I was 6 years old when the Soviet Union fell apart. For most guys my age, memories from 1991 consist mostly of LEGOs and Super Mario Bros. For me, however, it was the kick-off to my political education.
I was putting together a world map puzzle — you know, the really difficult kind with 50 pieces? It highlighted the major countries of the world, each of which was accompanied by a cute little picture. China had a tiger, Norway had a Viking, and Mexico had some guy wearing a sombrero.
The country that stood out to me the most? The huge one with the hammer-and-sickle thingy.
Being the ignorant little kid I was, I asked my Mom if the U.S.S.R. was the biggest country in the world. She walked over to the puzzle, glanced at the back of the box, and informed me that as of a few months ago, the U.S.S.R. no longer existed.
For a six-year-old, that’s a bit hard to swallow. How can a country just disappear — especially when it’s the biggest one on the puzzle? What about the people who lived there? Did they decide to move somewhere else? Was the U.S.S.R. just a downright boring place to live?
Upon such prodding, my Mom offered a few more details. Unfortunately, despite her honorable attempt to give me the elementary-school version, the description was unavoidably horrific. She told me about the evils of communism — the government thievery, the widespread poverty, and the genocidal violence. She talked about the Soviet officials — who they were, how they came to power, and why it took so long for anyone to stop them. I had a vague memory of when the Berlin Wall fell — Churchill’s “iron curtain” metaphor sounded awesomely evil as a four-year-old — but this time I was much more curious.
“People go to the grocery store,” she explained, “but there is no food on the shelves.”
For a young kid, trips to the grocery store are a pretty big deal. In the West, kids are used to begging for Lucky Charms instead of Wheaties, not gazing upon empty shelves while holding our stomachs. Yes, the violence and brute force sounded awful. But an empty grocery store? That was something I could relate to.
The details were grim, but I wasn’t finished. Like any other first-grader in my position, I had to ask the next question: “Why?”
It was then that I got my first lesson on “equalizing outcomes.” I didn’t think too deeply about it at the time, but man did it sound nasty. Forcing me to share with my sister was one thing. Forcing my Dad to give up his paycheck was another. My six-year-old conscience cringed at the thought.
There’s a popular saying about ideological development that goes like this: “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.” I understand the sentiment, and even chuckled when I first heard it, but it seems that my childhood reaction to communism provides a bit of a foil to the stereotype. I wasn’t crouching by my puzzle pondering the economic efficiency of capitalism vs. socialism. I wasn’t coldly calculating the devastating material impacts of equalizing outcomes or restricting trade. I wasn’t pointing to charts and graphs or macroeconomic theory and yelling, “Forget those poor people!” Indeed, there was little “brain” at work in this youngster. Instead, there was something twisting in my heart, and that was the mere idea of some bureaucrat bullying my Dad into economic submission. It wasn’t about practicality or efficiency. It was about humanity. It didn’t feel right.
But life went on, and as elementary school kicked into full force, I was soon consumed by the more important challenges of cursive and the less-than-desirable heartache of playground romance. Alas, investigating the moral errors of socialism would have to wait another day.
That day came when I went to college, where the old adage about youthful liberalism finally became evident. Up until my freshman year, I had grown up in an ideological bubble, and thus my beliefs about redistributionism were left largely unchallenged. Now, all of a sudden, I was surrounded by people whose moral impulses led them to entirely different conclusions. “The more force the better” seemed to be the motto. If you don’t like Wal-Mart, shut them down. If you don’t like rich people, take their money. If you feel bad for poor people, throw them money. Whatever means it would take to tilt the economic scales were deemed acceptable. After all, it was the ends that were important, and for everyone around me, material equalization was the ideal.
During that time, I was forced to reexamine my beliefs more holistically. Through this struggle, I came to see that there were plenty of challenging philosophical questions and even more challenging practical concerns. But although the issues showed themselves to be far more complicated than my first-grader brain would’ve assumed, the six-year-old inside of me refused to budge. Such overwhelming and discriminatory force still seemed a silly path to justice, and with my Mom’s graphic description of the Soviet Union still lingering in the back of my mind, I remained confident that the proposed ends were a mere fantasy.
There are plenty of reasons why free enterprise claimed moral victory in my personal intellectual journey, but all of the complicated (yet necessary) philosophical and economic reasons remain secondary. For the most part, it all comes back to that little six-year-old’s common-sense approach to fairness and justice. I hope that my perspective is a bit more refined than it was at the fall of the Soviet Union, but I am certain it is still incomplete. Whatever your background and whatever your views, I look forward to exploring the issues further here at Values & Capitalism.