TCS Daily

Freedom and Responsibility

By Radek Sikorski - September 9, 2002 12:00 AM

Editor's note: The first installment of this series can be found here.

KRYNICA, Poland - Our first day in Krynica presented us with a number of odd experiences that one would be hard pressed to reproduce in the U.S. Throughout the day, at almost every juncture, we found our progress interrupted by one impediment or another. If Poland, and perhaps the rest of central Europe, is going to become a serious competitor on the world stage, it will have to address at the most basic level the types of things that went wrong today.

Our first experience involved our trip from our hotel to the conference, a relatively simple thing - you might think. Our car was scheduled to pick us up at 12:00, according to the last word we received from the conference organizers. At about 11:30, we received word that the car would be delayed, and would pick us up at 1:30 instead. We chatted about taking a taxi for the rather lengthy trip, and decided to be courteous and not second-guess our hosts, even though the delay meant that we might miss the opening session. At around 1:30, the car had still not arrived. After a phone call, we were assured that the car would be there in 5 minutes, and the assurance seemed credible, the person on the phone was in the car.

About 15 minutes later, the car arrived. However, there was a slight problem. The car had enough room to seat 7 people comfortably, and there were already 8 people in the car! What was that person on the phone thinking? We invited one of the poor cramped fellows in the van to join us, and hired a nearby taxi. Something we could have just as easily done two hours earlier.

The ride to Krynica was something of an adventure. Our taxi driver was a jolly fellow who spoke English quite fluently. His driving, however, was stress inducing. One could not blame the driver, however. The main road was a single lane in each direction, and that lane was stuffed with every sort of vehicle imaginable. In order to keep up a reasonable rate of speed, our driver would constantly pass slower vehicles by steering into opposing traffic, forcing oncoming cars and trucks to swerve into the breakdown lane to avoid us. All of the participants in this whirligig were clearly accustomed to the drill, and we never really felt in imminent danger, but it was clear that no thoughtful highway engineer had ever taken on the task of designing and building a modern road. An atrocious road was, it seems, good enough.

At the registration desk, things went from bad to worse. Recall that this meeting is attended by the leading lights of central Europe. In our first few hours at the conference we saw six current or former Prime Ministers. But what was everyone doing? Waiting in line in order to get his badge so he could attend the meeting. Incredibly, although there were only about 40 individuals ahead of us at registration, and perhaps twenty people working the desk, registration took us about an hour. Just to get a badge! Among the others waiting in line with us were a former Polish Prime Minister, and the editor of one of Poland's leading daily newspapers.

Browsing through the materials that were so difficult to acquire, we immediately noticed that most of the facts about each of us were incorrect in the information booklet. Apparently, the organizers believed that Radek works at the American Enterprise Institute located on 94th Street in Washington, D.C., whereas Kevin works at the other American Enterprise Institute located on 17th Avenue. (For the record, the Institute is on 17th Street). Since we emailed the information to the organizers, it is difficult to comprehend in this age of cutting and pasting how such simple errors could be introduced.

Having received the ticket we needed to get into our hotel, we headed there. At the hotel, the friendly woman at the front desk efficiently allocated us our individual rooms, but after receiving our keys, the porter ducked away for a smoke, an occupation significantly more attractive than the alternative option, helping us with our luggage up the many flights of stairs.

Now comes the most painful part of the day. Krynica is a very famous spa town, and our hotel has a highly regarded spa. Before heading to our rooms, we inquired about the availability of the facilities. We were informed by the delightful receptionist that the spa was closed, and would not open again until the conference was over. The hotel was, we were told, going to be very busy for the next few days because of all of the visiting dignitaries, and it was all for the best not to try to offer spa services at such a hectic time!

When communists ruled Poland, individuals did not have to perform their job well in order to keep it. Indeed, a job was a basic right of every individual, a right that was not to be trifled with. "Quality" was an obsession best left to evil capitalists.

While communists have lost their power monopoly, their legacy remains. Far too many people fail to recognize that with freedom comes responsibility. As Polish and other central European leaders debate why capital inflows have continued to be so low and unemployment so high, our trying day suggests a simple answer. Westerners have grown to expect a basic commitment from businesses and individuals to getting the job done correctly, a commitment that is a precondition for a successful free-market economy. While many heroic firms in these emerging economies have successfully entered the international competitive sphere, stumbling blocks laid down during the communist era remain. The largest may well be this: it appears to be acceptable to far too many people to perform a job poorly.



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