The New Freedom: Living with Hope, Skepticism and Irony
Freedom of Private Ownership and Enterprise
A major source of freedom in Hungary and Estonia during the last decade of the 20th Century was the return of individual ownership and the accompanying return of individual initiative and reward. Several of the adults we interviewed in both countries had the land their families once owned returned to them. Others had the opportunity to buy and own their homes. As one interviewee stated, ‘We made a law to try to return what the Communists took from the farmers, and we have [vouchers] and if you had lands before the Communist time and the Communists took it from you, you can [get] vouchers, and they are good to buy land or property, and this way we have privatization, and we give the people the feeling that what the Communists took you are getting back.” Johann, tan agrarian reformer in Estonia, spoke eloquently of families reclaiming not only their farms but also their agricultural heritage. Other Estonians and Hungarians returned to their families’ occupations: fishing, crafts, ownership of small shops. Entrepreneurial Hungarians and Estonians spoke of the ability to start their own businesses or invest in existing ones.
The pathway to enterprise was not without barriers. As the Estonian government leaders we interviewed noted, there was still much to learn throughout Eastern Europe about capitalism and entrepreneurial ventures. I personally taught a course on marketing at a newly-created Estonian business school—even though this is not remotely my area of expertise. It appears that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man or woman (or psychologist) is king. I was the temporary king. Ownership in both countries was usually linked directly to the operation of a small business. The notion of ownership through stock purchase or other forms of investment was still a new idea and did not fit very well with the small business traditions in both countries and throughout Eastern Europe. Free enterprise, for good or ill, was liberated in both countries, and citizens were now free to make money—and lose money. In doing so, thy were likely to learn much about doing business in the manner of the West. They certainly didn’t need me as their temporary king of enterprise.
In reflecting back almost thirty years later, it is quite apparent that the Estonians did learn how to conduct business in a Western manner—and with many Western customers. Most importantly, the Estonians created a vibrant electronics industry, producing many devices and processes for digitally based communications. I am not surprised that this has been a focus of Estonian entrepreneurship, for the majority of citizens in this country were using mobile devices even in the early 1990s – the land lines in Estonian being of little use (as was typical of many Soviet infrastructures of the time). As Alexander Theroux (2011, p. 18) notes in his insightful observations of Estonian society:
Estonia is more than just technologically hip: it is mobile-phone addicted and completely Internet literate. In 2010, Estonia go rid of every one of its street telephone booths and canceled the use of telephone cards intended for them. . . . In this small country, Wi-Fi is everywhere. Voting can be done on line by way of a national identity card. I believe that they have more cell phones in the country, percentage-wide, than does the United States . . .
It is important to note that Skype was created in Estonia—exemplifying this very successful focus on digital communication.