A thousand gleeful obituaries have been written for "Kansas' failed experiment" with Gov. Sam Brownback's tax cuts. But if Kansas' economy provides a cautionary tale for supply-siders on the right, then Venezuela provides an even more stark warning for socialist sympathizers on the left.
Last weekend, president Nicolas Maduro used a sham election to consolidate power, and by Tuesday armed thugs were rounding up opposition leaders. This is the all but inevitable outcome of the Venezuelan government's economic policies, which have driven the richest nation in Latin America—a country with more oil than Saudi Arabia—into shocking destitution.
Basic necessities such as diapers, toilet paper, and toothpaste have become rare luxuries. Infant mortality has skyrocketed, and is now higher in Venezuela than in Syria. Inflation has reached an annual rate of 700 percent. The government has responded by "scrambling to print new bills fast enough to keep up with the torrid pace of price increases," as Bloomberg noted a year ago, which of course has only made the problem worse.
As have price controls. "The government sets price caps on some basic food items, such as pasta, rice and flour," The Washington Post reported last month. "But those items can usually be obtained only by standing in lines for hours or by signing up to receive a subsidized monthly grocery box from the government with enough to feed a family of five for about a week. … The proportion of Venezuelan families in poverty has soared from 48 percent to 82 percent. … Fifty-two percent of families live in extreme poverty … and about 31 percent survive on two meals per day at most."
Defenders of the government blame falling oil prices. Funny thing, though: While many nations depend on oil revenue, only Venezuela has sunk to such depths. Maybe the problem lies elsewhere.
And make no mistake: Venezuela's government has had not just defenders, but outright cheerleaders. We're not talking about just the usual Hollywood idiots like Sean Penn and Michael Moore, who praised Venezuela for providing "free health & education 4 all."
Supposedly serious people, from "Shock Doctrine" author Naomi Klein and leftist heartthrob Jeremy Corbyn to Democratic Rep. Jose Serrano, also sang its praises—although they have fallen conspicuously silent of late. Not so for others: On Tuesday "Red" Ken Livingtstone, a former mayor of London, blamed the country's current problems on one simple fact: "Hugo Chávez did not execute the establishment elite."
It may come to that, if popular unrest continues and Maduro grows even more desperate.
Venezuela's descent into socialist hell was entirely predictable. Friedrich Hayek predicted it three-quarters of a century ago, in "The Road to Serfdom." And Darío Paya, former Chilean ambassador to the Organization of American States, succinctly described the metastasis of economic dictatorship to complete dictatorship just about a year ago:
"Populists and socialists destroy their societies in predictable ways. It's not like one day a populist gets up and says, 'I'm going to ruin this country.' Rather, he starts out wanting to spread the wealth and finds that the easiest way to hand out cash is by simply printing lots of it. Which creates a new problem: As the currency weakens, prices rise. But the populist finds there's an answer for that too. If bread is getting expensive, he can fix its price, and he gets to vilify the baker as a greedy capitalist.
"But then the baker stops producing bread because he can't afford to make it, what with the rising price of flour. And so what does the populist do next? He fixes the prices of flour. When that doesn't work, the politically expedient thing to do will be to take over the bakery and the farms and hand them to the folks in the party's local committees, who prove to be rather less apt at farming and baking. …
"And if violence does erupt, it can be denounced as the doing of enemies of the state and used as a pretext for renewed crackdowns: 'We're going to tell the imperialism and the international right that the people are present, with their farm instruments in one hand and a gun in the other,' Maduro told a Caracas crowd. And soon, Mr. Populist finds himself with a good reason to suspend the country's constitution. Thus does a tyrannical attitude toward the shop-owner selling bread lead to a tyranny over a whole nation."
There, in three paragraphs, is the grim history of Venezuela over the past two decades. It should be everyone's fervent hope that the country's socialist government dies quickly—before more of its people do.
This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.