March 12, 2013

Thoughts on the Death of Hugo Chavez


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died last Tuesday after battling cancer. He was a famous and beloved critic of capitalism. But he was no ordinary critic. According to Chavez, “I have always said … that it would not be strange that there had been civilization on Mars, but maybe capitalism arrived there … and finished off the planet.” We must be careful, he warned his listeners during a March 2011 speech [1]. “Here on planet earth, where hundreds of years ago or less there were great forests, now there are deserts.” In other words, the earth is becoming like Mars and capitalism is doing it again.

Of course it would be very strange if Mars had known civilization at all. And it would be a peculiar sort of person who suggests, without any evidence whatsoever, that Mars may have been converted into an uninhabitable desert by capitalism. But there it is – a phenomenon of our time. Here is the confession of a man who was irrationally obsessed with anti-capitalism. Talk of Mars and Martians in this context is one of those weird digressions by which we may glimpse the intensity of a man’s hatred for something he probably never understood.

In 2009, during a speech to the Copenhagen conference on climate change, Chavez explained his position: “There is a group of countries that consider themselves superior to us in the South, to us in the Third World, to us, the underdeveloped countries … the crushed countries, as if a train ran over us in history.” According to Chavez, “One could say … to paraphrase Karl Marx, the great Karl Marx, a specter is haunting the streets of Copenhagen, and I think that specter walks silently through this room, walking around and among us, through the halls … [and] Capitalism is this specter….”

The philosophy of Chavez is shared by millions throughout the world. “The rich are destroying the planet,” he said. “Do they think they can go to another when they destroy this one?” But the capitalists do not imagine any such thing. There is no immediate threat to the planet. There is, however, a threat to capitalism itself. As Chavez noted, “Socialism, the other specter Karl Marx spoke about, which walks here too, rather it is like a counter-specter. Socialism … is the path to save the planet…. Capitalism is the road to hell, to the destruction of the world.” A few paragraphs later Chavez offered a declaration of war on capitalism when he said, “History calls on us to unite and fight. If capitalism resists, we are obliged to take up a battle against capitalism and open the way for the salvation of the human species.”

It is a great shame that a man who is worshipped as a savior, whose death is mourned by millions of people, should have been so lamentably misinformed. Decades ago, it was Friedrich Hayek [2] who wrote of the economic ignorance of the intellectuals and politicians. 

These could not understand how capitalism nourished “the existing multitudes of human beings….” According to Hayek, the sentiments of someone like Chavez serve only to “thwart the development of the most effective organization of production, and to encourage the false hopes of socialism.” And, indeed, we can see the result of Chavez’s policy on Venezuela itself. The country is a shadow of its former self. The economy has been ruined by socialism, freedom of speech has been attenuated, and corruption has advanced on all sides. Yes, a corruption far more insidious than anything produced by capitalism.

“Ignorance of the function of trade,” said Hayek, “which led initially to fear, and in the Middle Ages to uninformed regulation, and which only comparatively recently yielded to better understanding, has, then, now been revived in a new pseudo-scientific form.” It may be said, in good conscience, that Chavez was a representative of this “form.” He was therefore an opponent of freedom, a builder of dictatorship, and a financial dunce. For when the state intervenes in the market the resulting economic crisis is hardly the fault of capitalism.

Real capitalism is an organic growth. It is something which the state invariably hinders. Those who manage money privately are not a menace to society. According to Hayek, “The history of government management of money has, except for a few short happy periods, been one of incessant fraud and deception. In this respect, governments have proved far more immoral than any private agency….” And that is true whether we consider the lot of the poor or stewardship of the environment. Chavez imagined himself a liberator. In reality, he was a destroyer of opportunity.

And so we note the passing of Hugo Chavez. He was a man who brought misfortune upon his country. Had he lived longer he might have come to see the error of his ways. “The disdain of profit,” noted Hayek, “is due to ignorance….” It is a sad thing to die before one’s time, and sadder still to die in ignorance.