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Venezuela’s Tyranny of Bad Ideas

Ideas run the world. Good ones create freedom and wealth; bad ones, oppression and poverty. You are not what you eat, but what you think.

Politicians in particular fall under the sway of ideas. As John Maynard Keynes put it, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. . . . It is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.”

The story of Venezuela makes this point with singular clarity….

Bad ideas have always existed, but they acquired new importance with the advent of liberalism in the late 17th century. Before then, conservatism—respecting tradition while adapting it to new circumstances—had prevailed. An individual king’s or religious leader’s besotted vision could progress only so far before convention rolled it back. Liberalism rendered tradition optional by optimistically deeming each person capable to think through the great issues from first principles on his own.

Radical theories proliferated, especially during the French Revolution. The floodgates were opened for ideas unmoored from experience and common sense, such as conspiracy theories. These ideas incubated through the 19th century and came to terrible fruition after World War I with fascism, Nazism, socialism and communism. As historian Paul Johnson notes, “The worst of all despotisms is the heartless tyranny of ideas.” 

The roll call of tyrants who have imposed their own philosophies over the past century is depressingly long, including Mussolini, Lenin, Stalin, Tojo, Hitler, Ho, Mao, Kim, Nasser, Pol Pot, Mugabe, Assad, Saddam Hussein, Khomeini, and Chávez. They fully understood their own game; as Stalin reportedly observed, “Ideas are more powerful than guns.” Each one devastated his fiefdom. ...

Read entire article at WSJ