By Michael Rowan
It has been known since the Enlightenment that embracing certainty predicts failure while embracing uncertainty predicts success. This counter-intuitive fact of civilization is staring Venezuela’s suicidal failure in the face.
Embracing uncertainty entails being satisfied with the messy outcomes of trial and error in applying new ideas or tossing them away if they don’t work. Democracy and free markets are political and economic choices embracing relativist uncertainty.
Embracing certainty entails being satisfied with the dogmatic absolutism of sticking to old ideas and defending them even if it kills you. Dictatorship and controlled markets are political and economic choices embracing dogmatic certainty.
Various forms of democracy and free markets have increasingly characterized the world since 1800. Since then, and not by chance, per capita wealth on earth has increased 20 times, population 8 times and life expectancy 3 times. With that much success, one might be tempted to declare “the end of history” as Samuel Huntington seemed to suggest, but that would be wrong.
There is great inequality in the world. For example, the USA contains only 4% of the planet’s population but a whopping 25% of its GDP – but almost all its presidential candidates today say the American Dream is failing! The bottom billion people on earth, living on $1.50 per day, account for 13% of the planet’s population but less than 1% of its GDP; war, disease, poverty and genocide plague the bottom billion.
In the 20th century, the certainties of fascism and communism produced calamities of historical proportions. The absolute certainties of Hitler, Stalin and Mussollini were defeated by the uncertainties of Roosevelt and Churchill’s societies. But Churchill was defeated in Britain’s first post-war election, and Roosevelt’s New Deal is still being contested in US presidential elections 70 years later.
Why is Venezuela collapsing? It was one of the richest nations on earth in 1960, when democracy and markets were evolving, and it still possesses more oil than Saudi Arabia. So why is Venezuela being compared to the basket cases of Syria, North Korea and Cuba?
One answer is that Venezuela did not embrace the uncertainty of democracy and tolerance for opposing ideas after the dictators were deposed in 1958. Another answer is that Venezuela did not embrace the economic uncertainty of sustainability and diversification required to survive in an increasingly globalized market. Both of these have an element of truth.
But the most convincing answer is that Venezuelans became absolutely certain that oil was all the country needed to prevail. This belief arose around the time of the 1973 oil embargo, which was followed by the very popular nationalization of oil and industry, and is still alive and well.
Like any absolutely certain idea, oil dependency is a predictor of national collapse, creating the monster monopolies, secrecy and corruption that sucked the blood out of politics and economics. Indeed, Venezuelan thinkers like Uslar Pietri and Alfonso Perez were writing these words half a century ago, when Venezuela was riding on the top of the wave. But even now, as Venezuelan babies are dying, is anybody listening to what they said? Michael Rowan is an author and political consultant who has advised presidential candidates throughout Latin America, including Governor Manuel Rosales in Venezuela, President Jaime Paz Zamora of Bolivia and President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica. In the U.S., he has advised winning candidates in 26 states. He has been an award winning columnist for El Universal, The Daily Journal -- predecessor to LAHT -- and the Latin American Herald Tribune since the 1990s. He is the author, with Douglas Schoen, of The Threat Closer to Home - Hugo Chavez and the War Against America.