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Here’s an empirical regularity: altruists attaining power to collectivize society’s productive machinery do not stay nice for long. In fact, aggressive pursuit of their goals might compel them to participate in brutal tyranny. But why? What happens to these sweet egalitarians who are, after all, imbued with the most earnest desire to elevate the common man by equalizing the fruits of society’s bounty?

Bryan Caplan offers Venezuela as Exhibit A in “A Short Hop from Bleeding Heart to Mailed Fist“:

When Hugo Chavez began ruling Venezuela, he sounded like a classic bleeding-heart – full of pity for the poor and downtrodden. Plenty of people took him at his words – not just Venezuelans, but much of the international bleeding-heart community. … Almost every Communist dictatorship launches with mountains of humanitarian propaganda. Yet ultimately, almost everyone who doesn’t fear for his life wakes up and smells the tyranny.”

Venezuela’s collapse is merely the most recent in a long history of socialist debacles. Authoritarians certainly come in other stripes, but collectivists seem especially prone to the development of vicious alter-egos. But again, why?

Caplan knows the answer, and in something of a dialectical exercise, he proposes several explanations for the nice-to-nasty phenomenon. It’s not the infiltration of “bad guys”. Plenty of evidence suggests that the same people are at both ends of the transition, and for now let’s give the benefit of the doubt to the nicest elements of the avant guarde, or even those who go simply along on the basis of their idealism. It’s implausible that such humanitarian souls could believe it will be necessary, at the outset, to crush their opposition by force. Moreover, that approach risks immediate outcomes that are far too dire. Might an authoritarian or militaristic turn be necessary to deter hostile foreign actors who might attempt to foil collectivization? If so, it still doesn’t explain why subjugation of domestic citizens is ultimately accepted as a legitimate use of force by sincere altruists.

Caplan moves on to more compelling explanations of the disorder. Perhaps the expression of bleeding heart intentions is propaganda from the very start. Perhaps the rhetoric is really just hate speech disguised as noble intent. Surely those two explanations comport with the behavior of those having uglier motives for collectivism: envy and vengeance. And while those elements are certain to be active in any socialist front, they don’t explain why the bleeders also abecome beaters.

The best explanation for the horrid metamorphosis of empowered altruists is that egalitarian policies simply do not work very well. Caplan says:

Bleeding-heart policies work so poorly that only the mailed fist can sustain them. In this story, the bleeding hearts are at least initially sincere. If their policies worked well enough to inspire broad support, the bleeding hearts would play nice. Unfortunately, bleeding-heart policies are exorbitantly expensive and often directly counter-productive. Pursued aggressively, they predictably lead to disaster. At this point, a saintly bleeding heart will admit error and back off. A pragmatic bleeding heart will compromise. The rest, however, respond to their own failures with rage and scapegoating. Once you institutionalize that rage and scapegoating, the mailed fist has arrived.” [Caplan’s emphasis]

The compulsory nature of policies advocated by leftists makes their system of social organization inherently unstable. With the imposition of every rule limiting the operation of private markets, with every compromise of the price mechanism, and with every new confiscatory policy, the economy becomes more feeble and inflexible. As several commenters on Caplan’s post note, socialists are people who simply do not understand economics.

The path to collectivism always involves promises that are impossible to keep. Personal concerns must be renounced in favor of the collective. Individuals are denied their freedom to act on creative impulses and their ability to cooperate freely with others in pursuit of personal well-being. Those are human rights that are quite unnatural to part with. That means it is impossible to achieve the collective without an implicit or explicit threat of enforcement through violent police power. Bleeding hearts will actually participate in the inevitable tyranny because they are so convinced of the righteousness of their cause.

Whether you call it socialism or social democracy makes no difference. The latter merely cloaks tyranny in a majoritarian dominance that would have enraged our nation’s founders. They understood the despotism inherent in allowing a majority to dictate the existence of basic rights. However, the bleeding hearts are always sure they know “what’s right” without weighing implications beyond the injustice du jour. That demands the application of force. And when confronted with the catastrophic results of their peremptory whimsy, they have no choice but to use still more force.

The banality of evil is truly a progressive disease. Fortunately, we have a preventive vaccine: the U.S. Constitution. But it will work only if we’re wise enough to rely on the framer’s original intent.