East Germany, circa 1985

Chris Bertram writes in the comments of MR:

As it happens I spent some time in East Germany in 1984.  As I
recall, it was then claimed that the per capita GDP was comparable to
that of the UK.  It was immediately obvious to me that the standard of
living for most people was far far lower.  But real problem with East
Germany was not its comparative level of economic development or the
level of health care its citizens could receive (rather good,
actually).  It was the fact that it was a police state where people were
denied the basic liberties.

Given them those liberties and I think you’ve achieved most of
what’s morally important.  If they then choose a policy of more leisure
and lower growth or the opposite … that’s up to them.  I don’t think
it matters, morally speaking, that they are poorer than Americans are.

I am genuinely puzzled by this.  I visited East Berlin — supposedly the showcase of the country – in 1985.  Let me try to sound as superficial as possible, in light of the extreme poverty in Africa.

The food was terrible.  The cars were a joke, if you even had one.  There were hardly shops to be found.  I had to spend 40 or so "Ostmarks" and literally could not find a single thing I wanted.  I bought a Stendahl book and left the rest of the money on a bench.  Few people had the means to travel, even if politics had permitted it.  I am skeptical about the health care though I will admit I am not informed.  Had the relatively productive people been free to leave, this all would have been much worse.  It should also be noted that the country was neither donating much to Africa, nor taking in many immigrants, and again that is not just because of the politics. 

Chris and I have a very different notion of what is morally important.  I don’t wish to force anyone to be richer than East Berlin circa 1985, but if you give them liberty, almost everyone will try to exceed that level, and not just by a little bit.


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