Paul Jacob

Dictators are made, not born. And one was just made in Venezuela. In late January, President Hugo Chavez was granted 18 months to rule by decree. The word of one man — law.

Who granted him that power? The Venezuelan National Assembly.

Unanimously.

Note both the extremity and the unanimity. Of course, there are hordes of Venezuelans on that side, too. They’ve democratically given up on democracy.

When President Bush publicly worried about the situation in Venezuela, Chavez went ballistic in his usual fashion, excoriating his “devil”; yes, he claimed to be more worried about the “dictatorship” of George W. Bush, and Bush’s alleged threat to democracies around the world.

Regardless of one’s view on the Iraq War, the former Ba’athist regime was certainly no democracy. And though I find a great deal to disagree with concerning this president’s expansive view of presidential power, it is not Mr. Bush who has 18 months to rule by decree, rule by his word and edict alone, without working through Congress.

Chavez is, in a sense, the ultimate free man (in the “positive liberty” sense, as a liberty conceived without limits), free to do anything theoretically possible. It’s the rest of Venezuela that’s less free, as a result.

Chavez looks at it differently. “The people gave me the power I have, and it’s within the framework of a constitution.”

Look, I’ve not read Venezuela’s Constitution. I’ll leave that to the Venezuelan people themselves. But I can say, with confidence, even as I relax in a chair thousands of miles north, that a constitution that permits a dictatorship has something severely wrong with it.

Indeed, Americans — left, right and center — often complain about their own government’s incursions beyond its proper sphere, our government’s steps towards dictatorial governance. We even criticize our own Constitution, too. And the courts that interpret it.

The key to politics is freedom. The freedom to discuss, disagree, debate. The enemy? As always, dictatorship. And that’s precisely what has been set up in Venezuela.

Why? I’m sure there are many reasons. But let’s not forget the prime one: socialism.

With vast oil wealth to expropriate, socialism is understandably tempting in Venezuela. After all, socialism is no good at running a whole economy, but as an advanced form of kleptocracy it can provide a little fun for a spell.

And Chavez is an unabashed socialist, which has made him the darling of many on the Left in America, and in Europe. And for years we’ve all heard America’s leftists deny any ties to tyranny — leftists are for the little guy, after all! — but they still manage to go gaga over tyrants like Chavez’s buddy, Fidel Castro. And for Chavez himself.

Another socialist has become a dictator — more proof of socialism’s direct connection to tyranny. The Venezuelan legislators gave Chavez his special powers so that he could enact sweeping reforms. Socialism is so sweeping that it is almost impossible to accomplish by the cumbersome, limited method of political representation.

Dictatorship is just so much more “efficient.”

And the Soviet style of Chavez’s agenda seems fairly clear. If all Chavez were up to was taking “no less than 60 percent” of oil revenues from the oil industry “partners” that elect to stay in country, why the dictatorial powers? Britain and other social democracies in Western Europe managed to extort such chunks of wealth (and ruin their industries in the process) without quite resorting to such drastic means.

Chavez should be an embarrassment to all who lean left. And yet his defenders sometimes go to great lengths to defend him. I particularly admire the effrontery and numbskull sociology that Chavez’s challenge calls up in the ruminations of one Joseph P. Kennedy II, founder of Citizens Energy Corporation.

“Before we accept the characterizations of him as a socialist threat to our way of life, we ought to look at our own country,” Kennedy wrote in December. He describes America’s current system as, “ironically, a system of socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor.”

Oh, nonsense and poppycock. America’s flirtation with socialism has led to government regulations and thievery and nannyism at pretty much every level. To say that it is uniformly a “socialism for the rich” and freedom for the poor is idiotic.

And it’s beside the point anyway. Freedom is better than coercion, and socialism is society-wide coercion with the state unfettered by its citizens’ liberty.

In ancient Rome, the Senate periodically granted limited terms for dictators, in times of crisis. But, after Caesar, the limited terms became moot, as Rome congealed into an empire.

We’ll see how long Chavez dictates. But note: he’s already come out against his own term limit.


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.