Nicolás Maduro is the heir to Hugo Chávez, who was after Fidel Castro the tin-pot dictator most beloved of Democrats in Hollywood and Washington alike, and his government is in the full, mature stage of socialism, which means that opposition leaders are being locked up and forbidden to contest elections.
The New York Times tells the tale of Enzo Scarano, formerly the mayor of San Diego, a fast-growing city west of Caracas. There were protests against the Maduro regime in San Diego, and so the mayor was stripped of his office and thrown in jail for nearly a year. Now, he wants to run for national office, but has been disqualified by the Maduro government. Other prominent opposition figures are being treated the same way.
When Senator Bernie Sanders describes himself as a socialist and his critics point queasily to such socialist experiments as those in Cuba and North Korea, the response is always predictably the same: No, no: democratic socialism. But of course Boss Hugo advanced through the democratic process (when he wasn’t attempting coups d’état) and Maduro’s rule was confirmed in a special election. Perhaps he even legitimately won that election; regardless, he is stacking the deck this time around by ensuring that those who might challenge him are sitting on the sidelines or languishing in prison.
There is more to democratic legitimacy than open ballots truly counted. As the Founders of our own republic keenly appreciated, genuine democratic engagement requires an informed populace and open debate, thus the First Amendment’s protections, which extend not only to newspapers and political parties but also to ordinary citizens, despite the best efforts of Harry Reid and congressional Democrats to trample those rights. (They call this “campaign-finance reform,” on the theory that political communications more sophisticated than standing on a soapbox outside the Mall of America requires some sort of financial outlay.) But Venezuela has been for years cracking down on newspapers, radio stations, and television stations, even as the Maduro regime’s inspirations in Havana have been locking up outlaw . . . librarians.
In fact, the Maduro regime is so terrified of public discourse that it has stopped publishing basic economic data, such as official figures for inflation (estimated to be well in excess of 100 percent), unemployment (high), and economic growth (currently about negative 7 percent, it is thought). Not that Venezuelans necessarily need the statistics to tell their heads what their bellies have already learned: The United Socialist party’s disastrous economic policies have led to acute shortages of everything: rice, beans, flour, oil, eggs, soap, even toilet paper. Venezuela is full of state-run stores that are there to provide the poor with life’s necessities at subsidized prices, but the shelves are empty.
The price of free stuff ends up being terribly high.
Socialism has two relevant features: Central planning of the economy by political powers and the public provision of ordinary goods (as opposed to public goods such as national defense and judicial systems). This is distinct from welfare-state policies such as those found in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Sweden has a large and expensive welfare state, but it has a robustly capitalistic trade-driven economy that in many ways is more free-market than our own, with lower corporate taxes and fewer trade barriers. The difference between welfare programs and socialism is the difference between food stamps and the state-run groceries that were the bane of the common people’s existence in the old Soviet Union and in modern Venezuela. The former is imperfect, the latter catastrophic.
The price of free stuff ends up being terribly high. While Venezuela has endured food riots for years, the capital recently has been the scene of protests related to medical care. Venezuela has free universal health care — and a constitutional guarantee of access to it. That means exactly nothing in a country without enough doctors, medicine, or facilities. Chemotherapy is available in only three cities, with patients often traveling hours from the hinterlands to receive treatment. But the treatment has stopped. Juvenile cancer patients taken by their parents to the children’s hospital in the capital are being turned away because the treatments they need are no longer available. The scene is heartbreaking, but that’s the political mode of thinking: Declare a scarce good a “right” and the problem must be solved, regardless of whether that scarce good is any more plentiful than it was before.
As you could probably have guessed, the Venezuelan government stopped publishing health statistics years ago.
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Margaret Thatcher used to proclaim: “There is no alternative!” She said it so often that her rivals began to abbreviate the expression “TINA” in mockery. But there are two ways — precisely opposite ways — to read that sentence. Mrs. Thatcher meant that there is no alternative in the end to free enterprise, free markets, private property, and liberal institutions. The socialists mean something else: There is no alternative because there is no choice, choice being the one thing a socialist cannot abide. Whether the instance of socialism in question is the Venezuelan economy or an American public-school system is incidental; the basic mechanics are always and everywhere the same. Maduro wants to lock up opposition leaders; the American Left wants to lock up homeschoolers and people who hold dissenting views on climate change.
We will have liberty or we will have reeducation camps. There is no alternative.