Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has won his quest to abolish the constitutional barrier against his running for reelection when his term expires in 2013. Last Sunday, Venezuelan voters approved the measure, which had gone down to defeat only 14 months earlier.
The irony in all this is that both Republicans and Democrats honestly believe that the election results show that the Venezuelan people are free. They believe that democracy equals freedom. After all, isn’t that the claim they make about Iraq — that by bringing democracy to Iraq, they have brought freedom to the Iraqi people?
The truth, however, is that even though they are free to elect their president, the Venezuelan people are far from being free. One reason for this is that Chavez has embraced a socialist and interventionist economic system for Venezuela.
Suppose you were a slave on a 19th-century plantation in the Old South. The political system is such that all slaves have the right to elect their taskmaster. Thus, every four years there are democratic elections in which various candidates run for plantation taskmaster. Each of them curries favor with the voters and explain why he’ll be the best, fairest, kindest taskmaster ever. They promise the slaves guaranteed job security, free meals and housing, and total equality. On election day, you and the others slaves head to the polls to cast your vote. The winner is announced.
Would you consider yourself free? Of course not. Even though there is a democratic system in which the slaves are free to elect their taskmaster and an economic system in which you are taken care of, you would nonetheless be a slave.
Thus, the real issue is whether a person who lives in a socialist, interventionist economic system can be considered free. The standard U.S. Democrat would agree with Chavez — that the more power the government has over people’s economic activity and resources, the freer they are.
But as any libertarian would tell you, that’s sheer nonsense. When government has the power to determine the size of your earnings, dictate whether you will be able to earn a living, tell you how you’re going to run your business, decide the disposition of your money, there is no way that you can be considered free.
As the Americans who founded this country understood, freedom entails the right to keep everything you earn. That’s why they rejected income taxation.
It entails the right to decide what to do with your own money. That’s why they rejected welfare, including Social Security and Medicare.
It entails the right to engage in any occupation or profession. That’s why they rejected occupational licensure, even for doctors, lawyers, and shoe shiners.
It entails the right to run your business the way you want. That’s why they rejected economic regulations, including minimum-wage laws and prohibitions against hiring foreigners.
It entails sound money. That’s why they rejected a central bank and paper money and embraced a gold standard.
The economic problem that the American people are facing right now is no different, in principle, than that which the Venezuelan people are facing. The only difference is that in Venezuela, there is more socialism and interventionism than there is here in the United States, which is why there is more poverty and misery in Venezuela.
But make no mistake about it: If American socialists continue having their way, the United States will soon be catching up. Look at what they are now proposing — nationalizing the entire banking industry! Wasn’t it just a couple of months ago that they were claiming that their multi-billion socialistic bailout plan would be all that was necessary to save the financial system? Yet, now they’re saying that the solution is to put the banks under the control of the federal government. Pardon me, but isn’t that the same entity that runs the Postal Service, the monopoly enterprise that won’t dare permit competition?
What we are witnessing is what the economist Ludwig von Mises warned us about — that interventionism produces crises, which then serve as the excuse for more interventions, until the point is reached when the government owns and controls everything. Of course, that’s the ultimate dream of every socialist. But as the people of Cuba, North Korea, and China will tell you, for the people living under pure socialism it is an absolute nightmare.
Hugo Chavez’s ability to run for office indefinitely should cause Americans to reflect on the principles of freedom. Democracy provides a means to peacefully change regimes. But it is insufficient, especially when it serves merely as a way to elect one’s dictator. As our American ancestors understood, a free society also entails the rejection of socialism and the embrace of economic liberty.