There is no bigger threat to economic freedom than an authoritarian government. It destroys property rights and economic incentives. It crushes the pillars of entrepreneurship and makes it practically impossible for people to make an honorable living on their own. Gradually, an authoritarian government destroys free-market capitalism, and when the destruction has reached a critical point the most obvious economic result is the inevitable decline in the standard of living for all.
Misery replaces opportunity. Poverty replaces prosperity. Government dependency replaces self determination.
There is nothing new in this. The history of the 20th century is filled to the brim with evidence of the destructive effects of authoritarianism, including its devastating power to destroy well-functioning economies and the prosperity they produce. It would be logical to conclude that we have learned the lessons of the Soviet empire, of the collapse of collectivist economic projects in Latin America and of the slow but unrelenting stagnation of Europe’s welfare states.
You would expect that those lessons would be loud and clear, available to everyone.
Unfortunately, that is not the case. Socialism is on a worldwide rebound. It is not new: already eight years ago I warned about the resurrection of communism in Europe. At that time it was a topic that nobody really paid any attention to. This is understandable. The economy was in pretty good shape, both in the United States and in Europe – in other words there was no reason to worry about depression-driven support for extremism of the kind we can witness in Europe today. The terror attacks of 9/11 were in fresh memory, as were the attacks in London in the summer of 2005. The only extremism that made its way into the public debate had an islamist trademark.
Nevertheless, my warning was timely. Communism and its ideological affiliates have been on the rise for a long time. After a decade in disarray following the fall of the Soviet empire, socialists regained strength and confidence after 9/11. In addition to their support for Saddam Hussein’s regime and opposition to any efforts to topple it, they started lining up their political assets in parliamentary democracies to advance their ideology on democratic terms. In the mid-2000s, the global left was becoming politically savvy thanks in part to idolized authoritarians like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
Today, socialism has made dangerous inroads on several fronts around the world. The socialist power structure that Chavez put in place is still in charge of Venezuela, and perhaps even more radical now than under his reign. The “Chavista” version of Latin American socialism has spun off at least two other authoritarian leaders in the region, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. In a separate but parallel advancement of socialism in Latin America, Cristina Kirchner has driven Argentina into the same ditch on the left side of the road as the gentlemen Chavez, Morales and Correa have done with their countries.
In Europe, the last few years of serious economic crisis has pushed large groups of voters into the arms of socialist parties. It is a remarkably broad phenomenon that has made Chavez-admiring Syriza one of the largest parties in Greece; it led to the sweeping French socialist election victories a couple of years ago; in September it will probably carry the surging left-wing coalition in Sweden to a strong election victory (on a message that the world’s highest taxes are not high enough!).
Even the nationalist movement in Europe is a form of socialism. Hungary’s Fidesz and Jobbik adhere to the same economic collectivism as do Golden Dawn in Greece, Front National in France and an assortment of smaller, nationalist parties in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Denmark and Sweden. The difference between socialists and nationalists in Europe is, essentially, that the former want to expand the welfare state with no inhibitions while the latter want to reserve the services of the welfare state for the people of their individual countries, and not share them with immigrants from – primarily – Africa and the Middle East.
(Disclaimer: UKIP, Britain’s patriotic movement, is basically a libertarian party. They are opposed to the welfare state and to immigration aimed at living off it, but unlike continental and Scandinavian nationalist parties they also want to ultimately dismantle the welfare state. As such they are rather alone on the European political scene. Now back to our regular broadcast.)
The rebound of socialism is not limited to Europe and Latin America. The Obama administration was carried into office by a warped belief that government can take care of people from cradle to grave. Obama and his fervent supporters soon found that Americans still have a strong sense of individualism and skepticism toward government as a partner through life. It is fair to say that on a broad scale, Obama’s aggressive statist agenda has peaked and so has collectivism in America. The question is how we as a country will downsize government, and whether or not it will happen on fiscally sustainable terms.
Others are not so lucky. South Africa is a good example. After two decades of European-inspired welfare statism, South African voters have grown a bit weary of the ANC. Their hold on power is not yet in jeopardy, but it has weakened in recent years. As I have explained in numerous articles, the reasons for this weakened support for the ANC are obvious to any sober observer of the South African economy. Poverty is pandemic among black South Africans and has slowly but steadily spread to colored and white South Africans as well. Unemployment and crime have become permanent phenomena, especially – but not exclusively – in the large areas of the country that still live in abject poverty.
Despite 20 years of promises, the ANC has delivered precisely what socialism always delivers: decline, deprivation and despair. As a result, many South Africans are turning to alternative political movements, and one of the first to capitalize on this is Julius Malema. The former president of the ANC’s youth league has formed his own political movement, an outright communist party that pervertedly calls itself the “Economic Freedom Fighters”. Here is some of what they want to do to South Africa:
A supposition that the South African economy can be transformed to address the massive unemployment, poverty and inequality crisis without transfer of wealth from those who currently own it to the people as a whole is illusory. The transfer of wealth from the minority should fundamentally focus on the commanding heights of the economy. This should include minerals, metals, banks, energy production, and telecommunications and retain the ownership of central transport and logistics modes such as Transnet, Sasol, Mittal Steel, Eskom, Telkom and all harbours and airports.
They have similar plans for agricultural land, with the intent to redistribute it from current owners and users to others, ostensibly based on racial preferences. The miserable consequences of land expropriation in Zimbabwe have apparently not deterred them. Nor has the economic disaster created by Chavez in Venezuela, where government has gotten itself involved in everything from utilities to the production and distribution of food. Not surprisingly, Julius Malema, South Africa’s premier communist, wants to do the same.
A communist government is just about the last thing South Africa needs. By the same token, Europe is absolutely not in any need of more collectivist policies. Latin America’s socialist experiments must end now, so the continent can reap the harvests of its full economic potential under economic freedom.
Currently, much of the global socialist rebound is currently flying under the radar of freedom-minded scholars, activists and politicians. Let’s hope that changes.