As an immigrant from Latin America, I have found the current presidential election to be both depressing and terrifying — but not for the obvious reason. The negativity in rhetoric concerns me, of course. Yet it pales in comparison to the growing acceptance of socialism, which I thought I left behind in my formerly rich homeland, Venezuela.
Socialism has been the defining theme of the Democratic contest. Bernie Sanders, a self-described “Democratic Socialist,” has come closer to toppling Hillary Clinton than most people thought possible. College students and recent graduates in particular have flocked to his message of a government controlled and directed economy and a cradle-to-grave welfare state.
Although he will likely fall short, Sanders’ success has nonetheless pulled both Clinton and the entire Democratic Party to the left, giving socialism a mainstream pedigree that will undoubtedly affect future elections.
I understand where socialism’s young devotees are coming from. I was a teenager when Hugo Chavez came to power in Venezuela’s 1998 presidential election. Then, my countrymen were disenchanted with our trajectory and demanded a radical change, not unlike millions of Americans today. As a young and idealistic student myself, I was captivated by socialism’s promise of a more equal, fair and just society.
Reality has opened my eyes to just how wrong I was. Venezuela’s 17-year experience with socialism has taught me a number of lessons about its inherent problems and inevitable failure.
Perhaps the most surprising is the role that special interests play in advancing the socialist movement. The traditional argument is that socialism is anti-special-interest — that it will eliminate cronyism and stamp out corruption. The opposite is true.
Entrenched interests, especially the well-connected and the unscrupulous, stand to gain the most in a socialist system. This stems from the simple fact that the rapid growth and centralization of governmental power gives them unprecedented opportunities to rig the system in their own favor. Far from eliminating cronyism, socialism makes it more prevalent.
At the same time, the vast expansion of governmental authority is always accompanied by a corresponding decline in liberty.
Socialism espouses further redistribution of wealth, which may appear to bear fruit in the short-term. However, the effects of undermining private property rights and placing restrictions on economic liberty erode the creation and spread of wealth in the long-term. As this happens, the confiscatory policies initially targeted at the rich and the business community become increasingly destructive and ineffective, leading to their expansion to an ever-larger share of the population.
This necessarily provokes a public backlash as people begin to realize their condition is deteriorating. Naturally, what follows is that those in power seek to hold onto it by curtailing civil liberties. Freedom of speech, press, assembly and others begin to wither away.
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These trends in Venezuela were glaringly evident to me — and increasingly so to the world — by the early 2000s. They forced me to begin asking questions about the nature of socialism, as well as whether another economic system was superior.
I found my answer in America. I came here to pursue an education. From this vantage point, I quickly realized that a system of free enterprise — full of competition, innovation and material well-being — stood in stark contrast to the growing poverty, stagnation and despair in my homeland.
The chasm between my country of birth and my country of choice widened in the following decade. The socialist model of command and control has utterly devastated the Venezuelan people. Overall poverty has skyrocketed from approximately 30% to over 70% over the years — and recent estimates put over half of the country’s 30.7 million people in extreme poverty. Pitifully, socialism’s attempts to control prices and direct the flow of goods and resources have led to shortages of even basic necessities, from food to toilet paper.
That is why America’s new fervor for socialism frightens me. To be sure, the United States in 2016 is a world apart from Venezuela in 1998. Our economy is much more vibrant, even in its current weak state. America also has a stronger tradition of innovation, intellectual inquiry and individualism, all of which have initially lessened the impact of our creeping socialism’s many problems.
But those problems ultimately derive from human nature itself, and human nature knows no borders. In fact, the steady growth of America’s welfare state and government interventionism — different from that in Venezuela in degree, but not in kind — shows that this country is far from immune.
The concept of wealth redistribution is already widely accepted in America, and its popularity has only grown with time. Both economic and personal liberties have declined with the regulatory state’s advance, weakening the nation’s ability to continue its historically unprecedented march of material progress. Special interests and cronies, meanwhile, have become amazingly adept at using the apparatus of government to enrich themselves at others’ expense.
My home country shows where this leads. So do other nations that have tried — and failed — to turn socialist dreams into reality. Like millions of Americans today, I used to have those dreams. I came to the United States after they turned into a nightmare. It frightens me to think what will happen as socialism becomes more popular here. Where else is there to go?
Erick Brimen is founder and partner at NeWAY Capital and is a member of Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce.