One sunny afternoon in August 1984, my wife and I wandered the streets of East Berlin. We witnessed the somber, hopeless faces of the city's few pedestrians. We marveled at the cheap-looking Trabants that motored loudly up and down the streets and belched foul fumes. We passed soldier after soldier, each fully armed, each exuding an almost tangible assurance that the Cold War was as real as any hot one.
We watched people stand in lines a block long to buy produce. We tried to spend our allotted fifty Ostmarks in the city's most prestigious department store but couldn't find even a souvenir we wouldn't have thrown away. We finally bought a cheap noodle press and a metric measuring cup. We ate at a state-run cafeteria where the food tasted as unappetizing as it looked, then stopped at an ice cream parlor near the Brandenburg Gate that was already out of practically everything on the menu by 4 p.m.
By evening we were more than eager to return to the hustle and plenty of West Berlin. We passed back through Checkpoint Charlie with most of our Eastern currency and absolutely no illusions about communism.
I can still remember later that evening visiting a little Slavic restaurant in a quiet corner of Neukolln and how ecstatic I was over a tossed salad with tomatoes and green peppers. "I could never get a salad like this in East Berlin!" I exulted. That one afternoon behind the Iron Curtain had made me see the world with new eyes.
I marveled at how many stores and shops there were in the West, and at how fully stocked they were. In fact, because of that one afternoon, I can perhaps dimly imagine what the East Germans must have felt that November day five years later when the Wall came tumbling down. I can understand their desires for reunification and prosperity. I can understand their naive assumption that capitalism is right — because communism is definitely wrong.
I watched with intense interest during the latter part of 1989 as Eastern Europe retreated from communism and authoritarianism. Having lived for four months in West Berlin, that one-time island of hope in a sea of despair, I was overwhelmed by what I witnessed on television on November 9, 1989: East and West Berliners dancing atop the Wall of Shame, holes being pounded in that concrete barrier by people wielding everything from sledge hammers to ice picks, the giddy intoxication of reunion as long-oppressed East Germans clasped hands once again with their prosperous West German brothers and sisters.
And yet in the ensuing weeks and months, many in the East, not entirely convinced that materialism was more noble than poverty, criticized the masses, suggesting that they were motivated not by love of freedom, but by greed. Now, this was an ugly accusation, yet it is an accusation all believing capitalists must repeatedly explain away. "Is it wrong to have enough to eat?" they exclaim incredulously, misunderstanding the accusation. "Is it wrong to be able to purchase a few luxuries? Is prosperity bad?" they mock. "It's certainly not as bad as poverty!"
But the question is not whether wealth and prosperity are better or worse than poverty and destitution. The question is whether our modern form of capitalism is right simply because communism is wrong. Certainly communism and corporate capitalism are opposites. But two opposites can both be wrong. Just because stealing from the sick is detestable doesn't make stealing from the healthy commendable.
For some reason, though, the triumph of the capitalist West in the Cold War seems to have rendered this question immaterial. Of course capitalism is right, we naively boast. Freedom and democracy triumphed, didn't they? Capitalism conquered Eastern Europe and even killed the Soviet Union. And capitalism is the economic manifestation of freedom and democracy, isn't it? Isn't the free-market system synonymous with freedom?
If the free market is so free, why then is it so dominated by corporations that can only be described as authoritarian institutions? Depending on how they are organized, capitalist businesses may resemble monarchies, oligarchies, plutocracies, dictatorships, aristocracies, fiefdoms or theocracies, but almost never can they be described as democratic republics.
And yet conservative partisans defend these authoritarian institutions to their last breath while vilifying socialism, which, in their version of reality, is synonymous with communism.
Remember how ecstatic I was about my salad in the little Slavic restaurant in West Berlin? My elation was a reaction to the stark contrast between two opposing economic systems: between communist East Germany and socialist West Germany.
Roger Terry is a professional editor, former faculty member at BYU's Marriott School of Management, and author of both fiction and nonfiction, including the book "Economic Insanity."