Tag: socialism

Crimes Against the State

William Wan writes in the Washington Post that in China

Citizens have been punished for crimes as trivial as writing an unflattering blog post about a local official.
Trivial indeed. Worse than trivial. Not crimes at all. Just normal speech in a free society.  But of course China isn’t a free society. Despite its moves toward markets and profits, China remains a one-party state still characterized by state ownership of the commanding heights of the economy. And that party is the Communist party, a party born to eradicate capitalism, a party that as it came to power in 1949 spoke of “the extinction of classes, state power and parties,” of “a socialist and communist society,” of the nationalization of private enterprise and the socialization of agriculture, of a “great and splendid socialist state” in Russia, and especially of “a powerful state apparatus” in the hands of a “people’s democratic dictatorship.” That’s a vision that doesn’t fit very well with “unflattering blog post[s] about a local official.” The problem is endemic to socialism. Robert Heilbroner, a distinguished American intellectual who called himself a socialist (though the New York Times declined to be so rude in its obituary), was admirably candid in explaining the place of dissent in a socialist society in a 1978 article in, well, Dissent:
Socialism … must depend for its economic direction on some form of planning, and for its culture on some form of commitment to the idea of a morally conscious collectivity… If tradition cannot, and the market system should not, underpin the socialist order, we are left with some form of command as the necessary means for securing its continuance and adaptation. Indeed, that is what planning means… The factories and stores and farms and shops of a socialist socioeconomic formation must be coordinated … and this coordination must entail obedience to a central plan… The rights of individuals to their Millian liberties [are] directly opposed to the basic social commitment to a deliberately embraced collective moral goal… Under socialism, every dissenting voice raises a threat similar to that raised under a democracy by those who preach antidemocracy.
That is, even an unflattering blog post about a local official threatens “the basic social commitment to a deliberately embraced collective moral goal” under the direction of “a powerful state apparatus” in the hands of a “people’s democratic dictatorship.” So we deplore China’s use of labor camps “as an expedient way to silence critics,” in the words of the Post, but we shouldn’t be surprised by it. Indeed, a front-page article in today’s Post on Hugo Chavez’s legacy refers to
the tenets of what Chavez called 21st-century socialism—intervening in the economy, putting state institutions under the executive’s control and corralling opponents and the press.
Sounds a lot like 20th-century socialism.

Top General Weighs In

Oh, no, not that general. I’m talking about Eisenhower, as quoted in the June 16, 1952 issue of Quick magazine.

Asked what he thought about “compulsory health insurance,” Ike came out “against submitting our lives toward a control that would lead inevitably to socialism.” Now we get to find out if Ike was right.

 

Topics:

The Opposition in Venezuela Doesn’t Get It

Venezuela is in full campaign mode as six candidates vie for the nomination of the Coalition for Democratic Unity (MUD is its Spanish acronym), the opposition movement that will nominate a single candidate to face Hugo Chávez in the October 2012 presidential election. The MUD primary will take place on February 12.

After 13 years of socialist rule that has crippled Venezuela’s economy, and even created shortages of fuel in the oil-rich South American nation, one would expect the opposition candidates to signal a bold U-turn from the failed big-government policies of Hugo Chávez. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Let’s look, for example, at Primero Justicia (Justice First), the party whose candidate, Henrique Capriles Rodonsky, is leading in the polls. Capriles doesn’t say much about the economic model he favors. His statements are limited to generalities such as “the only thing I’m obsessed about is that Venezuela has progress.” As governor of the state of Miranda, Capriles likes to compare his approach to that of former Brazilian president Lula da Silva: decent macroeconomic stewardship complemented by generous social programs.

However, Primero Justicia’s platform seems to be a little more specific in its views on the role of government in society. It claims to support a “social-humanist state” that stands between the “social bureaucratic state that provides inefficient social services in a monopolist way and the minimalist neo-liberal state that gives up on its social responsibilities.” As for the economic model that Primero Justicia favors, the platform says that it “stands against the socialist planned economy and … the [classical] liberal tendencies that turn the market into a dogma.” In simple terms, Primero Justicia sees itself as a Third Way alternative between Hugo Chávez’s “Socialism of the 21st Century” and what it claims to be the “neo-liberal dogma.”

I believe that Venezuela needs a decisive rupture from the failed big-government policies of the past, and not just a lighter version of socialism. Nonetheless, a modern social democratic party is certainly a far better alternative for the country than Hugo Chávez. Unfortunately, on the campaign trail Primero Justicia’s officials seem eager to out-compete Chávez in promising more government handouts to Venezuelans. For example, the daily El Universal published a statement [in Spanish] yesterday from Primero Justicia’s chairman Julio Borges where he lambasted Chávez for not spending enough on social programs. He said that his party would use oil revenues to create a Social Security Fund that would give pensions “to all Venezuelans, regardless of whether they had formal employment or not, and even to housewives.”

Any observer of Venezuela’s modern history would say, “Here we go again.” For many decades, Venezuelan politicians, either in government or in the opposition, have seen the government (and particularly oil revenues) as an infinite source of wealth that simply needs to be distributed among all Venezuelans. As Borges previously stated, “every family would have 1.6 billion bolivares [approximately $375,000] if oil resources were distributed fairly.”

Henrique Capriles will formally launch his presidential candidacy tomorrow. Venezuelans have other pressing concerns besides the economy that will play a major role in next year’s election, such as the staggering rise in crime (Venezuela stands now as the most violent country in South America) and the steady erosion of civil and political freedoms. However, Capriles is ill-advised in thinking that he can beat Chávez by playing the populist card of offering yet more government handouts to Venezuelans.

Venezuelans deserve a real alternative to Chávez. They deserve not only a candidate that promises a return to democratic rule of law, but also someone who pledges to break their dependency on government. The election in October 2012 should be something more than choosing a distributor-in-chief at Miraflores Palace.

Après Chávez, le Déluge?

Rumors abounded this weekend about Hugo Chávez’s apparent critical health condition. The Nuevo Herald reported that the Venezuelan president could be suffering from prostate cancer. On June 9, while visiting Cuba, Chávez fell ill and was treated for a “pelvic abscess.” Since then, the loquacious caudillo, who for over a decade has flooded Venezuelan airwaves with endless TV addresses, has been conspicuously out of sight. All we have is a picture released to the media showing a frail Hugo Chávez holding onto Fidel Castro (aged 84) and his brother Raúl (aged 80).

Speculation increased on Saturday after Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s Foreign Relations Minister, said that Chávez was waging a “great battle for his health” while admitting that he wasn’t doing well. But perhaps the most ominous statement came from Chávez’s older brother, Adán, governor of the state of Barinas, who warned yesterday that supporters of the president should be ready to take up arms to defend his revolution. “It would be inexcusable to limit ourselves to only the electoral and not see other forms of struggle, including the armed struggle,” said the elder Chávez.

This is where things can get extremely ugly. Nobody knows what could happen to chavismo without Hugo Chávez. Many people expected Chávez to resort to violence next year in case he lost his reelection bid (a real possibility given popular discontent due to rising food prices, food and energy shortages, and increasing crime). This is why he created a socialist militia with tens of thousands armed civilians bent on “defending the revolution” no matter what. Also, Chávez promoted General Henry Rangel Silva as head of the Armed Forces after Rangel stated that the army would not allow the opposition to win the presidential election in 2012. However, in all these scenarios, Chávez was always the one calling the shots.

If Chávez passes away or is permanently incapacitated, the question becomes: Who will take over Venezuela and his political movement? The Constitution requires the Vice-president Elías Jaua to be sworn it as president. However, it is very likely that Chávez’s absence will open a fratricidal struggle within the ranks of chavismo for the control of government power. During his 12 years in office, Chávez has diligently made sure that no apparent successor takes the spotlight. Caudillos don’t have real VPs, a situation that could lead to chaos if the caudillo dies while in office.

A historical parallel can be drawn with the passing of Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina in 1974. His wife, Isabel, was his Vice-President and she took over the presidency after Perón’s death, as required by the Constitution. However, her tenure was marked by the increasing violence of the “Montoneros,” a radical left-wing terrorist group that claimed to uphold the leftist legacy of Juan Domingo Perón. The situation reached a critical point when the Armed Forces deposed Isabel Perón with a military coup in 1976 and led a “Dirty War” against left-wing elements of society that resulted in the killing and disappearance of approximately 30,000 people in 7 years. Perón’s death and lack of a viable successor led to chaos and slaughter.

The driving force behind the different forces within chavismo is graft, not ideology. As Gustavo Coronel documented in a paper published by Cato in 2006, corruption is rampant in Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, and it permeates all levels of government, including powerful elements of the military. It is unlikely that those who have been enriching themselves in the last 12 years would call it quits if their leader passes away. A violent struggle could therefore ensue within the ranks of chavismo for the control of government.

Venezuela’s democratic opposition movement should play its cards carefully. If Hugo Chávez dies or is incapacitated, the opposition should demand that the Constitution be respected and Vice-President Jaua take over until next year’s presidential election. The international community, and in particular the Organization of American States, should also be assertive in stating that Venezuela would face international diplomatic ostracism (e.g., expulsion from the OAS, travel ban for regime leaders, freezing of their bank accounts, etc.) if elements within the government stage a coup or try to stay in power through armed struggle.

We will know the gravity of Hugo Chávez’s health condition by July 5th. He had called for a big international summit that day to celebrate Venezuela’s bicentennial anniversary. If he calls off the jamboree, or if he is absent, it will signal that his health has very likely gravely deteriorated, and speculation about his succession will be overwhelming.

Paul Ryan and Political Discipline

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Paul Ryan’s budget – hard-headed fiscal sanity or inhumane?

My response:

Either we discipline ourselves, painfully, or soon enough the Chinese and other lenders will do it for us, more painfully still, by refusing to loan to us any longer at currently low interest rates. And in that event, the debt service will be all consuming. Neither individuals nor nations can go down the road we’re on without paying the price.

Margaret Thatcher put it plainly: “The trouble with socialism” – let’s be honest, we’re socializing the costs of our appetites by imposing them on our children and grandchildren – ”is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”

Inhumane? The inhumanity is among those demagogues who put us on this path, promising something for nothing year in and year out. Paul Ryan deserves our gratitude for biting the bullet at last. The ball is now in the court of the demagogues.

Bailout Coming for the Postal Service?

The U.S. Postal Service is in financial trouble. Undermined by advances in electronic communication, weighed down by excessive labor costs and operationally straitjacketed by Congress, the government’s mail monopoly is running on fumes and faces large unfunded liabilities. Socialism apparently has its limits.

While the Europeans continue to shift away from government-run postal monopolies toward market liberalization, policymakers in the United States still have their heads stuck in the twentieth century. That means looking for an easy way out, which in Washington usually means a bailout.

Self-interested parties – including the postal unions, mailers, and postal management – have coalesced around the notion that the U.S. Treasury owes the USPS somewhere around $50-$75 billion. (Of course, “U.S. Treasury” is just another word for “taxpayers.”)  Policymakers with responsibility for overseeing the USPS have introduced legislation that would require the Treasury to credit it with the money.

Explaining the background and validity of this claim is very complicated. Fortunately, Michael Schuyler, a seasoned expert on the USPS for the Institute for Research on the Economics of Taxation, has produced such a paper.

At issue is whether the USPS “unfairly” overpaid on pension obligations for particular employees under the long defunct Civil Service Retirement System. The USPS’s inspector-general has concluded that the USPS is owed the money. The Office of Personnel Management, which administers the pensions of federal government employees, and its inspector-general have concluded otherwise. Again, it’s complicated and Schuyler’s paper should be read to understand the ins and outs.

Therefore, I’ll simply conclude with Schuyler’s take on what the transfer would mean for taxpayers:

Given the frighteningly large federal deficit and the mushrooming federal debt, a $50-$75 billion credit to the Postal Service and debit to the U.S. Treasury will be a difficult sell, politically and economically. Although some advocates of a $50-$70 billion transfer assert it would be “an internal transfer of surplus pension funds” that would allow the Postal Service to fund promised retiree health benefits “at no cost to taxpayers,” the reality is that the transfer would shift more obligations to Treasury, which would increase the already heavy burden on taxpayers, who ultimately pay Treasury’s bills. (The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) prepares the official cost estimates for bills before Congress. Judging by how it has scored some earlier postal bills, CBO would undoubtedly report that the transfer would increase the federal budget deficit.) For those attempting to reduce the federal deficit, the transfer would be a $50-$70 billion setback.

Sounds like a bailout to me.

See this Cato essay for more on the U.S. Postal Service and why policymakers should be moving toward privatization.

A Pacifist Finds Her Call to Arms

The ongoing war of words between Glenn Beck and Frances Fox Piven over the prospect of workers rioting in the streets isn’t just a two-way dance. Stanley Kurtz has provided insight into Piven’s work over the years in his book, Radical-in-Chief, and a prominent figure of the left, Barbara Ehrenreich, has fired back. In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Ehrenreich said that the reaction to Piven’s writings shows that America is “no longer a democracy but a tyranny of the heavily armed.”

Ehrenreich’s position contains a kernel of truth, but the real armed tyranny is the one Piven seeks to impose.

We have a window into Ehrenreich’s thoughts on violent struggle from her book on the subject, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War. I attended a presentation Ehrenreich gave during my senior year of college precisely because of the contrast it might provide to my own views. Ehrenreich was a pacifist seeking to understand the passions that drive war so that they might be stifled or stamped out, while I was about to take a commission in the Army and head off to Infantry Officer Basic Course and Ranger School.

Ehrenreich traces man’s capacity for conflict back to the time when he was not at the top of the food chain. Early man’s violent instinct grew out of necessity; the need to build primitive weapons and fight in groups to kill natural predators, primarily lions and other big cats.

A rallying instinct lies at the heart of a successful hunt. Members of a hunting party must be willing to lay down their lives for each other, facing a beast with speed and natural weapons that would overwhelm each man individually. The bond produced by this group experience surpasses anything that develops on the football field. Indeed, combat is the only place where the phenomenon exists today.

In Ehrenreich’s view, this rallying instinct made the move from a hunter-gatherer society possible, but it also facilitated conflict between tribes and nations. Tribes rallied around the skin of an impressive kill or a totem symbolizing their most-feared predator when in conflict over land and natural resources.

As we began to aggregate our self-interests into larger groups, the totem became a flag, and the rallying instinct became nationalism or patriotism. The political class, the villains in Ehrenreich’s telling of the tale, could then use patriotism to manipulate the masses toward war.

While Ehrenreich takes a few feminist detours along the way, her theory on the origin of a rallying instinct I understood – patriotism – rang true. Ehrenreich’s assertion that we all have a remnant of this tribal instinct is consistent with thinkers across the spectrum. Blood Rites may make an appropriate companion to Victor Davis Hanson’s The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.

Ehrenreich admitted defeat at the end of the presentation. She noted that while some of the best of man’s nature is brought forth by war – think of a grunt throwing himself on a grenade to save his brothers in arms – she saw no way to turn these selfless instincts against war itself.

This is why Ehrenreich’s defense of Piven is a bit disappointing (though not surprising – both are Honorary Chairs at the Democratic Socialists of America). Piven’s citation of the riots in Greece as an example for American workers to follow is hardly an example of non-violence in action.

More disturbing is Ehrenreich’s blindness to – or obfuscation of – the fact that government is organized violence, and a push for government to do more is not a pacifistic stance. The rule of law is the threshold at which the government will spill blood and confiscate treasure. Changing the rule of law to guarantee equality of outcomes, not simply equality of opportunity, is a proposal for violence.

Government enforcement of a redistributive policy – taxes to support more handouts have to come from somewhere – is done with at least the implicit threat of violence sanctioned by the state. Try and resist and at some point men with guns – the police, IRS, or Marshals – get involved. SEIU President Andy Stern put this option on the table, explaining that his organization was using the “power of persuasion” before getting government to use the “persuasion of power.”

Ehrenreich talks a good game about seeking peace, but in the end she’s simply cheerleading from the other side of the battlefield. But this battlefield should remain rhetorical. The threats against Piven are inexcusable. We should oppose redistributive instincts – peacefully – now, not after the coercion of government takes the field in support of progressive efforts to “spread the wealth around.”