For those Americans who loathed their own country’s role as a beacon of freedom, the appeal of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez was irresistible. Following in the footsteps of other Western pilgrims who had trooped to the Cuban prison of Fidel Castro or to Joseph Stalin’s Soviet empire to praise these gulags as the face of the future, people like Oliver Stone and Sean Penn dutifully embraced Chavez. They liked his childish rants about George W. Bush and helped burnish the myth that he was a true man of the people even as this caudillo suppressed freedom and built a cult of personality. Chavez’s death hasn’t changed this, and in the last day we have heard more blather about populism and his concern for those in poverty. Predictably, the leftists at The Nation are eulogizing him as a humanitarian. Joseph Kennedy showed why he wasn’t up to carrying on the legacy of the previous generation of his family by also mourning the Venezuelan strongman as a caring individual.

There is nothing to be done about those who will applaud anyone who hates America. Such sentiments are nothing more than adolescent rebellion masquerading as political opinion. But the claim that Chavez deserves credit for helping the poor is worth taking down, if only because this issue carries within it a lesson that applies to democracies as well as to authoritarian states like the one he created in Venezuela. The tradition of tyrants trying to buy the love of the masses with government money is as old the Roman Empire. It often pays immediate dividends to the person handing out the goodies, but people who think they are getting something for nothing always suffer in the end.

Chavez is still celebrated in some sectors for confiscating the property of oil companies and using much of that wealth to fund projects and services for the poor. Playing Robin Hood never goes out of style. Chavez enjoyed the role immensely and built himself a cult bought and paid for with state money. Traditional urban political machines in the United States worked on the same principle. Taking money from one set of people and giving it another larger group is good politics. But the Tammany Halls of the world always come to grief because the culture of “where’s mine” cannot be sustained indefinitely. Sooner or later, thug governments run out of people to fleece to pay off their followers. That’s true even for a government funded by seemingly limitless oil wealth like Venezuela.

The Chavez regime prospered on the notion that there is such a thing as a free lunch, and those who ate at his table continue to believe that there was no price for his largesse. Those who have justified and supported every dictator or totalitarian system through history have made the same wrongheaded calculation. What they fail to understand is that the giveaway of government goodies at the price of condoning theft of property and denial of rights ultimately penalizes even those who believe they are the beneficiaries of the scheme. Venezuelans now have a country without a true free press, independent judiciary or elections that can be considered genuine expressions of democracy. And they have an economic system that will ultimately fail because it is not based on the rule of law.

Concern for the welfare of the least fortunate is an obligation of all societies. But there is a vast difference between genuine social justice and a strongman doling out favors to his followers. Ultimately, socialism is organized theft, and even when executed with the panache of charismatic thugs like Chavez it is a system that is predicated on the denial of freedom by those who pose as its defenders. Those who play that game, whether mafia dons, tin pot dictators or legendary thieves, are good topics for fiction. But no decent or thinking person should ever mistake them for humanitarians.

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