It has been nearly 19 years since the autumn of nations, the revolutionary wave that swept across Central and Eastern Europe ending in the overthrow of Soviet-style communist states within the space of a few months. The beginnings of this monumental event started with Solidarity in Poland, a nation well acquainted with the terrors of a totalitarian government. Less than two decades after communism’s fall, Poland has emerged as a leading democratic nation with a rapidly growing economy. The swift recovery of Poland demonstrates the power of liberty and the free market. While a great deal of progress remains to be made in Poland’s ongoing transition, the country has undeniably come a long way from central planning.
Walking Warsaw’s streets, one can sense a growing spirit of optimism towards the future in a free and independent Poland. During the day, the streets of the capital bustle with business activity. That energy continues long into the evening hours, showcasing an exciting nightlife. No longer are there the headaches and dilemmas of long lines and food shortages, but rather the joyful decision of what products to enjoy from hundreds of different new businesses. At one time, the arrival of McDonald’s seemed exotic to the average Pole, but now it is possible to enjoy a meal at Mediterranean, Japanese, Mexican or even new age "green" restaurants. Even in smaller cities one can find products that would have been unimaginable under the economic repression of communism.
Beyond economic progress, there is a vibrant revival taking place in the growth of Poland’s civil society. This is an important development because as democracy takes hold, a dynamic civil society will help to develop what Alexis De Tocqueville described as democracy’s "schools of citizenship." One such civil organization is the Polish Ludwig Von Mises Institute, whose main purpose "is to raise social awareness of the economic processes and basic institutions of a laissez-faire economy." The institute has helped to establish Austrian School of Economics Clubs in 11 different cities. An opportunity to attend a meeting of the Warsaw Austrian Club afforded a chance to hear a lively discussion about the problem of economic calculation inherent in socialism. It was heartening to see more than two dozen individuals provide a public forum for economic education. Witold Falkowski, president of the Von Mises Institute, believes that, "The importance of civil organizations, such as Austrian clubs, lays in building a popular awareness of the issues that have long been absent in public discussion and awakening in people the conviction that ideas matter." All over Poland, there are religious groups, charities and political organizations establishing themselves. It is a hopeful sign to see so many Poles enthusiastically forming little platoons to stand as bulwarks against the risks of social decay.
That being said, there are many who believe Poland’s economic and political transition is occurring too slowly. For instance, the Polish government continues to own about 1,200 firms. With so much state ownership, it is no wonder that the Index of Economic Freedom ranks Poland as just the 35th freest economy out of 41 countries in the European region. Anecdotally, many say a high level of corruption still exists in both in government and private business. Most will frankly admit that in order to conduct business, it often takes more than what is considered permissible by standards of legality.
The prevalent poor work ethic in Poland can only be explained as the residual effect of communism. For instance, going to a state-owned post office presents a formidable task to both tourist and citizen; and one should plan for at least an hour to mail a postcard. Not only are the lines long, but postal workers are known to take coffee breaks in the middle of "assisting" customers. Pawel Lisiewicz, director of public relations at the Ministry of Treasury, states, "The older generation still thinks in a communist mindset; no market economy, no freedom, no personal responsibility. However, the largest problem is that there exists a lack of trust between individuals." A popular Polish idiom is that in the U.S. if your neighbor owns a Porsche, you will work harder to also buy a Porsche, but in Poland if your neighbor owns a Porsche, you will probably report him to the authorities for tax evasion.
Clearly, the future holds a great deal of potential for Poland. With an improving economy, changing political climate and growing civil society, Poland can position itself as a leading European nation. While there remains a great deal of local unease towards globalization, the European Union and the free market, it may be best for Poland and all countries to heed the words of Pope John Paul II from 1978, another period of uncertainty, "Be not afraid!"
Joseph Corey is a senior majoring in economics and philosophy at Central Michigan University and recently completed a semester studying in Poland. He is founder of The Collegiate Forum and a member of Students for a Free Economy, a nonpartisan campus outreach project of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.