May 09, 2006

The dangers of populism - Or what the people want is not always beneficial

From bookwrom

It should be no surprise by now that populism has always been a fundamentally left-wing phenomena. Indeed, just looking around the world to see which countries call themselves “people’s republics” should be evidence enough of that. Throughout history, populist movements, no matter what their ideological origins, ineluctably devolve into socialist enterprises—and most of them start out that way. Right now, we’re witnessing the growth of classically populist movements across Latin America. The president of Bolivia just last week essentially appropriated the nation’s oil and gas reserves. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez has been posing as the voice-of-the-people-made-flesh for years now as he systematically dismantles the market economy in explicit homage to Fidel Castro. In America, Populists have invariably championed socialistic policies. The Populist Party—also called the People’s Party—pushed for the nationalization of railroads and other industries, and demanded “popular” control over natural resources. (You can peruse the U.S. Populist Party’s 1892 platform here. Note its call for mandatory unionization, the seizure of lands from corporations and “aliens,” and the nationalization of the telephone companies.) Father Charles Coughlin and Huey Long were explicitly socialist (though they didn’t always use the word) in their economic policies. Patrick Buchanan’s move toward populism coincided with—indeed, required—a steady rejection of free market principles (see Ramesh’s “A Conservative No More”).

From the mobs storming Versailles to the Banana Republic dictators seizing the oil fields, populist programs have been based as much upon grasping envy and narcissistic resentment of those who “think they’re better than us” as on any sort of principle. It’s not just that populist arguments are most often arguments in name only. They are sharp rhetorical sticks poked in the eye of those with little to lose and much to gain by overturning the board when the rules work against them. Individual responsibility gets lost in a swamp of whininess about what others “owe” the people. When Homer Simpson ran for sanitation commissioner, he captured the populist pose perfectly: “Animals are crapping in our houses and we’re picking it up! Did we lose a war? That's not America! That's not even Mexico!”

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