The Regime Has Fallen, But Will Anything Change?

About every six months my aunt overthrows her government. My aunt, 87, is in a nursing home; and she is certain she is a victim of nursing homes and a family that won’t give her the help she needs. Due to her morbid obesity and weak physical condition, she is almost immobile. She requires, in nursing home parlance, “maximum assist” which means it takes two or three staffers to get her out of bed or transfer her to the toilet.

Since she entered the nursing home system over two years ago, she has insisted over and over that her goal is to return home. Yet, physical therapists in three different nursing homes have told us that she offers minimal cooperation and makes little if any progress in physical therapy. In almost daily phone conversations with us, she rails against her plight and what she perceives as unfair treatment. Her refrain is often: “Why aren’t they helping me?” And so, full of blame, she transfers to a new nursing home; where the story begins again.

My wife and I have been deeply troubled by my aunt’s condition. We try gently to shift her thinking by exploring with her different ways to perceive what she is experiencing. Almost all days though, my aunt is interested only in having an audience for her story of victimization. When we ask her if telling these unhappy stories is helpful to her, she tells us she doesn’t feel like herself if she doesn’t keep the story going: “I don’t know who I am, if I don’t have my grievances,” she explains to us.

As you might expect, when she changes nursing homes, or even changes therapists within a nursing home, nothing changes. After a few days of transition, her story of victimization becomes front and center again. All that has changed is the name of the home and the name of the therapist. My aunt is close to the end of her life—my wife and I hope she experiences a change of heart before she passes.

Like my aunt, citizens of Egypt have a problematical existence. Poverty and repression is the plight of the ordinary Egyptian. Unfortunately, the current revolution in Egypt is about as likely to produce a liberal democracy, as changing nursing homes is likely to produce a change in my aunt’s circumstances.

Before I go further, let me define liberal democracy. A liberal democracy is a democracy where individual rights are protected and there are strict limitations on the role of government. Without guarantees of individual rights, and without limitations on the role of government, a democracy is unlikely to result in a free society. Walter Williams has observed, “Democracy and majority rule give an aura of legitimacy to acts that would otherwise be deemed tyranny. The founders of our nation held a deep abhorrence for democracy and majority rule.”

In Federalist paper #10, James Madison wrote, “Measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” In other words, Madison understood that a democracy is no guarantee of liberty.

Germany provides a case in point. Although in free elections Hitler was never supported by a majority of the German population, Hitler was legally appointed Chancellor; and Hitler assumed dictatorial powers by an overwhelming vote of the Reichstag.

In his classic book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer observed that in the years after Hitler assumed total power:

The overwhelming majority of Germans did not seem to mind that their personal freedom had been taken away, that so much of culture had been destroyed and replaced with a mindless barbarism, or that their life and work had become regimented to a degree never before experienced even by a people accustomed for generations to a great deal of regimentation…. The Nazi terror in the early years affected the lives of relatively few Germans and a newly arrived observer was somewhat surprised to see that the people of this country did not seem to feel that they were being cowed…. On the contrary, they supported it with genuine enthusiasm. Somehow it imbued them with a new hope and a new confidence and an astonishing faith in the future of their country.

In other words, the barbarism that a minority of the population was experienced was of no concern to majority and was not even experienced as tyranny.

What lessons can we draw? My aunt suffers because she fails to appreciate the internal conditions that would lead to lasting change in her experience of life. Egyptians suffered, not because of Hosni Mubarak, but because they have not had sufficient understanding of the conditions that produce freedom and prosperity—Hosni Mubarak is an outcome of this ignorance and not a cause. Their economy is heavily regimented, their Coptic Christian minority has been persecuted, and widespread anti-Semitism exists.

Regarding their heavily regimented economy, Egypt’s government employs 35% of the population. As Daniel Henninger observes in The Wall Street Journal, Egypt as well as other Middle Eastern countries  have “used public works as a form of social security and a tool of political stability.” He adds:

Their universities fed graduates into a nonproductive but high-benefit public economy. Many Tunisian rioters were unemployed college graduates.

The argument being made here is that past some tipping point of a population employed by the state, an economy starts to choke. Egypt is far past that point. In Tahrir Square you are watching the economic and psychological dislocation caused by this misallocation of national energy. This isn’t just about a new government. It is a sit-down strike for a better economy.

In her classic book The Discovery of Freedom, Rose Wilder Lane writes, “Every human being, by his nature, is free; he controls himself.” Yet the “Old World” belief is that some Authority needs to control men. Lane points out, “They cannot make their energy work by any such belief, because the belief is false. But they do not question the belief, because when they submit to a living Authority’s control, and cannot get food, they can always blame that Authority.”

Lane goes on to explain that as long as that false belief—that some Authority should control the energy of mankind—remains intact, revolutions change nothing.

Back to Germany, but this time in the present day. In her book The Art of Choosing Sheena Iyengar reports on her research about societal attitudes in East Germany. She observes,

Even 20 years after its reunification, in many ways Berlin still feels like two cities, divided by a barrier of ideas as powerful as the Wall itself. In my conversations with people from East program, I’ve observed that rather than being grateful for the increasing number of opportunities, choices, and options that they have available to them in the marketplace, they are suspicious of this new way of life which they increasingly perceive as unfair… A remarkable 97% of East Germans reported being dissatisfied with German democracy and more than 90% believed socialism was a good idea in principle, one that had just been poorly implemented in the past.

In short, like my aunt changing nursing homes, knocking down the Berlin Wall has done little to change attitudes.

But let’s not be too eager to point our finger. Consider our own election cycle. Every four years in the presidential campaigns, we have a charade of candidates promising change, the result being larger budget deficits and more ruinous foreign adventures. Like my aunt, we expect that merely changing the cast of characters in front of us will somehow result in change. We want our problems fixed, but we don’t want to change. We want to keep intact our story that government is the source of our prosperity and the source of innovation.

Unfortunately, a better economy in Egypt or in the United States, like improved conditions for my aunt, is easier said than done. Before anything fundamentally changes in external circumstances, internal beliefs have to change. This is the hardest change of all.

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8 Responses to The Regime Has Fallen, But Will Anything Change?

  1. barbarar says:

    Barry,
    I recently spent a few days with my cousin’s son-in-law who’s family is Coptic Christian Egyptian. I also had the opportunity for a lengthy discussion with an Egyptian Muslim member of my MBA cohort at a local coffee shop a few weeks ago. Each holds divergent views on the situation in Egypt. The former believes that the changes in leadership will exacerbate an already unstable situation in the region and potentially put nuclear weapons in the hand of those who will use them on Israel. My coffee companion, in contrast, believes that the unraveling of the present regime will bring positive changes to contemporary Egypt and its economy–which he holds has lost its grasp of world economics, has lost its edge in the cotton business (most good cotton production goes to China rather than into product production within the country), and has lost its edge in the region due to inept leadership.
    Your post points to the important need for all of us to look inward and outward as we consider these issues–globally and within our own lives. It is through openness to opposing ideas/ideals and careful discernment that positive progress becomes possible.

    • Thanks for your observations Barbara. Of course we will hope that your MBA colleague is correct and no doubt Egyptian leadership has been inept and corrupt. I would feel more confident that your MBA colleague is correct if he would be pointing to changes in attitudes in the population. Using Lane’s terminology are they ready to understand that they must decide to use their own energy? For example, if cotton is being misallocated, where are the Egyptian cotton entrepreneurs?

  2. Patty says:

    Ah yes, internal change… that’s the hard part. The part of this post that struck me the most was the statistics about East Germans and their dissatisfaction with democracy. I spent a couple of weeks in Potsdam and Berlin five years after the wall came down. At that time, I felt a strong positive energy. I was surprised by it because I hadn’t expected so much to have already changed. This really has me thinking about some things that I’ll be mulling over for awhile. Thanks.

  3. Steve P says:

    Barry,
    The wall of ideas seemingly separating the two Germanies reminds me of a a biographical tidbit regarding novelist Ayn Rand’s family. Having fled totalitarian USSR in the 1920s, Rand succeeded, after decades, in reestablishing contact with a long lost sister still “trapped” there. After helping the sister obtain a U.S. Visa with the intention of having her stay and live a better life here, the sister shocked Rand by announcing that she desired to return to the USSR after just briefly experiencing the “free life”.
    The abundance of choices confronting the new arrival in such simple tasks as buying toothpaste at the drugstore proved too overwhelming for her. She prefered her old environment where she took pride in the survival skills she had honed, as well as her adeptness at sizing up the best queues to join to obtain the foods and goods that were always in short supply and no choices existed. Just one more anecdote demonstrating that not all humans yearn for liberty and taking responsibility for their own choices.
    By the way, “I don’t know who I am, if I don’t have my grievances” seems to show your aunt posses some insight into her condition from which hope for improvement may be derived. I see less reason for hoping most in society achieve even that much. My best wishes for your aunt.

    • Steve,

      Thanks for the very powerful anecdote and for your well wishes for my aunt.

      I have heard stories about Soviet emigres in the 80s visiting a supermarket for the first time and being overwhelmed by the choices. Your story about not wanting to give up a useless skill in exchange for so much more takes our understanding to a new level.

  4. Evan Costello says:

    Dear Dr. Brownstein,
    I appreciate your position about the real possibilities for a democracy in Egypt. Many people want “change” and transformation but never really define what that means. For instance, in a new free society how will women and people of different faiths be treated? Different lifestyle choices? What will the new economic system be? How will entrepreneurs fare? I am sure there are other significant markers to consider in terms of what we, and our founders thought would liberate their country men. One point that Hayek brought up in The Road to Serfdom is that “INDIVIDUALISM, in contrast to socialism and all other forms of totalitarianism, is based on the respect of Christianity for the individual man and the belief that it is desirable that men should be free to develop their own individual gifts. This philosophy, first fully developed during the Renaissance, grew and spread into what we know as Western civilization. The general direction of social development was one of freeing the individual from the ties which bound him in feudal society.” My point being what is the heart or spirit of the leaders that determine the new transformation?
    Thanks- I am really enjoying your class.
    Evan Costello

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