It would be fascinating if not so dismaying that so many of our celebrities who believe that being actors or singers means we should care what they think about world affairs have such poor taste in foreign leaders.
Earlier this month aging bad-boy actor Sean Penn traveled to Venezuela, exulted that he had discovered “a great country” and cuddled up to Venezuelan president and self-styled socialist Hugo Chavez, who sees himself as the successor to Fidel Castro and counts Iran’s holocaust-denying Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a close ally.
So how does the estimable Sr. Chavez reward this touching display of affection? Last week he proposed sweeping constitutional reforms that would allow him to be caudillo-for-life, end autonomy for Venezuela’s central bank and increase the power of government to expropriate private property without bothering with pesky old courts.
His stated goal is consolidating power so that what he calls Venezuela’s capitalist system “finishes dying” to make way for full-fledged socialism. The Penns of the world fall for promises of “positive rights” like health care and education for all, but they miss two points: that fulfilling those promises requires seizing resources from others, thus violating their rights, and that those rights, which are sometimes called “negative” rights — to be free to make choices for our own lives, not have all kinds of choices made for us by a powerful government — are what allow us to define and fulfill ourselves as human beings.
And so, Chavez’s increasingly blatant power grabbing suggests that what floats his boat is not so much helping the poor — and certainly not about individual freedom — as consolidating power.
One can certainly understand people being critical of the United States and the war in Iraq. Why this leads to a desire to admire thugs in other countries is an enduring puzzle.
Despite his attempts to forge an anti-U.S. coalition in South America, his childish taunting and even his oil wealth, it would be a mistake for the U.S. to dignify Hugo Chavez with actions designed to counter him. He has been able to subsidize allies because of Venezuela’s oil resources, but that won’t last forever.
As the late economist Ludwig von Mises demonstrated long ago, the Achilles heel of socialism is that without prices based on the free interplay of supply and demand, there is no reliable way to calculate how to allocate resources. And sure enough, since the Venezuelan oil industry was nationalized earlier this year, reports of failure to invest in enough drilling and exploration have proliferated. So Chavez is likely soon enough to wreck the industry that has until now underpinned his power.
Maybe Sean Penn will host a telethon for him then.