With the wall-to-wall coverage of Vaclav Havel’s death, it was refreshing to read something truly original today. We’ve obviously hard a lot the past few days (and rightly so) about Havel the writer, Havel the dissident, Havel the tireless human rights defender, and Havel as the conscience of the nation. But one tends to forget that he also had to perform rather mundane, but crucial chores as the president of the country, including doing things like picking judges on the Constitutional Court or members of the board for the national bank. It’s relatively easy to imagine that Havel knew a few things about justice and character and might not have had an incredibly difficult time choosing judges. But economists? Bankers?
Yet on the website of Respekt, the Czech weekly, columnist Jan Machacek writes (in Czech) that Havel even excelled at that. Machacek starts with describing how unlikely that was. Under communism, Havel had a decent income from the foreign productions of his plays, but left the family finances to his wife, Olga. The same when he was president: He never went shopping himself or to the bank. This was a man who seemingly had little knowledge of even how much things cost.
The image of negotiating with a bank officer incited physical repulsion. Neither of the brothers inherited any capitalistic assertiveness. The ownership of anything made them nervous—it was rather physically unpleasant to them and in the end both, not by accident, transferred over their real estate and property to their wives.
What a paradox, then, as Machacek describes it, that President Havel, for the most part, acted very responsibly and competently in the area of economic affairs. He consulted his choices for the bank with relevant experts and tried to ensure that a wide range of opinions were represented there. He favored some cases of direct privatization (ala Skoda auto) to counter coupon privatization; he agreed with regulation for the capital markets; and he spoke out against the Wild West aspects of 1990s Czech capitalism.
“Havel didn’t like the blunt economization of life and the world,” Machecek writes. “Though economics is a social science and not accounting, the problem is that too many economists project themselves as accountants and behave like accountants. Vaclav Havel had a feeling even for that.”
How frustrating then it must have been for Havel that he didn’t have the economic chops to really do battle with Vaclav Klaus, then prime minister. In an article published today by Czech Position, Havel was supposedly “despondent that he did not have a better grasp of economics so that he could better counter his rival’s championing of free-market, liberal economic policies.”
As Machacek shows, Havel did what he could.