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The Socialist Sinking Ship: Then and Now

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A little late to the party, the BBC wonders at the surreal and ongoing failure of the Venezuelan regime to provide its citizens with life’s basic amenities. Goods such as flour, sugar, cooking oil, shampoo and detergent, and the oft-mentioned toilet paper are now in such short supply that people are given time off work to queue in front of the stores. But in good socialist fashion, matters seem otherwise pretty “well organized”. Authorities are advising stores to allow customers to queue in underground parking lots so that they don’t get sunburnt, and have also instituted some measures to trim down the number of shoppers: people can “only buy scarce goods on certain days of the week depending on what number their ID card ends in”.

At this stage, further comments on the economics of what’s happening in Venezuela (which we wrote about in the past) are hardly necessary. It’s interesting to point out, however, that around the world these kind of ultimate failures of socialism not only originate from the same causes, but tend to manifest themselves in strikingly similar manner.

About 30 years ago on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Romanians used to wait in line for hours in front of mostly empty shelves. But for them, the situation had long ceased to be a temporary crisis, as Venezuela’s problems are still portrayed. The Romanian communist regime, in place already for more than two decades, had rationalized most food shortages as health and lifestyle advice! For instance, Ceausescu instituted in 1982 a “scientific/rational alimentation program” for the nation, where quantities of milk, eggs, meat and fish, etc., were listed both as dietary recommendations and buying quotas. As time went by, these rations got smaller and smaller.

Gasoline had also been restricted to about 7 gallons a month, and queuing for it usually involved a shared effort, where each of two friends would take daily turns waiting in line with both their cars, so that they could both go to work. And to insure that people wouldn’t consume too much gasoline, cars were only allowed to circulate every other weekend, depending on whether their license plate numbers were even or odd. Last but not least, since the winter months in Romania are far harsher than Venezuela’s balmy year-round climate, heating and hot water were only available for a few hours a day. As was television and electricity.

At the time, communist leaders were bragging that Romanian citizens enjoyed all the benefits of modern life, but none of its injustice. Maduro’s regime has long uttered similar opinions about the West—its supposed enemy, the epitome of heartless capitalism, and the sole culprit for the country’s woes. But in both cases, it is socialism that is bound to end in the utter destruction of economic activity, and in the decay of the social fabric. If the Venezuelan example of socialism’s ultimate consequences baffles anybody, it is because of how little (economic) history people remember, and how quickly its lessons are forgotten.

Apart from such lessons, we can hope that Venezuelans will one day remember only the rare amusing moments from this period. In the 50 years under communism, Romanians have built an entire folklore of humorous wisecracks, no less perhaps as a coping mechanism. When I was growing up, my father often told one such anecdote:

The son of a Romanian communist deputy goes to study in the US. He soon sends home only a short telegram: “Long live the Communist Party! I’m never coming back.”


Photo: (top) Queue in Romania, 1986 (bottom) Queue in Venezuela, 2014.

Dr. Carmen Elena Dorobăț is a Fellow of the Mises Institute and assistant professor of business and economics at Leeds Trinity University in the United Kingdom. She has a PhD in economics from the University of Angers, and is the recipient of the 2015 O.P. Alford III Prize in Political Economy and the 2017 Gary G. Schlarbaum Prize for Excellence in Research and Teaching. Her research interests include international trade, monetary theory and policy, and the history of economic thought.

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