Tag: socialism

Socialist Catastrophe in Venezuela

Journalists are now reporting regularly on the crisis in Venezuela, with shortages of everything from toilet paper to food and now daily street protests. What the news reports too often miss is, Why? Why is a formerly middle-class, oil-rich country now so desperately poor?

The Weekly Standard notes a New York Times article, “How Venezuela Stumbled to the Brink of Collapse,” that spends 1800 words on the country’s “collapse into authoritarianism.” The Standard summarizes:

The strongman Hugo Chávez “ran for president in 1998. His populist message of returning power to the people won him victory.” Chávez polarized because “populism describes a world divided between the righteous people and the corrupt elite.” Now, under the late Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, “The political system, after years of erosion, has become a hybrid of democratic and authoritarian features.”

But never does the article identify what economic system could cause such disaster. It does mention specific policies: subsidies, welfare programs, money printing, inflation, and price controls. But nationalization is never mentioned. And in particular, the Standard points out, the article does not use the word “socialism” (or “socialist”). It does not mention that Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro have headed the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Socialism is the cause that must not be named.

So it’s refreshing to see a rather more forthright article in the Washington Post this weekend by Mariana Zuniga and Nick Miroff:

With cash running low and debts piling up, Venezuela’s socialist government has cut back sharply on food imports….

Venezuela’s disaster is man-made, economists point out — the result of farm nationalizations, currency distortions and a government takeover of food distribution. While millions of Venezuelans can’t get enough to eat, officials have refused to allow international aid groups to deliver food, accustomed to viewing their oil-rich country as the benefactor of poorer nations, not a charity case.  

“It’s not only the nationalization of land,” said Carlos Machado, an expert on Venezuelan agriculture. “The government has made the decision to be the producer, processor and distributor, so the entire chain of food production suffers from an inefficient agricultural bureaucracy.”

My colleague Marian Tupy notes that according to the Economic Freedom of the World Index, economic freedom in Venezuela fell from just above 7 out of 10 in 1970 to barely above 3 in this decade. Meanwhile, its GDP per capita has fallen over 40 years, while Chile’s has tripled.

Venezuela doesn’t have to be poor. But to restore its standard of living, it will have to reverse recent changes in property rights, judicial independence, free trade, and corruption.

Forced Labor In Venezuela — and In Postwar Britain

As Venezuelan socialism descends into tyranny, hunger, and chaos, a milestone came in July when a government ministry announced Resolution No. 9855, under whose provisions, quoting CNBC, “workers can be forcefully moved from their jobs to work in farm fields or elsewhere in the agricultural sector for periods of 60 days.” Amnesty International says the decree “effectively amounts to forced labor.” Strongman Nicolas Maduro has likewise imposed harsh legal penalties on businesses that close down their operations.

It all echoes the Directive 10-289 (all workers “shall henceforth be attached to their jobs and shall not leave nor be dismissed nor change employment,” with businesses similarly bound) from Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. Readers may assume that Rand based her fictionalized directive on the track record of the sorts of dictatorships that outlaw political opposition. But in fact elements of forced labor have cropped up in socialist experiments even in nations with strong track records of constitutional government and civil liberties, such as postwar Britain.

Cuba, Venezuela, and the Eternal Shortage of Toilet Paper

Marketplace Radio takes a look at the challenge of filming movies and television shows in Cuba, focusing specifically on Showtime’s “House of Lies” starring Don Cheadle. The episode is titled “No es facil” – “It’s not easy.” The title appears to be a description of doing business in Cuba, and also of filming a show about doing business in Cuba. As Marketplace’s Adrienne Hill and show creator Matthew Carnahan explain:

Camera equipment was shipped from Germany because it couldn’t be sent directly from the U.S. Even basic supplies – “there’s not hammers and toilet paper, and things that people need.” 

Journalists have stopped reporting on the privations of socialism in Cuba. But Hugo Chavez was a great admirer of Fidel Castro and the society he built, and he wanted to give Venezuelans the same thing. And of course he did:

Venezuela’s product shortages have become so severe that some hotels in that country are asking guests to bring their own toilet paper and soap, a local tourism industry spokesman said on Wednesday….

Rest well, Comandantes Castro and Chavez, while your people dream of toilet paper. And hammers. And soap.

Socialism Destroys Venezuela as its People Feel the “Bern”

Venezuela no longer can feed or care for its people. Yet many Americans have forgotten what socialism really is. Sen. Bernie Sanders campaigns as if Karl Marx was just another Santa Claus.

Real socialism largely disappeared decades ago. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites effectively ended the age of collectivism.

Nevertheless, oil-rich Venezuela since became a flamboyant exponent of socialism. Its travails should remind us how America’s power is built upon a prosperous economy. Prodigal spending at home and promiscuous intervention abroad are undermining our nation’s economic foundation.

Like most Latin American nations, Venezuela never enjoyed a genuine market economy. After years of misrule, Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez attempted a coup in 1992. He failed, but six years later frustrated Venezuelans elected him president, leading to his “Bolivarian Revolution.” Before his death in 2013 he nationalized industries, provided bountiful social benefits, spent wildly on domestic and foreign ventures, turned the state oil company into a fount of political patronage, and imposed price controls.

Chavez’s successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, is no more competent but less charismatic. Today the economy is in virtual collapse. With oil revenues declining the regime no longer can mask its many failures.

Free Markets Are Popular Where People Need Them

Polls recently have found that millennials have a more favorable view of socialism than older Americans do. Of course, Emily Ekins suggests that those attitudes are likely to fade as they start paying taxes. But I was interested to read this in the Washington Post today:

another Pew poll found that 95 percent of Vietnamese felt that people were better off in a free-market economy.

Wow, 95 percent. Rand Paul should run for president there. Today’s Vietnamese, of course, grew up in a Stalinist political and economic system. Since 1986 the Communist party government has pursued “market economy with socialist direction.” That’s not a Western-style free(ish) market, but it’s a lot better than Stalinist socialism, and the economy has prospered. Sounds like the Vietnamese people want more market, less socialist direction.

U.S. millennials grew up in a market economy, and after the fall of the Soviet Union they didn’t even hear much criticism of socialist economies, so they can support some imaginary vision of “socialism.” Even there, though, Ekins notes that 

millennials tend to reject the actual definition of socialism — government ownership of the means of production, or government running businesses. Only 32 percent of millennials favor “an economy managed by the government,” while, similar to older generations, 64 percent prefer a free-market economy. 

Older Generations Flip-Flopped on Big Government, Will Millennials Do the Same?

National exit polls show that Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has captured many of the hearts and minds of the young Democratic electorate. Fully 70-80% of young Democrats, under the age of 30, are casting their ballots for Sanders over Hillary Clinton in state primaries and caucuses.

Many young people are drawn to Sanders’ vision of Democratic socialism. First, they don’t associate socialism with Soviet-style command and control economies with long bread lines and political repression. Instead, millennials associate the basic concept of socialism with Scandinavia. They like the idea of these countries’ large social welfare programs where government plays an active role in providing for people’s needs. Indeed, young people are the only cohort in which a majority—52%—support a “bigger government providing more services” compared to 38% of Americans overall.

Are young people the first generation to support activist government in their youth? Not in the least.

The Fundamental Fallacy of Redistribution

The idea that government could redistribute income willy-nilly with impunity did not originate with Senator Bernie Sanders. On the contrary, it may have begun with two of the most famous 19th Century economists, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill.   Karl Marx, on the other side, found the idea preposterous, calling it “vulgar socialism.”

Mill wrote, “The laws and conditions of the production of wealth partake of the character of physical truths.  There is nothing optional or arbitrary about them… . It is not so with the Distribution of Wealth.  That is a matter of human institution only.  The things once there, mankind, individually, can do with them as they like.”[1]

Mill’s distinction between production and distribution appears to encourage the view that any sort of government intervention in distribution is utterly harmless – a free lunch.  But redistribution aims to take money from people who earned it and give it to those who did not.  And that, of course, has adverse effects on the incentives of those who receive the government’s benefits and on taxpayers who finance those benefits.

David Ricardo had earlier made the identical mistake. In his 1936 book The Good Society (p. 196), Walter Lippmann criticized Ricardo as being “not concerned with the increase of wealth, for wealth was increasing and the economists did not need to worry about that.” But Ricardo saw income distribution as an interesting issue of political economy and “set out to ascertain ‘the laws which determine the division of the produce of industry among the classes who concur in its formation.’

Lippmann wisely argued that, “separating the production of wealth from the distribution of wealth” was “almost certainly an error. For the amount of wealth which is available for distribution cannot in fact be separated from the proportions in which it is distributed… . Moreover, the proportion in which wealth is distributed must have an effect on the amount produced.” 

The third classical economist to address this issue was Karl Marx.  There were many fatal flaws in Marxism, including the whole notion that a society is divided into two armies – workers and capitalists.[2]  Late in his career, however, Marx wrote a fascinating 1875 letter to his allies in the German Social Democratic movement criticizing a redistributionist scheme he found unworkable.  In this famous “Critique of the Gotha Program,” Marx was highly critical of “vulgar socialism” and considered the whole notion of “fair distribution” to be “obsolete verbal rubbish.”  In response to the Gotha’s program claim that society’s production should be equally distributed to all, Marx asked, “To those who do not work as well? … But one man is superior to another physically or mentally and so supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time… . This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor… It is, therefore, a right to inequality…”  

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