A Free Market Doesn't Equal a Free Society : Russia, Poland and China confuse politics and economics.

Robert Scheer, a former Times national correspondent, has traveled in and written extensively on Eastern Europe.

Should democracy be equated with the free market? That is the issue raised by elections in Poland, the rejection of Beijing's bid for the Olympics and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's coup.

In the name of democracy, the Clinton Administration has endorsed Yeltsin's elimination of an elected Parliament and vice president as well as his overriding the constitutional court and transforming the media and state security apparatus into vehicles of his own personal power.

This absurd blurring of the line between authoritarianism and democracy is made possible by the current cant, which holds the "market economy" to be the wellspring of political freedom. The "freer" the market, the theory runs, the safer democracy.

We have come to define democracy in terms of allegiance to methods of trade rather then procedures for governance. It follows, then, that Yeltsin is to be supported because he favors more rapid privatization of production than his opponents do.

But this policy is fraught with obvious contradiction. By that standard, communist China must be the most rapidly developing democracy in the world, and one wonders why the United States opposed its hosting the Olympics. China has the fastest-growing private sector, millions of capitalist flowers coexisting quite easily with one-party rule and forced-labor camps.

Oligarchy in China is consistent with the economic "tigers" of Asia, who have followed a model of repressive politics wedded to private enterprise. The governments of South Korea and Taiwan, for example, have insisted all along that authoritarian rule was indispensable to the stability required for a free market. Should China be faulted for following their example, which the United States extolled?

What happens when people attempt to use political power to control--some might argue disrupt--the workings of the free market, as occurred in Poland? Last week, the Polish electorate voted in remnants of the old guard pledged to a slower pace of economic change. Is Poland now less democratic than China? Should rejection of the "shock therapy" model prescribed by Harvard professors who never personally experienced the vicissitudes of business be equated with a thirst for totalitarianism?

Nonsense. People in the former communist bloc have the same right as American citizens do to decide on the mix of government regulation and private economic activity. The height of the social safety net, the degree of environmental protection and the guarantee of safe working conditions and minimum wages and hours are decisions set by the electorate in all advanced capitalist societies. Why do we insist on imposing a model of the free market on Eastern Europe that would be considered unworkably primitive in Western Europe?

Only a small band of ideological purists believe that such decisions can be made exclusively in the market by adherence to the law of supply and demand. In the real capitalist world, the "market mechanism" is an essential accounting tool, but it does not answer fundamental social-policy questions.

The struggle between Yeltsin's government and the Russian Parliament, marred as it has been by personality and ambition, nonetheless was an essential forum for debating the hard choices. Those issues cannot be resolved by simple rhetoric about the market or silencing opponents.

It is understandable that Yeltsin--consistent with behavior of politicians everywhere--would seek to relieve himself of any accountability for massive inflation, crime and poverty by blaming his opponents and even seek to silence them. But why does the Clinton Administration feel the need to validate such tactics as democratic?

History offers many examples of just how dangerous it is to identify the ideals of democracy with the survival of any one political leader. Diem in Vietnam and Pinochet in Chile come to mind.

Nor is it helpful for the United States to insist, along with the emissaries from the International Monetary Fund, that the economic catastrophe that is modern Russia can be made whole by following some simplistic rules from economic textbooks. How does a foreign economist know how much suffering the people can take before they crack?

What we should assert is that people have the right to make their own history, and that includes shaping the character of their own economy. Endorsing elections now for both the Russian president and the Parliament would make sense. But it is unconscionable to insist that democracy means people voting the way you would have, or to equate human rights with laissez-faire economics.

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