Microchips, Nightly News, Invisible Hands, and Freedom

Tom Peters

The “greed decade” may be history, but you’d not prove it by my recent clipping pile. A California firm will trim your Christmas tree for up to $3,000. Silicone calf implants for men are the rage. The U.S. Postal Service proclaimed the North Pole to be in Atlanta, peddling the rights to Santa’s zip code to Coca Cola. Pat Sajak auctioned to People magazine exclusive coverage of his wedding. Though a lover of free markets, I find these examples obscene. On the other hand, I am enthralled by the revolutions in Eastern Europe. It made 1989 the most propitious year for human freedom since the French Revolution in 1789.

Oddly, there is a direct connection between those calf implants and the demise of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Stalinist regime in Romania.

Freedom in Eastern Europe has been brought about by markets, televisions, fax machines, microchips, copiers, and the economic rebirth of West Germany and Japan as much as by Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Walesa, and Vaclav Havel. As Time magazine observed in its first of the ’90s issue, “Markets are now more valuable than territory, information more powerful than military hardware.” Thus, although Gorbachev was Time‘s easy pick as person of the decade, there were alternatives—Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Adam Smith, and Marshall McLuhan.

In the 1960s, the power of real-time televised images burst upon the scene. The American viewing public had no stomach for seven years of nightly footage of young men returning to the U.S. in body bags from Vietnam. That story was just repeated in Eastern Europe with a different twist. High ground, the traditional objective of military tacticians, has become the central TV station. The Romanians engaged in a bloody battle for control of TV—which amounts to control of instant public information. Information media played other roles in Eastern Europe. Video reports of Poland’s revolution, for example, seeped into the homes of East Germans via West Germany. TV also dispensed graphic daily reminders of the booming consumer society on the other side of the curtain.

The recent explosion of information technology has finally borne the global village prophesied by Marshall McLuhan 30 years ago. Part of the information-technology revolution is frivolous—e.g., People‘s battle for pictorial rights to a TV host’s wedding. But such frivolity is part and parcel of entrepreneurial capitalism. And make no mistake, entrepreneurial capitalism, warts and all, is the engine that made this the most dramatic year for liberty in the last 200.

Adam Smith’s invisible hand spawned chichi Christmas tree trimmers. But it also delivered Apple computers, CNN, Canon fax machines, Xerox copiers, U.S. rock concerts in Moscow, the United Colors of Benetton. And more: The Soviet Union, World War II’s co-victor, and Eastern Europe are economic basket cases. West Germany, the size of Oregon and with one-half Japan’s population, runs the highest positive trade balance and has the highest wages in the world. In Asia, China sputters economically. Japan soars. The U.S.? Though not so dominant as after World War II, our productivity, for one, still towers over Japan’s. Our wealth is incontestable.

Though trade friction with Japan and Europe is on the minds of many, the past decade’s much bigger news was Ms. Thatcher’s removing Great Britain from the critically ill list, and Ronald Reagan’s eight-year celebration of American entrepreneurialism. Sure, a lot of it was smoke and mirrors. But capitalism has a lot more fans than in 1980, from Liverpool to Leningrad.

This paean to free markets may seem to take away from the guts and determination of Walesa, Havel, and the millions of unnamed heroes who surged into squares in Bucharest, Prague, Warsaw, and Leipzig. Not so. American and West German consumers may have been as responsible, in an abstract sense, for the uprisings of ’89 as the demonstrators from the Eastern bloc—but there is no moral equivalence between having a calf implant and risking life and limb in the face of Securitate’s weapons.

On Dec. 30, my wife Kate and I walked down the Strasse des 17 Juni toward the just-opened slot in the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate. About 500 yards from it, I noticed an odd sound, like the dull rumble of interstate freeway traffic heard from two or three miles away. As we got closer, the most astounding tableau confronted us. Almost every meter of the Wall was staked out by Germans vigorously chipping away in the bitter cold. Seeing it took my breath away.

But the scene demonstrated the paradox, too. Most chippers were pilgrims seeking a visible reminder of the 28-year-old barrier to liberty. But there were also hundreds of Adam Smith’s disciples on hand, young entrepreneurs (often from the East) selling chunks of the Wall for a few bucks or renting picks by the hour. All in all, it was a remarkable tribute to the human spirit—and to Adam Smith.

As midnight on New Year’s Eve approached, we joined 250,000 others at the Brandenburg Gate. Fireworks crackled. Champagne corks popped. Though thousands danced atop the Wall, many more just stood silently or held a single candle, hour after hour. Yes, 1989 was a remarkable year. Let us now pray that the rocky road to economic largess and the establishment of robust, free institutions will match the expectations unleashed in the last six months. Adam Smith hasn’t triumphed yet.

(C)1990 TPG Communications.

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