Venezuela is an unfolding story of the chaos resulting from government intervention in economic affairs. President Maduro faces a political crisis, and violent protests pose real threats to his desperate attempts to retain power. The economy is collapsing in front of our eyes, but the real tragedy is not the macro indicators that we read about daily: soaring inflation rates, increasing unemployment numbers, nonexistent consumer goods, and crashing oil prices. The real tragedy is that the innocent citizens of Venezuela suffer and that suffering is the new normal.
The Maduro administration continues to believe that it can use policy to assuage the angst of the citizens who cry out against him and the policy wreckage under which they suffer. In a last-ditch effort to “help” people, Maduro raised the Venezuelan minimum wage by 60% and offered free apartments to those who are displaced. This is the 15th minimum wage hike enacted by Maduro since he took office in 2013, and while the increase sounds nice on paper, the new wage amounts to just under $50 per month — hardly a windfall.
Not only is this paltry income insufficient for surviving, let alone thriving, it occurs against the backdrop of out-of-control inflation that the IMF predicts to soar above 1600% this year. Every hour of every day, the bolivar is worth less and less, stealing from citizens their ability to buy basic goods and services and forcing them into the black-market economy.
There is no magic policy wand
F.A. Hayek understood the nature of market activity. It is the organic process of exchange among individuals guided by prices, profits, and losses in the context of the institutions of property rights. As such, economies cannot be directly controlled by experts, technocrats, or dictators.
The economy is not a jigsaw puzzle that we are trying to solve. The economy is a dynamic process of discovering new ways of doing things in the context of institutions that facilitate exchange. When this process is allowed to function, income and wealth grow — across all people and places. There is no policy that can act as a magic wand to override or “fix” what we deem insufficient.
Moreover, as Hayek highlighted, for governments that use policy to increasingly control the economy, totalitarianism is a likely result. The more control government officials extend over what are normally individual economic affairs, the more economic chaos results. That chaos breeds more control, which breeds more chaos. This is the current state of affairs in which Venezuelan citizens find themselves.
Totalitarian authority is a feature, not a bug, of increasing efforts to control economic affairs — precisely because economic affairs are ordered by ordinary people pursing their interests. As the necessary conditions for productive market exchange — prices, property rights, and the rule of law — erode, suffering is exacerbated and the economic breakdown continues to spiral out of control.
Totalitarian governments suppress value creation
Economic activity is about individual exchange within the context of institutional arrangements. That exchange can be productive when individuals are allowed to use profit and loss to guide their use of scarce resources. In a market economy, the result is that we grow richer.
Markets are positive sum. For me to make a profit, I must give you something that you need or want, and there is pressure to deliver at ever-lower prices and ever-higher levels of quality. Growing rich does not come from arbitrary wage increases set by governments; it comes from being rewarded for creating value.
Venezuelans suffer today because it is increasingly difficult to create value for oneself or others in a totalitarian regime that tries to control economic life. Trading partners are limited, needed goods and services are nowhere, and there are no strong incentives to be creative and entrepreneurial because there is no just reward. People are forced into black-market activity and barter economies.
Mandating wage raises will do nothing to restore the necessary institutions of value creation and entrepreneurship. Rather, these mandates restrict the possibilities for legal exchange, thus forcing more people out of work and condemning Venezuelans to further poverty and suffering.
Markets work best when governments retreat
The best way to restore productive institutions of trade, value creation, discovery, and entrepreneurship is to retract the government’s scope and size and allow markets to work. In the words of F.A. Hayek:
It is often said that political freedom is meaningless without economic freedom. This is true enough, but in a sense almost opposite from that in which the phrase is used by our planners. The economic freedom which is the prerequisite of any other freedom cannot be freedom from economic care which the socialists promise us and which can be obtained only by relieving the individual at the same time of the necessity and of the power of choice; it must be the freedom of our economic activity which, with the right of choice, inevitably also carries the rise and the responsibility of that right.
People must be free to choose and to make themselves rich through value creation within the market process. This economic freedom will make them rich in a way that no coercive government policy, no matter how good it sounds, can.