Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine

APRIL 1997

P U B L I C    P O L I C Y &    &    I N T E R N A T I O N A L    A F F A I R S

The Nazi Party's appeal to the pocketbook... pushing for safer handgun use... brining citizenship back into style... on currency reform... tomorrow's "professional citizens"

The logic of evil in Nazi Germany
As a youngster growing up in a Jewish family, William Brustein (SAIS '71) heard frequent accounts of the Holocaust. "Naziism became for me another word for evil," he recalls. But he was also taught that people are not essentially evil. And if that's true, he wondered, how could almost 14 million essentially non-evil Germans have voted for the Nazis in 1932?

Once he grew up and became a sociologist, Brustein searched for an answer to that question. He recently collaborated with Jurgen W. Falter of the University of Mainz on a comprehensive study of 42,000 Nazi Party records, and reached a conclusion much at variance to previous explanations for the Nazi Party's startling rise to power. His analysis has been published in The Logic of Evil: The Social Origins of the Nazi Party, 1925-1933 (Yale University Press, 1996).

"This is the first time a rational-choice model from social science has been applied to Nazi Party membership," he says. "It's the largest and most systematic study of individual Nazi Party membership records that's ever been done. But what's unique here are my findings. I'm arguing that the people who were attracted to Nazism saw that the party's economic program addressed their material interests." That is, most people voted for the Nazis not out of xenophobia or hatred of Jews or as a protest to the Weimar government. They voted for their pocketbooks. They simply believed that the Nazis had the best economic program.

Illustration by
Stephanie Shieldhouse
In 1923, the Nazi Party was but one of 42 racist and ultranationalist fringe groups in Germany. Ten years later, it garnered 37.3 percent of the popular vote in free German elections, enough to gain the chancellorship for Adolf Hitler. Over the years, social theorists have come up with a variety of explanations, and Brustein thinks they're mostly wrong.

For example, one explanation is that sometimes masses of people behave irrationally. Brustein points out that his analysis of the data makes that argument difficult. For example, 40 percent of the people who joined the party after 1925 had left it by 1933. What happened? Did they suddenly all become rational? Another example: Farmers who raised livestock were more likely to join the party than farmers who raised grain. "It's hard to explain why livestock farmers would be more irrational than grain-growers," Brustein says. But it can be explained, he adds, if you note that Weimar agricultural policies favored grain producers over livestock farmers, and that the latter suffered disproportionately when German farm prices collapsed in the late 1920s. The livestock farmers, Brustein argues, rationally voted for their own economic well-being.

Another common belief has been that hate and anti-Semitism were central to the Nazi Party's appeal. Brustein responds that the Nazis did not emphasize their anti-Semitism during their rise in the 1920s and '30s. "Anti-Semitism was there, but most parties played the anti-Semitic card," he says. And how can anti-Semitism explain the fact that single women were more likely to join than married women? Would one want to argue that single women tend to be more anti-Semitic? The data do not make sense in these arguments."

For Brustein, the explanation most consistent with party membership data is rational choice--millions of Germans preferred the Nazi economic program, with its emphasis on protectionism, economic self-sufficiency, tax relief, resettlement of landless farms, and impartible inheritance. "People will vote for or join the party that they believe will increase their wealth, power, and prestige," he says.

Brustein sees a lesson in this analysis. German voters in the 1930s did not foresee the Holocaust or a disastrous world war. They certainly didn't vote for that--they voted for prosperity and economic security. "Evil as an outcome is not always discernible," Brustein says. "One has to separate origins from outcomes. People who are living in these moments when these choices are being made don't have the luxury of reading back in history. The danger is that oftentimes we act as individuals not knowing the consequences, particularly the collective consequences of our individual acts. I'm always concerned that the successful demagogue is the one who's able to mask the hatred while appealing to someone's bread-and-butter interests. Evil may have ordinary and rational origins." --DK

Personalized guns for safety's sake
Each year, 40,000 people die from gunshot injuries, many in accidents involving handguns. But what if handguns were personalized, or contained special technology that allowed only authorized users to fire the weapons? A curious young child, say, or a suicidal teenager could not pull the trigger on his parent's gun. The 1-out-of-4 American households that have a handgun would be safer.

Personalized handgun technology exists, and Hopkins safety experts have written model legislation requiring that it be incorporated in all handguns manufactured or sold in a jurisdiction. State representative T.J. Rooney will introduce a bill containing the legislation in Pennsylvania any day, according to Susan DeFrancesco, coordinator of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. New Jersey, New York, and Maryland have requested copies of the model law.

Personalized handgun designs range from low-tech--such as a built-in combination lock--to a high-tech prototype developed by Colt's Manufacturing Company, Inc., that makes use of radiowave frequencies. The user of this prototype wears a ring or lapel pin that contains a tiny transponder that emits radiowaves at a particular frequency. An antenna in the gun's grip recognizes this radiowave code, and allows the gun to be fired.

Colt will market its new personalized handguns within the next three years, starting with police officers, says DeFrancesco. "Police are often killed by their own weapons," she notes, "by criminals who disarm them."

A personalized handgun that uses magnetic encoding and is manufactured by Fulton Arms is already on the market, says DeFrancesco.

The model legislation, says DeFrancesco, "is certainly not a gun ban. It's a change in design, as has been done with child-resistant drug packaging and cigarette lighters and safety features in automobiles." --MH

The currency doctor steps in
In the late 1980s, the Argentine economy was a train wreck. Annual inflation had climbed to near 3,000 percent, the gross domestic product (GDP) was shrinking, and capital was leaving town as fast as it could. When Carlos Menem won the presidency in 1989, economic reform was his principal task.

Menem and his minister of economy, Domingo Cavallo, consulted with Hopkins professor of applied economics, Steven H. Hanke on how to gain control over the hyperinflation that was devastating the economy. On April 1, 1991, Argentina followed Hanke's advice and pegged the value of the peso to its reserves of U.S. dollars. Less than six years later, Hanke reports, inflation has vanished.

Currency advisor Hanke
"The objective was to get inflation down to zero, and that's precisely what this system has done," says Hanke. "At the end of December 1996, inflation was .1 percent."

Upon Hanke's recommendation, Argentina instituted a system similar to the currency boards used by Estonia, Lithuania, and Hong Kong. These systems fully back a nation's currency with reserves of a stronger, fundamentally sound currency. The government sets an exchange rate between these two currencies, and then takes itself out of the picture; the exchange rate is now pegged, and the government can't meddle with it.

"Before the reform, the Argentine currency wasn't backed," says Hanke. "So every time the government would go in the hole and need more money, it would call the central bank and print pesos. All the currency reform does is lock the exchange rate of the Argentine peso at par with the U.S. dollar--one peso equals one dollar. Furthermore, now all pesos that are issued have to be backed by 100 percent U.S. dollar reserves, so a peso literally is as good as a dollar now."

Once the value of the peso stabilized and people regained confidence in the currency, capital began coming into the country, rather than flowing out. "Currency reform gave President Menem's government a lot of credibility, because he had delivered on the most immense problem facing Argentina," says Hanke. "Once he got credibility, he could go in and introduce good sound economic policy."

Argentine citizens again had money that actually could buy something, and the economy began to grow. "Nineteen ninety-six saw President Menem reelected, with no major opposition from any of the three major political parties, as far as the currency system was concerned. Things got completely stabilized, and now the economy is roaring again. It might get close to 7 percent growth again this year." --DK

Training tomorrow's "professional citizens"
Lester Salamon remembers a time in the 1960s when society focused on rights: the right to an education, a place to live. By the 1980s, though, most Americans had become focused on making a buck. "The notion of citizenship, in helping your fellow man, had been de-emphasized," says Salamon, director of Hopkins's
Institute for Policy Studies (IPS).

He believes the attitude pendulum may be swinging back toward compassion, and he is using that motion to breathe new life into a notion that has fallen by the wayside of American education: namely, that it's possible to teach young adults to be "professional citizens."

Citizenship is more than voting and saluting the flag, Salamon says. "It's basically the idea that every individual has an obligation to solve society's problems"--an idea that has become the keystone of IPS's Master of Arts in Policy Studies (MAPS) program.

The W.W. Kellogg Foundation, swayed by the dirth of university programs devoted to teaching citizenship, recently awarded IPS a $1.5 million grant to further the MAPS program. Part of the funding will be used to "export" the citizenship curriculum to universities across the nation, through books, course materials, and even a nationwide citizenship essay contest, Salamon says.

At Hopkins, there are currently 26 students involved in the MAPS graduate program. Most arrive "already convinced of the significance of being a good citizen," says sociology professor Matthew Crenson, who teaches the MAPS course Citizenship and the Policy Professional. "I think that unless you have some sense of your obligation to a larger public, you haven't really experienced everything you need to experience to be a fully formed human being," Crenson says. "It's an idea that goes back to the days of Plato and Aristotle: if you aren't engaged in public endeavor, you are something less than a human being." --CAR

Written by Melissa Hendricks, Dale Keiger, and Christine Rowett.