Venezuela’s Bad Angels

CARACAS – Fish do not know they are in water. They take it for granted. They would need to get out of water to understand how different things could be. Similarly, one way for people to see the uniqueness of what they consider normal is to contrast it with the past – or with an outlier, an example that bucks the current trend.

A case in point is the dramatically low levels of violence that characterize the present, a fact uncovered by Steven Pinker in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature. The facts are imposing and incontrovertible. As Pinker convincingly shows, violence of all kinds has declined over the millennia, in recent centuries, and during the past decades. Humans, according to Pinker, have both good and bad angels (or passions), and the good ones have become more dominant. Why?

For starters, Leviathan – that is, the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force – has reduced conflict and increased personal security. Second, the state’s administration of justice adopted and encouraged non-violent ways of resolving grievances, thus allowing cooperation and the expansion of commerce. This trend accelerated with the spread of Enlightenment humanist ideals based on fundamental human equality and the application of rationality to human affairs.

In this respect, Venezuela is the proverbial fish out of water. During the 15 years of the “Bolivarian Revolution” initiated by the late Hugo Chávez, the country’s homicide rate has quadrupled, from a high base of 19 per 100,000 in 1998 to 79 in 2013, roughly 17 times the average in the United States, 26 times that in Chile, and more than 30 times the combined average of OECD countries.