Lessons in politics and economics are never learned, at least not so that they never have to be learned again. But few countries are so impervious to experience as Venezuela, the country with the largest oil reserves in the world.
This gift of God has been turned into a curse; for whenever the price of oil goes up, the government distributes largesse by means of subsidy to the populace (though not, of course, without considerable defalcation or malversation on its own part). Whenever the price of oil goes down the subsidies have to be withdrawn, either by means of price rises or general shortage. Either method results discontent, conflict and a political crisis; and then scapegoats have to be found by whoever is in power. The Venezuelan pendulum swings between hubris and paranoia.
But it would be wrong to think that such ineptitude is confined to Venezuela or the Venezuelans. We have it in Britain, too, though perhaps to a less marked extent. Nor are the educated of Europe immune from the kind of intellectual error that, when acted upon, results this injurious dialectic. Being in France recently, I read the following in Le Monde about the situation in Venezuela:
Foreign exchange control, inaugurated in 2003, and,
paradoxically, price control, are responsible for shortages
of foreign exchange and basic commodities.
What I found strange in this sentence was the word paradoxically, as if it were the first time in the history of the world that price controls had led to shortages, parallel markets and price rises. One might as well write ‘paradoxically, the sun rose this morning in the east.’
Once, however, you think that the shortages, parallel markets and price rises are paradoxical, you naturally start looking for scapegoats to explain them: the speculators, shopkeepers, hoarders, and – above all – the political opposition. (This is not to say that there are never any real plots, especially in countries with weak traditions of political tolerance.) The inevitable effects of one’s own policies are then projected on to others, and paranoia increases both among friends and enemies. This is a fine atmosphere for the promotion of political violence.
How is it possible that Le Monde, a newspaper for the most highly educated part of the French population, could allow the use of the word paradoxically in such a context? Error, I suppose, springs eternal in the human mind, even error that was repeated yet recognised as such in Roman times.
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