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Hugo Chavez and American Conservatives and Liberals

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I’m having a good time reading the reactions of American liberals and conservatives to the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Their reactions to Chavez’s death provide a window into the statist mindset that has brought such serious maladies to the United States.

Consider, for example, an op-ed entitled “In the End, an Awful Manager” by Rory Carroll, which appears in today’s New York Times. After detailing the enormous economic mess in Venezuela, Carroll’s thesis is summed up with both the title of his op-ed and this quote by a senior official in Venezuela’s state-owned oil company: “Chavez doesn’t know how to manage.”

I don’t know whether Rory Carroll is a liberal or a conservative, but I can be sure of one thing: He’s no libertarian. How do I know that? Because it’s clear from his op-ed that he embraces the idea of a state-managed or presidentially managed economy, something that both liberals and conservatives endorse but that is anathema to libertarians. His beef is simply that Chavez turned out to be a bad manager of the economy.

Wasn’t that the main point of dispute in the presidential contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney? Did they battle over civil liberties, foreign policy, the war on terrorism, torture, assassinations, foreign interventionism, sanctions, embargoes, and the drug war? No, because they were in agreement on all those things. Their big battle throughout the campaign was over which one of them would be a better manager of the economy. That’s why both of them continually bent over backwards throughout the campaign to convince Americans that they would be the better job-creator-in-chief if elected president.

What Carroll obviously fails to understand — indeed, what conservatives and liberals fail to understand — is that Venezuela’s dismal economic conditions are not due to poor presidential management but instead to the very concept of a state-managed or presidentially managed economy. That’s the problem. It’s not a question of electing a better economic manager. It’s a matter of separating the economy and the state — i.e., prohibiting the state and the president from managing the economy. In other words, the secret to economic prosperity, especially for the poor, is to leave people free to manage their own economic affairs without governmental interference, regulation, or management.

That’s the libertarian position. Alas, however, it’s clear that neither conservatives nor liberals are ready for it. Like Chavez, they have been so inculcated with the notion that there would be chaos and crises if the market truly were free of government control that they simply cannot break free of their statist mindset. All too often, the result is that they’re unable to recognize that the chaos and crises that a state-managed or presidentially managed economy produces is the direct result of the statist paradigm under which they are operating. Instead they end up blaming “free enterprise” or “capitalism” for the economic problems.

I think I feel sorrier for conservatives than I do for liberals. That’s because it’s increasingly clear that so many conservatives want so desperately to be like libertarians but they just can’t bring themselves to let go of the statism that grips their hearts and minds. For example, conservatives’ favorite mantra is “free enterprise, private property, and limited government.” Yet, they cannot let go of their undying allegiance to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies, FDIC, public housing, corporate bailouts, public schooling, foreign aid to dictators, and virtually every other aspect of the welfare state.

At the same time, even while repeatedly exclaiming against “big government,” another favorite conservative mantra, conservatives cannot bring themselves to let go of their fierce commitment to the vast U.S. military establishment, overseas empire of bases, CIA, foreign interventionism, sanctions, embargoes, torture, assassinations, kidnappings, regime-change operations, the drug war, and the entire Cold War national-security state apparatus that is the very embodiment of “big government.”

In their hearts conservatives know that we libertarians are right in calling for the dismantling and repeal of all these socialist, interventionist, and imperialist programs. Deep down, they know that there is no way to reconcile their favorite mantras with their unwavering commitment to the welfare-warfare state, but they just cannot bring themselves to place their trust in freedom, free markets, and limited government, as we libertarians do.

In one sense, liberals have a much sounder grip on reality than conservatives. Conservatives have convinced themselves that America’s welfare-warfare state constitutes “freedom and free enterprise.” Liberals seem to know better.

Consider, for example, an op-ed that appears in today’s Guardian entitled, Hugo Chavez Kept His Promise to the People of Venezuela” by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera. Extolling the welfare-state programs that Chavez brought to Venezuela, the author writes, “It could be compared to the levelling spirit of a kind of New Deal combined with a model of social change based on popular and communal organization.” That link to the Wikipedia entry on Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal is Guardiola-Rivera’s, not mine.

You see, in their hearts liberals know that FDR revolutionized America’s economic system by converting it into a socialistic welfare state. That’s why they feel sympathetic toward socialists like Chavez and Castro. They understand that they share the same economic philosophy as Chavez and Castro — one that involves using the government to equalize economic conditions by using the state to confiscate the wealth from those who have more and giving it to those who have less — and that uses the power of government to regulate, control, and manage economic activity.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that American liberals love the fact that Castro and Chavez provided their people with “free” education, health care, housing, and retirement benefits. In doing so, liberals seem to know that such programs are socialistic in nature.

Now, consider the Wall Street Journal’s editorial on Chavez today, which exclaims, “Yet when the Chávez era finally drew to a close Tuesday with his death from cancer at age 58, life for Venezuelans had only become worse. As life stories go, the lesson of Chávez’s is to beware charismatic demagogues peddling socialist policies at home and revolution abroad.”

The problem that conservatives have, however, is that while they can recognize welfare-state programs as socialistic when they’re embraced by foreign countries, they simply cannot bring themselves to accept that such programs are socialistic in nature when they’re adopted by the U.S. government. So, while conservatives love “free” government-provided education, health care, housing, and retirement benefits as much as liberals do (and Chavez and Castro did), at the same time conservatives love going around singing to themselves, “Thank God I’m an American because at least I know I’m free” or praising the troops who are killing people thousands of miles away for protecting our “free enterprise system.”

Moreover, conservatives take great pride in teaching their children that Roosevelt’s New Deal actually “saved free enterprise” rather than abandoned it. They also love teaching their children that Franklin Roosevelt was one of the greatest American presidents, even while they condemn such foreign rulers as Castro, Chavez, and Chile’s Salvador Allende, who did nothing more embrace and expand Roosevelt’s New Deal philosophy and programs in their respective countries.

So, why do conservatives despise Chavez and Castro? Not because of their economic philosophy but instead because those rulers refused to kowtow to the U.S. national-security state. If Chavez and Castro had subordinated their countries to the control of the U.S. government and had become loyal supporters of what the U.S. military and CIA were doing in foreign countries with sanctions, invasions, occupations, regime-change operations, support of dictators, kidnappings, wars of aggression, torture, and U.S. foreign interventionism in general, conservatives and U.S. officials would be fighting to be first in line at Chavez’s funeral to show their condolences. But because Chavez, like Castro, stood up to the U.S. government and openly condemned its giant warfare state, they became pariahs in the minds of both conservatives and U.S. officials and, in fact, targets of the U.S. national-security state itself.

The economic mess that Chavez leaves in Venezuela should be a lesson to Americans of the economic horrors that come with a welfare state and a managed economy and, for that matter, with a warfare state. Why continue moving down the road to statism when the United States could instead be leading the world out of the morass by embracing libertarian principles?

 

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Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.