Mises Wire

Empathy for the Poor Is Not Enough

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Venezuela’s infamous Hugo Chavez, the UK’s Jeremy Corbyn, the US’s Bernie Sanders all proclaim their unwavering pledge to help the “poor” by increasing government intervention to raise their living conditions and to fight the injustices of inequality and capitalism. According to their message, poor people are both pure and perpetually helpless, the condemned victims of a cruel and rotten system that anchors them in permanent disadvantage, a cruel fate from which only the wise [name your favorite politician] can rescue them.

Of course, you could mostly explain this narrative by attributing it to mere electoral pragmatism. The tale of the unfortunate and noble victim, oppressed by the evil capitalist, has undeniable benefits for the politician who disguises himself as the courageous knight in shining armor who will challenge the villainous rich guys to rescue the damsel in distress and relieve her suffering. However, if this whole narrative is just a pose, then it is a rather heavy character mask to be wearing around all day, throughout the long years of a political career. And that’s in a profession where everyone, from the open political rivals to the supposedly allied figures within one’s own party, is always ready to attack you at the first sign of weakness.

So, there has to be something more. Just maybe they worry about the poor. Just not enough as to actually want them to improve and rise beyond poverty. Think of people like Sanders or Chavez; they display what appears to be empathic and genuine interest for the less fortunate. They don’t sound like those phony bureaucrats that read from a script. When Joe Biden says he cares for the poor, you know it’s fake. When Sanders says it, well, it’s not that easy to simply discard the guy.

Something similar is going on in Mexico. Our current president, López Obrador, is that kind of politician. When he says he cares for the poor, he truly makes a connection, which is why he won the 2018 elections with the largest share of votes (53 percent) since 1982. He flies in commercial airplanes and never sits in first class, stops to eat at cheap diners on the road, and wages an almost daily verbal war against the “fifís” (slang for affluent and refined people), whom he identifies as the primary enemies of his regime.

However, empathy is no guarantee, because feeling the suffering of someone else and helping them are two very different things. You can pen a thousand speeches and swear a thousand oaths, but if your plan is based on centralization and government intervention, that empathy becomes hollow. In a matter of nineteen months, López Obrador has significantly increased the power of the presidency, taking almost complete control of the legislative and the judiciary; paralyzed the modernization of the energy industry; launched three major infrastructure projects with near-zero technical support (an airport, a refinery, and a train that will cross the jungle); canceled Mexico’s City brand new airport, which was more than halfway through construction; and centralized the public healthcare, all the while weakening the states and the system of checks and balances within the federal government.

He’s also planning to disappear dozens of autonomous entities, not because he hates bureaucracy, but because he doesn’t like to share power. Meanwhile, the country has been in a recession since 2019, when the rest of the world was still growing. By breeding uncertainty and eating away the nation’s emergency funds, Obrador essentially set the economy on the path toward the worst crisis in decades, and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic. And the poor will be the most harmed.

But he cared about the poor, right?

Well, as I said before, caring and improving are two different things. Mostly Obrador speaks about getting people out of poverty, but sometimes the real agenda creeps to the surface. For example, on his daily press conference of May 11, he said:

We need to seek austerity….if we already have shoes, why more? If you already have the indispensable clothes, [keep] only that. If you can have a modest vehicle for your commutes, [then] why the luxury?

“If we already have shoes, why more?” This quote might fit well in a preacher’s Sunday service, but when you analyze it in the context of what’s going on in Mexico, you come to a much darker realization: poverty is not a byproduct of a failed government, but an aspiration, a feature instead of a bug. Why? Because the endgame of Obrador’s cohort is complete control of Mexican society, and for that to happen, poor people will have to remain poor. Yeidckol Polvensky, one of his closest associates, actually said something of the sort on a national TV interview a couple of years ago. I quote: “The problem that we’d have to understand [is that]…when you get people out of poverty, and they become middle class…they forget where they came from and who got them out of there.”

There you have it. They care about the poor. They feel their pain. But deep down, they don’t want those low-income families to escape poverty. They may look, even be sympathetic and understanding, but not enough to relinquish control. So, for the savior of the poor to stay in power, the poor will have to remain so, and he’ll get away with it because his concern about the poor seems genuine enough to make people support him.

Seventy-six years ago, Hayek spoke about how when society takes the road to serfdom the worst rise to the top, and he was right. Socialist ideas and parties endure, because they breed a special kind of politician, like Lopez Obrador, who can sincerely care about the people and just as genuinely will ruin them even more.

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