The Economist: So much gained, so much to lose: The Berlin Wall
Over the past 20 years economic freedom has outpaced political liberty. Neither should be taken for granted
“OF ALL places it was in divided Berlin in divided Germany in divided Europe that the cold war erupted into an east-west street party,” this newspaper observed 20 years ago. Even to those who had been confident of the eventual triumph of the West, the fall of the Berlin Wall was surprisingly accidental. When 200,000 East Germans took advantage of Hungary’s decision to open its borders and fled to the West, their communist government decided to modify the travel restrictions that imprisoned them. Asked about the timing, the unbriefed propaganda minister mumbled: “As far as I know, effective immediately.” When that was reported on television, the Berliners were off. Baffled border guards who would have shot their “comrades” a week earlier let the crowd through—and a barrier that had divided the world was soon being gleefully dismantled. West Germany’s chancellor, Helmut Kohl, was so unready for history that he was out of the country.
The destruction of the Iron Curtain on November 9th 1989 is still the most remarkable political event of most people’s lifetimes: it set free millions of individuals and it brought to an end a global conflict that threatened nuclear annihilation. For liberals in the West, it still stands as a reminder both of what has been won since and what is still worth fighting for.
Remember the Stasi, but don’t forget the fridges
Yet the past two decades have seen economic freedom advance further than political freedom. Talk 20 years ago of a peaceful new world order has disappeared. New divisions have emerged out of nationalism, religion or just “fear of the other”. Rather than making the case for democracy unassailable, plenty of countries, including, alas, a few of the old Warsaw Pact members, most of the Arab world and China, have been able to run shamelessly repressive authoritarian regimes. When Western leaders visit Moscow, Riyadh or Beijing, they merely mumble about human rights. The presumption has become that such regimes will endure.
By contrast, “globalisation”, that awkward term that covers the freer movement of goods, capital, people and ideas around the globe, has become the governing principle of commerce. That does not mean it is universally accepted ...