The history of socialism in Venezuela is the history of toilet-paper seizures. It would be comical, if it were not so awful for the people stuck living there. The story is a familiar one: The leftist government claims a mandate from the people to reorganize the production and distribution of basic goods, it imposes a plan cooked up by all the best people, the plan doesn’t work, villains are identified, and men with guns are dispatched to murder and rob them. One of the things that Venezuelan socialism cannot manage to produce is toilet paper, which has resulted in a number of seizures over the years. (I recount a number of these tragicomic developments in my Politically Incorrect Guide To Socialism.) Staple foods are often difficult to come by, too, with the government showing an ever-heavier hand to the market.
Today’s seizure in Venezuela wasn’t a move against toilet-paper stockpilers but an assault on Big Sweet, with a distribution center shared by PepsiCo, Nestle, and Empresas Polar (Venezuela’s largest food company) being stormed by soldiers. The government of President Nicolas Maduro has been attempting to centralize the distribution of food in Venezuela under his personal control, and many companies have been less enthusiastic than he’d like about doing business with government-run grocery stores on concessionary terms. Thus, expropriations.
There are two popular presidential candidates in the 2016 race who fundamentally share Maduro’s economic assumptions, and who believe that if only government would muster sufficient will, then global markets could be put under political discipline and made rational, or at least whatever passes for rational among politicians. The first is Bernie Sanders, the confessing socialist who is reasonably forthright about the kind of state planning he would impose on the American economy. He’ll never say that he wants Hugo Chávez-style junta economics—Sanders types always point to Sweden or Norway, apparently unaware of what’s been going on in tax-cutting, debt-reducing, welfare-slashing Sweden in recent years, or how robustly capitalist some of those European welfare states are compared with the muddled United States. (In the current Heritage economic-liberty rankings, Sweden’s business-freedom score is almost the same as that of the United States, and it is ranked higher on property rights and free trade—and much higher on investment freedom and freedom from corruption.) Everybody says they want Sweden; presumably, the people in Venezuela would prefer Sweden, too. Consider the VA system, the IRS, your local DMV, and ask yourself whether American institutions are more likely to produce Swedish outcomes or Venezuelan outcomes under any imaginable central-planning scheme being consider by the populists of the left.
Or the populists of the right. The other candidate in the race who believes that he can run the world economy by remote control from the White House is Donald Trump, who when it comes to trade is every inch the anticapitalist that Sanders is. Sanders has returned the favor by adopting a Trumpkin view of immigration, i.e. that the Koch brothers and various corporate overlords have cooked up an evil scheme to lower American wages by imposing open borders on the country. It is natural, though regrettable, that these issues have become conflated in the minds of some conservatives, inasmuch as open trade and open borders are very different questions, which isn’t too difficult to understand if you can distinguish between people and consumption goods. (NB Planned Parenthood.) But the Trumpkin tendency and the Sanders tendency, like the Chávez-Maduro tendency and the economic thinking of such backwards specimens as Jean-Marie Le Pen and David Duke (who still exists, in case you were wondering), isn’t about solving problems or improving institutions; it’s about identifying enemies to blame for those problems, spurning the complexity of economics for the much more satisfying simplicity of hatred.
The Castroites (who still exist, by the way) like to describe such enemies of the people as “gusanos,” or worms. But that’s Spanish, and American populists befoul themselves when they hear Spanish, and, as noted above, managing the toilet-paper supply exceeds their intellectual capacity.