Dictatorship won’t help social improvement plan

Editorial

The Venezuelan National Assembly confirmed what has been in the works for more than a month: President Hugo Chavez, an avowed socialist who sees Cuban dictator Fidel Castro as his role model, has been handed virtually unlimited power to rule by decree for the next 18 months.

This new era of what Chavez calls “maximum revolution” will feature virtually unlimited presidential power to transform the economy, reconfigure the structure of government and redistribute the country’s vast oil wealth. The former paratroop commander has said he will use the law to nationalize the country’s largest telecommunications company and the electricity industry, and slap new taxes on the “rich.”

He has made it clear he plans to revoke the license of RCTV television, which was so uppity as to oppose his policies and, government officials say, support a short-lived, unsuccessful coup against him in 2002.

Chavez will be able to dictate unspecified measures to transform banking, tax, insurance and financial regulations, decide on security and defense matters, including gun regulations, and “adapt” legislation to ensure “the equal distribution of wealth.”

And, oh, yes, presidential term limits will be abolished, so Hugo Chavez can rule for life.

Let’s assume for a moment that Chavez sincerely believes a socialist order, in which government owns or controls most of the means of production, will really be a better society, especially for Venezuela’s poor — despite the poor performance of virtually every experiment in socialism.

The fact that he also believes a single man (presumably allwise, with unparalleled vision) needs unbridled power to bring about this new-old model suggests that socialism is a long way from being a natural way for society to organize itself.

Can a social order that needs to be imposed from above by force, without such trifles as legislative deliberation and debate or judicial review, be beneficial for long? Or is it more like a justification for the desire all too many leaders have to gather unlimited power unto themselves and not be bothered by such inconveniences as a viable opposition?

Two observations are pertinent. The first is that Chavez could not dream of setting up such a system unless Venezuela sat on a huge pool of oil. Capitalism in other countries has made that resource valuable enough that the government will have money to paper over the inevitable inefficiencies and other consequences of destroying the incentive to be productive.

The second is that a reaction is already setting in. As the Washington Post reported,

“The line forms every day after dawn at the Spanish Consulate, hundreds of people seeking papers permitting them to abandon Venezuela for new lives in Spain. The people say they are filled with despair at President Hugo Chavez’s growing power, and they appear not to be alone. At other consulates in this capital (Caracas), long lines form daily.”

To be sure, in Venezuela, as in many Latin American countries, there are entrenched wealthy classes of “crony capitalists” who have long felt entitled to run things. As Venezuela will soon find out, however, replacing them with entrenched bureaucrats and a dictator is no formula for social improvement.