Passers-by walk in front of Millennium Monument on Heroes Square in Budapest, Hungary, in January 1946. (AFP via Getty Images)

Freedom of Expression is the Cornerstone of Liberty

February 4, 2022

I was born in the fall of 1944 in the bomb shelter of a Budapest hospital. The Russian army was pushing the Germans back towards Berlin. Hitler decided to make a last stand in Budapest. It failed, but we ended up with hundreds of bombed out buildings. I grew up in what remained of one of those bombed out buildings with my mother and grandmother.

Nobody thought that the Russian army would stay there for the next 46 years, but they did. They were defending socialism and installed a Communist government.

Shortly after my grandmother passed away when I was 7, my mother told me that when I woke up the next day I would be alone. Not to worry, she said. She would be home by the time I would have to leave for school. I insisted that she take me along wherever she was going. I was too scared to be alone.

We had to get up at 4:30 in the dark and freezing winter morning to walk to the nearby baker. By the time we got there, quite a few people were already standing in line and many more were still coming. We joined them in the breadline. While we stood there, shivering in the freezing cold, I asked my mother why we had to wait there, two hours before the baker opened? She explained that the baker did not have enough bread for everyone and that people towards the end of the line would usually have to leave empty-handed.

Despite the cold, standing in the breadline for the first time was interesting. Everybody got a four-and-a-half pound loaf, still hot from the oven. I clutched it to my chest all the way home to keep warm.

After the third time, I told my mother that she should go by herself. I was more scared of the cold than I was of the ghosts in the dark apartment.

For my 10th birthday, my mother gave me an alarm clock and told me that I was now old enough to stand in the breadline. When she couldn’t get any on her way home from work, I would have to go and spend my early morning hours in the breadline.

In 1956 when I was 12, the so-called Hungarian Revolution forced the Soviet soldiers to withdraw to their barracks. It seemed as if the people had prevailed. But after a few days of freedom, Mao told Khrushchev that if he let Hungary go, all the socialist countries would fall like dominoes. More Soviet tanks and troops came in and they propped up the government.

But the Communist Party bosses came to understand that they were sitting on a powder keg. 

If they did not allow a minimal level of private enterprise, the people would no longer accept the needless suffering. So they allowed an individual or a family to start businesses. They were not allowed to hire any employees. Still, these new enterprises miraculously eliminated many of the shortages and everyday life became easier. 

When I was in college, it was compulsory to study Marxism and Leninism. The first tenet, paraphrased, was that the Communist Party and its cause is sacrosanct. It represents the interest of the people and any act or word that could be construed to be against it must be crushed and punished, immediately.

The second was that the capitalist economy is a chaotic series of booms and busts. Thousands of businesses make decisions without knowing what everybody else is doing. Without coordination, most products and services will be in imbalance; oversupply or undersupply. This is very expensive. Companies go bankrupt. People get laid off. The economic consequences are terrible.

On the other hand, a socialist economy is planned with perfect information. The planners know what everybody is doing and can perfectly regulate supply to meet demand.

This sounded pretty logical. So why did it not work? Why did we have to stand in breadlines in the freezing cold for hours?

But these were questions we were not allowed to ask. The first tenet forbid them. Anyone who did ask was kicked out of school, with slim chances for a job. Some went to jail. We did not dare to discuss any of these topics even among ourselves. Anyone who found themselves in trouble with the authorities would be forced to give us up to save their own skin. This was perhaps the most difficult aspect of life for all of us to bear.

We lived behind the Iron Curtain like zombies. Covering our eyes and ears, reciting meaningless slogans in unison that none of us believed. That’s why I had to take a chance and leave, when I could. It’s also why freedom of expression is not just another “freedom,” to be listed alongside others. The ability to speak one’s conscience and to debate ideas openly is the cornerstone of all freedom.

If we cannot freely debate the reasons for breadlines, we will not be able to avoid standing in them.

Thomas Peterffy is founder and chairman of Interactive Brokers and is chairman of the Council of Trustees of Common Sense Society, an international educational foundation active in the United States and Europe.

Originally published in Barron’s.

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