by Murray Rothbard
(Contents by Publication Date)
A Trip to Poland
In March 1986, I spent a fascinating week at a conference at a hotel in Mrogowo, in the lake country of northern Poland (formerly East Prussia). The conference, a broad-ranging symposium on "Economics and Social Change," was hosted by the Institute of Sociology at the University of Warsaw, and sponsored by a group of English conservative and free-market scholars.
Even though economically, as one of the Western participants noted, Poland is a "giant slum," its countryside, small towns, and cities in evident and grim decay, this gallant nation is intellectually the freest in the Eastern bloc. There is no other country in the Soviet orbit at which a conference of this sort could possibly be held.
The only restriction was that the announced titles of the papers had to be ideologically neutral. But, once the conference ran that particular gauntlet, and the meeting was approved by the authorities, anyone could--and did--say whatever they wished. (In my case, I bowdlerized the title of my paper, "Concepts of the Role of Intellectuals in Social Change Towards Laissez- Faire," by discreetly omitting the last three words, although the actual content of the talk remained the same.)
The first paper of the meeting was delivered by Professor Antony Flew, a distinguished English philosopher, who likes nothing better than to deliver--with intelligence and wit--zingers at the Left. Flew pulled no punches, pointing out the importance and necessity of property rights and the free market. The fascinating thing was that no Polish eyebrow was raised, and no Polish scholar reacted in horror. Quite the contrary. And it was enormously inspiring to see every one of the twenty-odd Polish scholars denouncing the government, even though it was obvious to every one of us that there was a government agent listening intently to the proceedings. (The agent--the travel guide and director of the trip--was obviously highly intelligent, and aware of what was going on.)
The Poles ranged from libertarian to middle-of-the-road to dissident Marxist, but it was markedly evident that not one of them had any use whatsoever for the Communist regime. In addition to being opposed to Communism, none of the Polish scholars at the meeting had much use for any government. One told me, "of course, any act of government is done for the power and wealth of the government officials, and not for the public interest, common good, general welfare, or any other reasons offered."
"Yes," I said, "but the government's propaganda always says that they perform these actions for the common good, etc." The Polish professor looked at me quizzically: "Who believes government propaganda?" I replied that, "unfortunately, in the United States, many people believe government propaganda." He was incredulous.
The Polish scholars all knew English very well, a virtue that unfortunately we Westerners couldn't begin to reciprocate. Nevertheless, a real camaraderie developed. One amusing culture gap was the Polish waiters in our hotel (what passes for a "luxury hotel" in Poland is roughly equivalent to a low-end interstate motel in the U.S.) having to deal with the "kids" of the conference, two young English scholars who are insistent vegetarians. Poland is a land with a very high meat consumption per capita (the Communists never collectivized agriculture), but where meat is now rationed, and it was beyond the comprehension of the Polish waiters that two young privileged Westerners would keep calling for "more vegetables" while turning down top-grade beef and pork. Fortunately, there was always a Polish professor nearby who could serve as interpreter for these outlandish requests.
The most moving moment of the meeting came at the banquet on the final night, when the English sociologist who directed the conference, after thanking our Polish hosts, raised a glass and offered a heartfelt toast to "a free, sovereign, and Catholic Poland." Every one of us understood his intent, and everyone in that room, Protestants and unbelievers included, raised a glass and drank with fervor. Including the government agent.