Three years ago, a well-known American leftist, David Sirota, wrote the following in a Salon essay titled Hugo Chavez’s economic miracle,
Chavez became the bugaboo of American politics because his full-throated advocacy of socialism and redistributionism at once represented a fundamental critique of neoliberal economics, and also delivered some indisputably positive results… When a country goes socialist and it craters, it is laughed off as a harmless and forgettable cautionary tale about the perils of command economics. When, by contrast, a country goes socialist and its economy does what Venezuela’s did, it is not perceived to be a laughing matter – and it is not so easy to write off or to ignore.
By morning, three newborns were already dead. The day had begun with the usual hazards: chronic shortages of antibiotics, intravenous solutions, even food. Then a blackout swept over the city, shutting down the respirators in the maternity ward. Doctors kept ailing infants alive by pumping air into their lungs by hand for hours. By nightfall, four more newborns had died… The economic crisis in this country has exploded into a public health emergency, claiming the lives of untold numbers of Venezuelans.
As much as I would like to enjoy rubbing Sirota’s nose in his own mind-bending stupidity, I cannot rejoice for I know that Venezuela’s descent into chaos – hyperinflation, empty shops, out-of-control violence and the collapse of basic public services – will not be the last time we hear of a collapsing socialist economy. Looking into the future, it is safe to predict that more countries will refuse to learn from history and give socialism “a go”. And, I am equally certain that there will be, to use Lenin’s words, “useful idiots,” like David Sirota, who will sing socialism’s praises until the moment when the last light goes out and time comes for them to move on and find something else to write about. And that begs an important question: considering that socialism has failed wherever it has been tried, why do we persist in trying to make it work?
First, we evolved in small groups. We knew each other and were, probably, related to each other. In a world without specialization and trade, gains by one group, “us,” tended to come at the expense of another group, “them.” That makes it difficult for us to understand and appreciate gains from complex economic activities, such as global trade.
Second, like many other animals, we have evolved to form hierarchies of dominance. And, like other animals, we resent those at the top and form coalitions to displace them. Our resentment of hierarchies includes not only zero-sum hierarchies, like dictatorships, which channel resources to the top, but also positive-sum hierarchies, like corporations, which improve human lives.
Third, the “social nature of hunting and gathering, the fact that food spoiled quickly, and the utter absence of privacy,” Will Wilkinson writes, meant that “the benefits of individual success in hunting or foraging could not be easily internalized by the individual, and were expected to be shared. Envy of the disproportionately wealthy may have helped … those of lower status on the dominance hierarchy guard against further predation by those able to amass power.”
This article was first published in CapX.