Tribune Editorial: Taxes do not a Venezuela make

People hold a sign with a no symbol over an image representing President Nicolas Maduro as they take part in a walk out against Maduro, in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. Venezuelans are exiting their homes and workplaces in a walkout organized by the opposition to demand that Maduro leave power. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

The Soviet Union is history. It’s successor state, Russia, seems oddly in cahoots with our commander in chief. China is becoming the world’s largest economic powerhouse. And Cuba, without Castro, has lost its cache.

So we need some other poor nation to fill the position of International Socialist Boogeyman. How about, oh, yes. Venezuela!

The oil-rich hotbed of poverty has become, from U.S. Senate debates to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s State of the State Address, the villain du jour for American politicians who wish to argue, above all else, that taxes are always too high and government regulations too onerous.

Well, maybe some taxes are too steep and some regulations ought to be rolled back. It is always a discussion worth having.

But the government and social chaos now gripping that South American nation is not a result of taxes that are too high or bureaucracies that reach too far.

Venezuela is a mess because its governing and civil institutions are a mess. The executive and the legislature are at each other’s throats as to which of them is, or should be, in charge. The is no independent judiciary. No free press. Not enough hope to keep people who might fix the problem from fleeing to other countries.

Herbert referred to the situation in his annual address to the Legislature, using it as an argument for a free market — by which he means lower tax rates and a less intrusive federal government — and against what he called the younger generation’s flirting with “socialism.”

“What we see in Venezuela should remind us that tyranny and poverty follow economic systems where the state controls production,” Herbert said, “where bureaucrats allocate resources and where government picks the winners and the losers.”

Well. If our governor is going to try to head off the disasters of Venezuela before they reach the United States, or Utah, he might make better use of his time and rhetoric imploring his own Republican Party to stand up for the things we have generally had and that too many other nations too often lack.

The rule of law. A firm separation of powers. A Congress that stands up for its own co-equal (if not superior) status rather than kowtow to the president. A judiciary that isn’t subject to insults from a self-important chief executive. A free press that is not constantly being demeaned as “fake news” and a corps of dedicated civil servants who aren’t stigmatized as “the deep state.”

Our tax rates could plummet or soar and it wouldn’t matter nearly as much as whether those institutions hold their own.

Many nations with much larger tax rates and much more firmly established welfare state ideology might be referred to by some — positively or negatively — as “socialist.” But Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Norway, France and Germany, for all their fuss and bother and rising populism and difficulty assimilating new waves of refugees, cannot reasonably be called anything other than free, democratic nations.

We can choose to be like them, or not. But to claim that higher, or more progressive, tax rates, or a broader safety net, inevitably leads to Venezuelan levels of dysfunction is just not honest.