No Human Saviors

by Don Boudreaux on February 8, 2007

in Politics

Strongmen in power promise hope, audaciously.  Someone glaring into the camera, insisting that he or she will lead the People’s struggle against oppression and unfairness and "social injustice" and greed is often a gripping and moving sight.  Many people want to believe such persons.  It’s so easy!  Just sit back, relax, and let powerful Mr. Charisma handle problems, much like Superman solves problems in the movies.  Bad guys beware!

Thinking more about the economic and social catastrophe that today is Zimbabwe, and reviewing some of the New York Times‘ coverage of Robert Mugabe upon his accession to power in that country 27 years ago, I’m struck by the foolishness of the enthusiasm that people have for power-mongers.

The sour fruits of Mugabe’s policies are now being harvested.  And yet — judging from this December 2006 essay in The Nation – some people learn nothing.  The essay’s author, Chesa Boudin, is captivated by, as he describes it, the “proven track record of [Venezuelan Hugo] Chávez’s ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ and its gains in alleviating poverty.”

On what basis does anyone conclude that power concentrated in the hands of Hugo Chavez will be more wisely and benevolently used than it is used in the hands of anyone else, from Julius Caesar through Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot to Kim Jong-Il, Fidel Castro, and Robert Mugabe?  Does Mr. Boudin truly believe that Chavez is making genuine progress in improving the lot of ordinary Venezuelans?  Does he suppose that whatever "progress" might have been made up until now will not be proven to be paid for with oppression and deeper poverty in the future?  Does he imagine that Chavez, unlike any other tyrant who has ever managed to capture more than a sliver of power, is different?

Why do so many people long for human saviors?  I suspect that people want to believe – a desire so powerful in so many persons that such persons blind themselves to the most obvious facts of history and the most obvious features of human nature.

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ChristianCB February 8, 2007 at 10:54 am

I know how you feel. I've tried to point to history, but it just about never works. Oh well.

Sam February 8, 2007 at 12:34 pm

Human adaptation to tribal environments has left many with positive emotional reactions to, um, those at the top. Unfortunately, we have not evolved much in this regard. Man is primarily an emotive creature.

Andrew T February 8, 2007 at 12:41 pm

Great post. Unfortuneately, that mindset is quite prevalent and applies to just about any person in power, e.g., the notion of FDR leading America out of the Depression when he merely prolonged it, or the idea that W can somehow win a war on terrorism.

Randy February 8, 2007 at 12:43 pm

Because when the most probable method doesn't work, the brain has no problem with trying out ever less probable connections in search of a method that will work. The real problem is that what does work does not seem to a great many brains as a most probable method. The free market is a method of taking advantage of greed, but the default for the brain is envy, and it therefore assumes that taking advantage of greed is a less probable method. The solution is to reprogram a whole lot of brains. This may take some time.

Lee February 8, 2007 at 1:02 pm

I think a key point is that no matter how well-intentioned Chavez might be now, the political selection pressures will push him toward ever more damaging policies. If Chavez manages to never fold under the pressure, he'll eventually be booted out of office and replaced with someone with fewer scruples.

This is quite apart from the damage he'll do even in his well-intentioned phase (assuming he is), simply because his policies are based upon fundamental errors which will lead those he rules to ruin.

Nate February 8, 2007 at 1:22 pm

I understand Chavez wants to distribute wealth, but that wealth has to be created first. Sure, he's sitting on a gold mine for a while in that he can claim credit (and will likely get credit) for the oil fields he's lucky enough to be living above. But will oil be nearly as valuable by the time Chavez is Castro's age? Like any other totalitarian state, the suppression of creative production will eventually come around to bite Chavez's govt too.

LisaMarie February 8, 2007 at 2:16 pm

Real quote, from real professor whose class I was in:
"Free markets do nothing to help the poor. Their benefits do not trickle down. A government must control the commanding heights of the economy to help the poor."
People want that powerful person who says "yes, I can do that." They want someone they really believe can exercise that much power. Only that kind of power and control of the "commanding heights" can save the poor, not this fuzzy, nebulous thing called "the market." As long as people believe that, they will keep looking for these saviors.

olivier blanchard February 8, 2007 at 2:42 pm

Octavian and Kennedy managed to pull it off pretty well. Good leaders happen. Rarely, but they happen.

Ubermensch February 8, 2007 at 2:43 pm


Just out of curiosity, was the professor who spouted that sentiment from a humanities department? It never ceases to amaze me just how omniscient a person becomes once he/she obtains a Ph.D. in English. Me? I teach collegiate philosophy. But when people ask, I proudly exclaim that I'm an anti-humanities humanities prof.

flix February 8, 2007 at 2:57 pm

Chavez is taking Venezuela on the Road to serfdom, so far he hasn't missed a single stage.

Reading Hayek and looking at Venezuela, one really wonders how he could predict so accurately

Maybe Chavez is using the book as a step by step guide…

Patrick R. Sullivan February 8, 2007 at 3:37 pm

'Octavian and Kennedy managed to pull it off pretty well.'

The Kennedy who started the Vietnam build-up (after okaying the assassination of that country's leader)?

M. Graham February 8, 2007 at 5:00 pm

Sadly, most highly educated people can be highly educated fools. It is baffling that an individual with BA, BS, MA, MBA, PHD, JD, or any other abbreviated title that follow his or her name willfully dismiss historical or intellectual evidence. There is a large amount literature that have been written about the failure of socialism, statism, and militarism.

Any intellectual, scientist, or thinker, that purposely dismiss or disregard evidence against the aforementioned, either is intellectually challenge or doesn't value truth. A person can be educated and at the same time be a educated fool.

Aschkan February 8, 2007 at 5:14 pm

Beef and sugar shortages in Venezuela. I hold out hope that the problems that plagued 20th century socialism are actually exacerbated by the lower cost of and additional access to information flow. Moreover, I like to think that these improvements in market transparency will make the comparative downward slide of venezuela that much faster. Not because I wish bad things upon the nation, but because I hope they will be able to throw off the shackles before they lose a decade or two.

kurt February 8, 2007 at 8:17 pm

Comparing Venezuela to Zimbabwe, I think Venezuela still has a reasonably sized middle class. I cannot imagine they let Chavez get away with this, unlike the Zimbabweans in the case of Mugage.

RWP February 9, 2007 at 1:24 am

This is stinking indictment of human stupidity.

Mike February 9, 2007 at 9:15 am

This from the AP today:

"CARACAS, Venezuela – Meat cuts vanished from Venezuelan supermarkets this week, leaving only unsavory bits like chicken feet, while costly artificial sweeteners have increasingly replaced sugar, and many staples sell far above government-fixed prices.

President Hugo Chavez's administration blames the food supply problems on unscrupulous speculators, but industry officials say government price controls that strangle profits are responsible. Authorities on Wednesday raided a warehouse in Caracas and seized seven tons of sugar hoarded by vendors unwilling to market the inventory at the official price."

The worst part is that people in my state (the People's Republic of MA) really like him because he cares about America's poor by selling them oil on the cheap. They have never stopped to reflect that our standard of living, even among the poor, far outstrips many in Venezuela, and that this is a huge slap in the face to the poor in that country.

Some savior.

Andrew T February 9, 2007 at 12:30 pm

Unfortunately, there are many who don't see through the euphamisms and smoke and mirrors generated from tyrants, as per an official Venezuelan news release.

"Socialism of the XXI century is directed from below. It is not the state that will be omnipresent in planning everything that happens in the Venezuelan society. People participate in adapting their own concrete local plan, the same way as we have seen with the formation of the community councils."

"The law is part of the «Five Motors» aimed at driving Venezuela towards what Chávez has termed «Socialism of the 21st Century» were first announced in early January during the swearing-in of Chávez’s new cabinet. The first motor is the «enabling» law, the second is around constitutional reform, the third, «morals and enlightenment», activated yesterday, involves a change in the educational system, while the fourth motor, «the new geometry of power» deals with the reconfiguration of state power, and the fifth motor relates to the explosion of communal power in the Communal Councils."

"The centralisation of power in the figure of Hugo Chávez by the formation of the Unified Party and the Enabling Law must be seen as transitional. The government facilitates citizens to take over the power"

"Strategical means of production should belong to the state. The ownership of all the strategic activity should be taken over by the state. The exploitation of oilfields and mines and the generation of fundamental primary products should be in the hands of the state. Air and water cannot be privatized per definition."

To top it off this was from an e-mail from a Chavez supporter who also thinks of himself as an activist for peace!

Vicki February 9, 2007 at 6:06 pm

You may find it interesting and of some explanatory insight that Chesa Boudin is the son of Weather Underground members Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert. He was adopted by Weather Underground members Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers when his parents were imprisoned.

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