Being a Libertarian in Eastern Europe

A few months ago I started working as a legal intern at an NGO which analyzes market trends, writes articles referring to the economic situation in the country, tackles the problem of corruption and serves as a platform to popularize free market ideas. A handful of individuals work there, all of whom have libertarian-leaning views. On the wall behind my desk within a wooden frame hangs a large replica of the American Declaration of Independence, a symbol of the ideas all of the people working here share. This probably wouldn’t be an interesting story if I were American, Canadian or Western European. Indeed I’m not. I live in Eastern Europe, in a former communist state.

Being a libertarian here is kind of exotic, although not always in a pleasant way. Most people don’t even know what libertarianism is, neither do they fully understand the principles of the free market. For many of them, the scars left in their minds by the communist regime are too deep to heal. And even if they are lucky enough to have been born, like myself, after the regime’s collapse, they often end up with parents who present them with highly dishonest ideas about how easy and peaceful life under communism used to be, yet, somehow forget to mention the lines in front of stores for basic necessities and the years you had to wait to buy a car.

The sad part, however, from what I’ve noticed, is this inability to seek a solution outside the power of the state. I know a lot of people, some of them law students in the same faculty as me, who have never identified as communists, yet who cannot comprehend the idea of individualism.

The process of privatization in the former Eastern Bloc went rather poorly. Instead of creating a competitive free market environment, the people who were close to the Party seized the means of production for themselves and, overnight, turned from staunch communists into oligarchs with enormous wealth which they had in no way earned. The media has the audacity to call such people “businessmen.”

You might imagine that after such a horrible turn of events many people felt robbed, and with good reason.

However, the psychological effects were much more dire. They shaped the average mind in such a way that people started accepting the words “private” and “business” as inherently bad, as immoral. The general understanding is that if you are rich it is not because you’ve made something that people want to buy or you offer a service they might need, but rather because you stole something, because you’ve treated others unfairly.

How does one try to reason against such a line of thought? How do you explain to them that the oligarchs wouldn’t be where they are had it not been for the state and state power? These are the questions every libertarian in a former communist country must wrestle with. There aren’t many of us here, but we are doing all we can to undo the damage caused to our fellow countrymen by the Red Plague. And, although I have no historical link to that American Declaration of Independence hanging on the wall behind me, it gives me strength.

* Vladimir Slavov is a 20 year old second year law student, and a believer in human rights, dignity, and individualism. As you can see, in an ideological sense, he has found himself in a rather peculiar situation.

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