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This article originally appeared in Thinking Minnesota, Spring 2020
On New Year’s Eve 1989, television personality and recording artist David Hasselhoff dangled from a crane above Berlin and sang his song, “Looking for Freedom.” The star of TV shows Knight Rider and Baywatch has since claimed that this gig played a role in bringing down the Berlin Wall, which might sound like a self-aggrandizing memory, since the wall had already been down for nearly two months. But a charming new memoir by András Simonyi—Rocking Toward a Free World—lends The Hoff some credibility.
Hungary’s former ambassador to the United States, Simonyi was born in Budapest in 1952 and grew up in communist Hungary. Thanks to some of the finest farmland on earth, the Hungarians managed the rare feat of not going hungry under socialism. Even so, it was a grey, depressing place. To convey this to a contemporary American audience, Simonyi imagines New York under the socialist policies of 1950s Budapest:
All banks and privately owned businesses are nationalized, and their owners pushed to the fringes of society…. Times Square, once spectacular, is now dimly lit and covered in drab ads—approved, of course, by the Party…. Picture the once grand apartments on Fifth Avenue now confiscated by the city council, sliced up into small flats, the marble cracked, the furniture broken…. Imagine that most of the theatres on Broadway have been shut down and the few that remain open are told which acts can perform.
One is struck by the similarities between this dystopia and the platforms of certain presidential candidates. Indeed, New York may not be far from it now.
But even behind the Iron Curtain, this grim world was illuminated by western, largely American, pop culture. Whether it is Superman comics, the music of Elvis or The Beatles, the movies of Michelangelo Antonioni, Levi jeans, Coca Cola, or a 1959 Chevrolet Biscayne, the brief glimpses of life in the West offered a vision of vitality that the communists just couldn’t match. “The East was dull, full of sorrow and poverty,” Simonyi writes. By contrast, “…America was a mythical place to most Hungarians. Especially young Hungarians to whom it was a beacon of hope, a symbol of all that was worthwhile.” It was so seductive that Hungarians would furtively pass around copies of the Sears catalog “just to look at a world that was closed to us.”
Communist attitudes to such materialism have changed dramatically over the last century. Early theorists, such as Nikolai Bukharin and Evgenii Preobrazhensky in The ABC of Communism promised that the elimination of wasteful capitalist competition would mean more material goods for everybody. But citizens in the Worker’s Paradise found themselves queueing ever longer for ever more with ever less at the end of it, and this promise was proved hollow.
Being a communist means never having to say you’re sorry. If communism couldn’t meet the people’s demands then it must be those demands, not communism, that are at fault. So, another idea took hold. The desire for a nice house, clothes, a car, music, something entertaining on your TV, a pleasant restaurant, demonstrated “false consciousness,” or the pursuit of what Lenin called “momentary interests.” Such interests distract from “the permanent, important and fundamental interests of the proletariat” which he, of course, knew better than the proles themselves.
But the proles, like young András Simonyi, weren’t buying it. When communist functionaries railed against the decadence and indecency of western music and films, a growing number of their citizens, especially the younger generation, thought, “That sounds quite fun, actually.”
Simonyi set aside his guitar and became an economist. He is clear about the link Milton Freidman traced between economic and personal freedom: “I was interested in the relationship between economics and politics, between a market economy and a democracy.” But note the direction of travel went from appreciating the products of western popular culture to understanding its philosophic underpinnings. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band led more people to The Constitution of Liberty than vice versa; Lennon and McCartney played a bigger role in winning the Cold War than Hayek and Friedman.
This story offers a couple of warnings. First, while people may support freedom in the abstract, what motivates most is the material benefits it brings. If a free economy is thought to be failing to deliver these benefits, that support can ebb.
Second, the proletarians of the Soviet Empire eventually rose up and liquidated one of the greatest military powers in history because they wanted a Big Mac and fries, The A-Team on a color TV, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller on CD. Do we expect the contemporary poor of Africa, India, or China to refuse the trappings of materialism just as they come within reach in the name of achieving global carbon neutrality? Do we expect the citizens of the rich world to make themselves drastically poorer in pursuit of the same goal? The strength of the desire for “momentary interests”—strong enough to overwhelm the “evil empire”—suggests not. We might think these things highly desirable, but that does not make them more likely.
The Bible tells us that Joshua brought down the walls of Jericho with the blast of seven trumpets. András Simonyi tells us how the opening bars of “You Really Got Me” put a chink in the Iron Curtain. Maybe The Hoff’s claim to have had a hand in bringing down the wall of Berlin with “Looking for Freedom” isn’t so fanciful after all.
John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.