Noah, my 10-year-old son, was reading over my shoulder a powerful story about the state of medicine in Venezuela by Nick Casey in Sunday’s New York Times. We scrolled through images of filthy operating rooms, broken incubators and desperate patients lying in pools of blood, dying for lack of such basics as antibiotics.
“Dad, why are the hospitals like this?”
I told him it’s an economic system in which the government seizes and runs industries, sets prices for goods, and otherwise dictates what you can and cannot do with your money, and therefore your life. He received my answer with the abstracted interest you’d expect if I had been describing atmospheric conditions on Uranus.
Here’s what I wish I had said: Socialism is a mental poison that leads to human misery of the sort you see in these wrenching pictures.
The lesson seems all the more necessary when discredited ideologies are finding new champions in high places. When Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez died in 2013, an obscure U.K. parliamentarian tweeted, “Thanks Hugo Chavez for showing that the poor matter and wealth can be shared. He made massive contributions to Venezuela & a very wide world.”
The parliamentarian was Jeremy Corbyn, now leader of the Labour Party.
Let’s not stop with Mr. Corbyn. In its day, Chavismo found champions, apologists and useful idiots among influential political figures and supposed thought leaders. In Massachusetts there were Joseph P. Kennedy and Rep. Bill Delahunt, who arranged a propaganda coup for the strongman by agreeing to purchase discounted Venezuelan heating oil for U.S. consumers. The Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel extolled Chávez for defying the Bush administration and offering “an innovative four-point program to renew and reform the U.N.”
Up north, Naomi Klein, Canada’s second-most unpleasant export, treated Chávez as heroically leading the resistance to the forces of dreaded neoliberalism. Jimmy Cartermourned Chávez for “his bold assertion of autonomy and independence for Latin American governments and for his formidable communication skills and personal connection with supporters in his country and abroad to whom he gave hope and empowerment.”
And so to the U.S. election, specifically the resolutely undead presidential candidacy of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The Sanders campaign is no stranger to accusations that its brand of leftism is cut from the same cloth that produced Chavismo.
“Yesterday, one of Hillary Clinton’s most prominent Super PACs attacked our campaign pretty viciously,” Mr. Sanders complained in September, noting that they “tried to link me to a dead communist dictator.”
The senator protests too much. As mayor of Burlington, Vt., in the 1980s, he boasted of conducting his own foreign policy, including sister-city relations with Puerto Cabezas in Nicaragua and Yaroslavl in the Soviet Union. On a 1985 trip to Nicaragua, he lavished praise on Daniel Ortega’s communist regime—Chavismo’s older cousin.
“In terms of health care, in terms of education, in terms of land reform . . . nobody denies they [the Sandinistas] are making significant progress in those areas,” then-Mayor Sanders told one interviewer in 1985. “And I think people understand that and I think the people of Nicaragua, the poor people, respect that.”
If Mr. Sanders ever rethought or recanted those views, I’m not aware of it.
But the point isn’t what Mr. Sanders may have thought of the Sandinistas in the 1980s or the Chavistas in the past decade. It’s that the type of socialism that the senator espouses—$18 trillion in additional government spending over the next decade, accusations that Wall Street is a criminal enterprise and the continuous demonization of “millionaires and billionaires”—is not all that different from its South American cousins.
Democratic socialism—whether Chavez’s or Sanders’s—is legalized theft in the name of the people against the vilified few. It is a battle against income inequality by means of collective immiseration. It is the subjugation of private enterprise and personal autonomy to government power. Mr. Sanders promises to pursue his aims on the Scandinavian model, as if that was a success, and as if Americans are Scandinavians. It wasn’t. We aren’t. Bernie’s Way paves the same road to serfdom that socialism does everywhere.
That’s a fact Americans might have learned after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. We didn’t. Take the time to tell your kids what socialism is, and does, before they too feel the Bern.