that high Russian figures have been helping themselves to billions of dollars of foreign aid, including big sums guaranteed by U.S. taxpayers.

Does that give capitalism and the free-market idea a bad name? You'd better believe it does. All those old doubts you've had for 30, 40, and 50 years come flooding back now. And when a passionate, articulate communist calls for the overthrow of Boris Yeltsin and his buddies who have stolen you blind-with the implicit concurrence all along the way of folks like Mr. Gore-you tend to remember that the 1950s, '60s, and '70s were at least stable years. You're not at all sure you like these seven new spirits.

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