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The Tyranny of Bad Ideas

September 3, 2018 (996 words)

Daniel Pipes reminds us that Venezuela’s economy, now an unmitigated disaster, was once a thriving example of economic efficiency, due in large measure to the discovery of vast oil reserves in 1914. According to Mr. Pipes the trouble started around 1958, with “government interference in the economy.”

But, he says, things really went downhill when Hugo Chavez became president in 1999. “Socialism might have been a proven failure globally,” Mr. Pipes tells us in “Venezuela’s Tyranny of Bad Ideas” ( Wall Street Journal op-ed, Monday August 27), “but Hugo Chavez convinced Venezuelans to try it.”

The obvious question Daniel Pipes decides not to ask is, why? If things were going so well, why were Venezuelans willing to follow Chavez’s lead into full-blown socialism?

… why change, if things were going so well?

One imagines Mr. Pipes might answer that question by citing “massive social spending programs” undertaken by Chavez “to secure votes.” This is a familiar refrain/complaint of conservatives. But why were such social programs needed? Why was there a ready audience for them?

Not being particularly knowledgeable myself about South American politics in general, or Venezuela’s in particular, nevertheless the basic overview provided by Daniel Pipes is familiar enough to even the casual observer: Hugo Chavez was no prize, and he severely undermined the well-being of the nation he set out to govern.

And let’s face it, “replacing competent professionals at the government-owned oil company with agents, stooges and sycophants,” as Mr. Pipes tells us Chavez obtusely did, is a recipe for business disaster, no matter what one’s overriding political philosophy happens to be.

That Chavez’s daughter was able to accumulate a fortune estimated in 2015, two years after his death, to be a staggering 4.2 billion, is described by Pipes as “being in the grandest socialist tradition.” But is corruption really the special purview of socialists?

Don’t we read almost daily of insider trading, ginning of balance sheets, and sophisticated pirouettes performed around onerous regulation, right here in the home of free market capitalism?

… is corruption the special purview of socialists?

We agree Maria Chavez’s reported nest-egg is a bit excessive, but our leading politicians leave office with pretty good prospects, too, wouldn’t you say?

By all accounts things did go horribly wrong in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez’s leadership. But Daniel Pipes would have us believe an unhinged strongman like Chavez is the inevitable result when “economic freedom” is not given a pre-eminent place in a nation’s affairs, and when, God forbid, “government interferes in the economy.”

Like everyone who reads and writes for the WSJ, Mr. Pipes thinks such freedom always leads to wealth, with the assumption being such wealth is always widespread. But history has clearly shown how the lack of equitable distribution marginalizes a broad swatch of any country’s population, sometimes resulting in outright oppression.

In his op-ed of August 27, the Harvard educated Daniel Pipes, who serves as president of the Middle East Forum, demonstrates a rather muddled view of that history.

… demonstrating a muddled view of history

“Bad ideas have always existed, but they acquired new importance with the advent of liberalism in the late 17th century. Before then conservatism – respecting tradition while adapting it to new circumstances – had prevailed.”

“An individual king’s or religious leader’s besotted vision could progress only so far before convention rolled it back. Liberalism rendered tradition optional by optimistically deeming each person capable to think through the great issues from first principles on his own.”

Wow, what a hodge-podge.

To begin with, the “liberalism” Mr. Pipes bemoans would more accurately be described by its proper name, “classical liberalism.” This is the ideology which ushered in the modern age, more or less with the Renaissance. What defines it and us, above all else, is our insistence on individual emancipation from tradition and custom, from law and authority.

Contrary to what Pipes asserts, what pre-dated “classical liberalism” was not “conservatism,” but rather Catholicism. It was not some idealized sense of conservatism that maintained a respect for tradition all those years, and kept society moored to experience and common sense prior to the dastardly French Revolution, but rather the Catholic Church.

The reason writers like Daniel Pipes and publications like the WSJ no longer recognize this history is because he and it are part and parcel of the great rejection of tradition that is a hallmark of modernity, the legacy of classical liberalism.

… sons of modernity always misread the true arc of history

The liberal/conservative dialectic that dominates the thought process of men like Daniel Pipes is a relatively new development, not any sort of historical constant.

Today’s conservatives were the first to benefit economically from the new freedom inspired by classical liberalism. The improvement in material circumstances was the direct result of abandoning the old, Christian ethic of “love they neighbor as thyself” in favor of the new, Enlightenment ethos of “every man for himself.”

They sought not so much to protect some hallowed tradition, as today’s conservatives are wont to claim, but the new rules of engagement that yielded heretofore unimaginable profit. They sought to quarantine those often unsavory profits from the grubby little hands of the unwashed masses.

Today’s liberals were formed in the 19th century, when writers and others began to push back against the economic exploitation of those same masses.

When considering Venezuela’s dire economic situation, the eternal enemy may indeed be socialism, but the antidote is not unfettered capitalism.

Our popes have been saying and writing as much ever since Leo XIII kicked off Catholic social teaching for the modern world in 1891. And every single pope since Leo has taken up the cause and elaborated upon it, adapting the teaching to new circumstances.

Maybe Daniel Pipes should consider converting to Catholicism. If he did, it would provide him access to a broader perspective when analyzing current economic problems.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
September 3, 2018

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