In 1992, Venezuela was the third richest country in the western hemisphere. Despite having one of the highest standards of living in the world, Venezuelans lamented that their wealth wasn’t equally distributed and that there remained some people still in extreme poverty. So in 2001, they elected a socialist president who promised to solve the problem of income inequality and eradicate poverty. It seemed like the smart and right thing to do, but it was neither. In reality, it was the beginning of the end of good society in Venezuela.
Today, Venezuela stands on the brink of civil war after two decades of strongly socialist government has led to widespread food shortages and the destruction of democracy. Free-market capitalism took Venezuelans from rags to riches in decades and expanded their choices, but socialist central planning took them from riches to rags and left them with little choice but to risk their lives fighting against a now entrenched socialist regime.
But the people have a problem. The government has lots of guns and can use them freely, but the people don’t and can’t. Gun ownership was banned in 2009. Another freedom which, along with numerous economic freedoms, there seemed no downside to surrendering at the time. How Venezuelans must regret that now.
The people of Venezuela were persuaded they could have the impossible: a society with the same high standard of living but one where wealth was equally distributed. In empowering a socialist government to attempt to achieve the impossible, the people enabled it to inadvertently destroy the abundance that already existed thanks to free markets. Any government that promises utopia will produce hell on earth. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Venezuela right now.
It wasn’t only their high standard of living that vanished before the eyes of Venezuelans, but also their democracy. The Constitution and elections have been suspended, opposition leaders have been imprisoned. Democracy is practically dead. Suffocated by hubristic and egotistical socialists in power who believe only they know what’s best for everyone and therefore must retain power at all costs – however many lives and however much wealth is destroyed.
The people of Venezuela aren’t the first people to steer their society onto the rocks by following the siren call of socialism, of course. Many have done so before. Indeed, almost all countries in the developed world practise socialism to some degree or other. So it would be wrong to conclude that socialism flourished in Venezuela because the common man there is somehow less smart or more gullible than the common man anywhere else. It’s not that.
As George Orwell once said, “some ideas are so foolish that only an intellectual could believe them…” Socialism is one such idea. It germinates in the minds of the statist intellectuals of a prospering nation, who the common man accepts as an authority on society. When a doctor advises us to do something, we usually do it. When intellectuals tell the masses that socialism is good and true, the masses start voting for politicians who promise socialism. And that’s the point of no return.
From the surroundings of their capitalist comforts, many young supporters of champagne socialist politicians like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn cry “but that’s not real socialism!” in reference to Venezuela. Or else they plead that the individuals in power are bad or corrupt and that’s why socialism in Venezuela failed so miserably.
But that’s nonsense. It’s real socialism alright. Just ask Venezuelans. If you’re a middle-class family having to eat out of dumpsters, it’s real. If you’re having to eat your pets and zoo animals, it’s real. If you’re having to carry huge wads of paper money just to pay for a loaf of bread, then it’s real socialism. And that’s if you’re lucky enough to survive it. Or escape it. Over the last few years, millions of Venezuelans have emigrated to neighbouring South American countries. Socialism: so good you have to run from it.
Also, it’s not the people that are the problem with socialism, it’s the very idea. The theory lacks internal logical coherence. It doesn’t deal with human beings and reality as they are. It starts from false premises and leads to false conclusions. Socialism avoids reality, but it can never avoid the consequences of doing so.
Even if Venezuela’s socialist government had been led by exceptionally virtuous or intelligent individuals – such as Mother Theresa, Gandhi and Albert Einstein – it still would have failed and left people (much) worse off than they were when markets and profit-seeking private enterprises were allowed to function free from government interference. Or in other words, when the people were left to feed themselves.
The only difference might be that this hypothetical socialist regime probably wouldn’t have doubled-down on its powers in the face of its glaringly evident failures and the protestations of the masses. Theresa, Gandhi and Einstein probably would have had the humility to acknowledge their failure and resign. But then again, maybe not. Power can corrupt anyone, not just the easily corruptible. And the idea of socialism has a track record of seducing countless intellectuals, even the odd genius like Einstein.
Socialism is a monster disguised as a superhero, a mass murderer disguised as Father Christmas. But there is only one thing that can enable this terrible idea to become a terrible ordeal for millions of people: state power.
That’s what Venezuelans are now resisting and fighting with their lives. State power. The very thing that only two decades ago they were persuaded could be the ultimate force for social good. They’re fighting to regain individual economic freedoms they once surrendered so cheaply but which they now can’t fail to see are priceless.
Venezuela is the world’s living lesson that you can’t get rid of poverty through the brute force of the law, through coercive government action. And when you expand state power and empower a government to try, it only paralyses capitalism and destroys much of the abundance that was keeping the majority of the population out of poverty. If we don’t learn this lesson now, when it’s glaringly evident, we never will.