The world became a slightly better place last week with the passing of Venezualan dictator / clown Hugo Chavez.
This piece from the Atlantic nicely summarizes the case, though I would argue that it is both a bit too kind to Chavez and that it overstates the differences between Chavez and other initially popular leaders who gradually morphed into oppressive and ridiculous dictators, such as Mussolini, Castro, Mugabe and so on. Chavez was only the latest iteration of what is, or at least was until the last decade or so, pretty standard governmental fare in many parts of the world.
More broadly, Chavez does a nice job of illustrating the tensions inherent in the common, but imprecise and incorrect usage of "democracy" to mean both a system of government with elected leaders and a system of government that allows some reasonable amount of freedom to its subjects, along with some amount of security of person and property from the depradations of the state. Though Chavez won repeated re-election, his system was not democratic in the sense just described. Prior to its own linguistic corruption, liberalism would have been a better term than democracy to capture what the second meaning just described. For liberalism in that sense, elections are neither necessary, as in colonial Hong Kong, nor sufficient, as Chavez illustrated. Indeed, there is a constant tension between electoral populism of both right and left (and they are usually not so different in the end) and the freedom and security of a liberal regime.
Or, one can pass on the niceties and just quote H.L. Mencken: "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."
Addendum: a very nice piece from Megan McArdle
Who was my favorite student this term?
10 months ago