Skip to comments.Rousseau in the Tropics
Posted on 07/22/2009 9:56:17 AM PDT by Titus Quinctius Cincinnatus
It's good, occasionally, to take a trip down memory lane. It helps to put things into perspective.
Hugo Chavez ought never to have been elected president. By rights, he ought to be growing old in a jail cell somewhere. Well, it's been seventeen years, maybe hed be in a half-way house by now. As an army officer in 1992, he led a military revolt against the legal, constitutional government of Venezuela, and attempted to overthrow the democratically elected president of the time, Carlos Andres Perez.
He gambled that once the shooting started, the minister of defense and the rest of the army would join him, but he miscalculated. They remained loyal and the coup failed.
This ought to have put him behind bars for life if not earned him a trip to the gallows for treason. A lot of good men died thanks to his little rebellion, they numbered in the hundreds.
But the natural political philosophy in Latin America is populism. It manifests itself in various flavors: populist-left, populist-right, populist-fascism, populist-socialism, populistmilitarism, but in the end, it's populism. Chavez' populist military revolt made him an instant hero, and all of the populist revolutionary wannabes in Venezuela's political solar system immediately jumped all over themselves to claim the populist mantle from this colonel who had suddenly gone from an unknown to the most famous man in the country, despite the fact that he was sitting in a military jail.
They proceeded to try to implement the kind of crazy populist economics that can be guaranteed to destroy an economy, taking control of the banks, seizing businesses, all of them trying to be more Chavez than Chavez himself, and in so doing they destroyed the economy of the country. Then they let Chavez out of jail with a full pardon which allowed him to enter political life. Then, after an extended vacation where he met with the FARC guerrillas (and we now know he was on FARC's payroll) and with Moammar Khadaffi, he launched his run for president.
He pointed at the country's now-ruined economy and told his followers that the fault lay with what he called "neo-liberalism", his name for a free economy. Never mind that Venezuela had never had a free economy, and that what prosperity they had known had been destroyed by the very policies Chavez was promising more of.
It's important, I think, to recognize that what Chavez was promising was really nothing new. It was the same thing they had always had, except more of it and harder.
He promised to throw out the constitution and write a new one.
Also, he promised to fire the Supreme Court and the Congress, both, as his first act in office.
And the day he took office, that is exactly what he did. From the podium on inauguration day he suspended the constitution, and fired the Supreme Court, and fired the Congress.
And the punchline of this story is this: he fired them in his first speech as president, and they all packed up their offices and went home. He suspended the constitution in his inauguration speech and no one said boo.
In any mature country, in any country with any understanding of the rule of law, that could not happen because the Justices of the Supreme Court would know that they can't be fired by a mere president. The Congress itself would know that they answer to their constituents, and not the president. He could "fire" them all day long and it would have no effect at all in law or in reality.
But that's not what happened. They packed it in on his command. Why?
Two reasons. One, in a populist country, they believe more in the "will of the people" than they do in rule of law. Secondly, Chavez already had his mobs out in the street. It's easy to mistake a mob for the "will of the people", especially when it is physically dangerous for you to do otherwise. The congressmen were physically in fear for their safety and made no effort to resist. When the "will of the people" stands between you and your parked car, it's an easy decision to make.
What they ought to have done, but did not do, was to stand their ground and defend the constitutional order. They ought to have ignored Chavez' illegal orders, and the moment he attempted to implement them, they ought to have impeached him and removed him from office. By what power does a mere president overturn a constitution? He has no such power. He has only the power of the mob, and the power of an almost universal philosophical error that says that the "will of the people" trumps mere pieces of paper such are constitutions.
The result of their dereliction of duty is that Chavez is president for life, and has been president for life since the day he took office. He will not leave office alive. He has ruled by decree since his first day in office. You've read in the press about his efforts to get a law passed allowing rule by decree? The reporters need to do their homework. He has never not ruled by decree. He has ruled by decree from day one.
He wrote his own constitution, handpicked his own Supreme Court (and threatened to arrest them when they didn't do as they were told), packed the Congress with his people, and then got them to issue a law almost from the first day allowing rule by decree to save him and them the trouble of having to rubber stamp decisions they were going to rubber stamp anywise. They issued it because he was ruling by decree.
This is what Rousseau's "rule of the people" looks like, for anyone paying attention.
One of the great political and philosophical divergences of all time is the split between John Locke, father of classical liberal constitutionalism, and Jean Jacques Rousseau, father of just about everything else.
It's not much of a debate, as it turns out, because John Locke's view won out really only in the United States, and there only just barely. It hangs on like a grumpy, graying old man that won't go away but nobody really wants him around anymore. Rousseau has won, hands down, quite simply because he has got the better line of patter.
Both men sold "liberty", but there the similarities end. Locke's liberty was rooted in the rule of law. It was the right to be left alone. Men would band together when necessary to solve larger problems but otherwise would respect one another's right to be left alone. No grand projects. Nothing to get the blood pumping. Just the right to pursue your own personal projects, your own personal destiny unmolested by bandits or kings, either one.
Rousseau's will of the people is much sexier. And a lot more flexible than you might think. What is the will of the people? It's whatever they want. And what if they don't want what they ought to want? Then someone must rule who understands their will better than they do.
That's where guys like Chavez come in. The people want what they want and they want it now. And Chavez is going to give it to them good and tough, whether they like it or not.
If you are a Lockean, a classic liberal in other words, you can see a dictator coming a mile away. But if you believe in the will of the people, it's not so clear. You'll be had, time and time again and you still won't be able to defend yourself because you have no clear bright line to tell you who is a dictator and who is merely a revolutionary hero who embodies the will of his people.
That was one of the most astonishing spectacles in Venezuela when Chavez made his run for president. The old established parties imploded, they could not find anyone to oppose him because - get ready for another punchline - deep down they all agreed with him. Populism, especially with a socialist flavor, runs deep. Constitutions and elections are nice but - and this was the basis of the coup in the first place - if they get in the way of the will of the people, they can be dispensed with. Promise economic justice, which is to say, a command economy, and his equally populist opponents will go weak in the knees every time.
If your roots are in Locke, liberty is your touchstone, liberty rooted in law. It keeps things clear. Let go of that focus, and nothing is clear anymore. Is democracy paramount? Then what do you do when democracy is used to take your freedom? How do you see it coming, and how can you defend against it? If a dictator takes the trouble to stuff ballot boxes from time to time, does that inoculate him from any legal opposition?
Not if you keep your focus on liberty. Not if your focus is on rule of law.
This last week we've seen the spectacle of yet another country coming under Chavez' pressure. Since becoming "president for life, he has organized rebellions in Ecuador and Bolivia, and Chavists are in power there. He has funded a military rebellion in Peru which failed, and now there is an indigenous uprising similar to the ones that led to success in Ecuador and Bolivia. Chavez supported Ortegas return to power in Nicaragua. He came within an inch of putting his ally into power in Mexico. And now he has turned his sights on Honduras and El Salvador.
In Honduras, out-going president Zelaya announced his intention to change the constitution to allow himself to remain in power after his term of office expired. After repeated rebuffs from the judiciary, he led a mob into a military base and seized blank ballots for his illegal constitutional referendum. The ballots had been supplied, of course, by Chavez.
The Supreme Court issued a warrant for his arrest, and the Congress appointed a congressman from the presidents own party to finish out his term, and they gave Zelaya the choice of jail or exile. He chose exile, but has been making the rounds of any capital or embassy that will give him a hearing. He has succeeded in selling the notion that his impeachment and arrest was a military coup even though the military did not take control of anything and the new interim president was elected almost unanimously by the Congress.
What happened is what ought to have happened ten years before in Venezuela. The moment Chavez announced his intention to terminate the constitution, certainly the moment he took his first concrete move in that direction, there ought to have been a warrant issued for his arrest and he ought to have been sent back to the prison cell they ought never have released him from in the first place.
This was a contest between rule of law and the will of the people as embodied by a mob and a would-be caudillo. Rule of law won this time, and in Latin America that strikes people as unnatural. It is unnatural there, which is why history there tends to go in circles. Until the underlying philosophy changes, history will always tend to repeat itself over and over, around and around again. Chavez is right in line with Venezuelas nineteenth century dictators on horseback. There is nothing new about him, he is a throwback to a day they thought they had left behind.
Zelayas ouster makes Obama nervous. Hes a Rousseau guy too, he thinks he embodies the will of the people at least in the epic movie in his mind. And the image of a president being impeached and arrested by order of the Supreme Court strikes him as a really bad precedent.
Actually, thanks for posting this piece. Unfortunately, such a reasoned critique is lost in the sturm und drang of today’s so-called culture.
Wow! What an incisive, informative essay!
What a splendid essay-post! My thanks to marron for such an insightful and informative piece!
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