Saturday , August 17 2019

On backing Chavez

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I was impressed to see Ian Dunt say he was wrong to have supported Hugo Chavez. Everybody makes mistakes: the difference is that some people have the insight to see that they do and the integrity to admit it. What’s striking in this context is just how many mistakes many leftists made in supporting Chavez: I’m speaking here of all leftists, not just Ian. I don’t just mean the common errors of wishful thinking and the “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” fallacy that results from the tribalism Ian decries. What also happened was base rate neglect. Put it this way. Looking across history, what proportion of political leaders have been heroes? I doubt it’s been as high as even 1%: on the left, martyrs are more common than heroes. An application of Bayes’ theorem would therefore have told us

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I was impressed to see Ian Dunt say he was wrong to have supported Hugo Chavez. Everybody makes mistakes: the difference is that some people have the insight to see that they do and the integrity to admit it.

What’s striking in this context is just how many mistakes many leftists made in supporting Chavez: I’m speaking here of all leftists, not just Ian.

I don’t just mean the common errors of wishful thinking and the “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” fallacy that results from the tribalism Ian decries. Chavez

What also happened was base rate neglect. Put it this way. Looking across history, what proportion of political leaders have been heroes? I doubt it’s been as high as even 1%: on the left, martyrs are more common than heroes. An application of Bayes’ theorem would therefore have told us that even if Chavez had possessed many of the characteristics of a heroic leader it would have been unlikely that he would have become one.

It is of course not just about Chavez that leftists have made this mistake. From Lenin through Che Guevara to Aung San Suu Kyi the left has done a Bonnie Tyler and held out for a hero  - who tuned out to be a disappointment.  

There is, however, another error at work here – a failure to grasp ground truth. The success or failure of a political project depends not upon its moral righteousness but upon whether material conditions on the ground permit it. You should not therefore have supported Chavez unless you had a good understanding of Venezuela’s economy and society. Which of course many leftists did not. Too many political partisans are too quick to adopt opinions without doing the necessary research – which is understandable as you can make a nice living writing opinion columns by doing so. (If you think this is a snark at Owen Jones alone you of course are wrong).

Heroes are scarce, but what is more common is the emergence of the right people in the right place: men (it’s usually men) of both virtues and vices who are in a position where their strengths are needed and their weaknesses are not decisive. Whether Chavez was such a man depended therefore on the precise circumstances of Venezuela’s political economy – something very few Brits were expert in.

Marxists, however, had good reason to be cautious about Venezuela. Marx thought the transition to socialism was most likely to occur not in middle-income nations but in advanced ones:

New superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.

And in the German Ideology he wrote:

Development of productive forces...is an absolutely necessary practical premise [for communism] because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced.

Premature revolutions, he thought, would end in failure. This was one of his predictions he got right.

One reason for this is a paradox of inequality: vicious inequalities of the sort seen in much of Latin America make egalitarianism more desirable but also mean that it meets fiercer opposition. In an attempt to overcome this, leftist parties often become illiberal and hierarchical.

Another reason, though. Lies in a point made (pdf)  by Chad Jones. It’s that poorer societies tend to be more fragile. The failure of a particular industry or even single power plant or port can do horrible damage whereas wealthier societies are better networked and more resilient (except perhaps to banking crises!) This means policy failures are much more costly. There’s less room for error. Given that leftists – being human – are likely to make errors this means the chances of failure are high.

Leftists, then, were wrong to back Chavez. But of course, the mistakes here are not confined to them. The right and centre have made them too – for example in thinking that shock therapy in Russia would create a liberal market economy or that the overthrow of Saddam would create peaceful liberal democracy in Iraq. And the same mix of wishful thinking and hero worship that led leftists to support Chavez has led rightists and centrists to back countless corrupt “strong men”.

Yes, the left has been wrong. But many rightists who call them out on it are guilt of massive bad faith. As I said, everybody makes mistakes.

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