When economic policy becomes a crime and policymakers criminals…

Prof. Michael Boskin reflects on the recent reaction by Venezuelan polity on Prof Ricardo Hausmann. Prof Ricardo Hausmann questioning economic policy in Venezuela in this article Should Venezuela Default?” Hausmann is a former minister of Venezuela and currently a Prof at Kennedy School.

Prof Boskin says this is getting bizarre:

The combination of authoritarian rule, extreme populism, socialist ideology, and incompetence under former President Hugo Chávez and Maduro has wreaked havoc on Venezuela. But when Hausmann, a Venezuelan citizen and former government minister, discusses an important question that is being asked by investors around the world, he is not merely chastised, but threatened. The implication is clear: Speak out and you may be jailed.

This is not the first such treatment of a prominent economist in Latin America. A decade ago, it was Domingo Cavallo, who, as Argentina’s finance minister, had pegged the peso to the dollar to bring down the 1,000% inflation that was destroying the economy – and the fabric of society. When he abruptly ended the peg in 2001, a severe recession followed, and he was arrested and jailed. Fortunately, international outrage, including a campaign organized by North American economists, helped to free Cavallo.

I do not agree with all of the policies advocated by Cavallo or Hausmann, or any other policymaker for that matter. But should we really criminalize not corruption or self-dealing, but policy disagreements? Do we want every new government to jail its political opponents – as Ukraine’s deposed President Viktor Yanukovych did to former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko – because it rejects the policies they enacted or condemns the perceived outcomes?

We have not fallen so far yet in the United States. But even here, it has become far too common to impugn the motives and values, not just the ideas, of those with whom we disagree. Journalists, politicians, and public intellectuals who should know better routinely argue not just that policies and proposals are wrong-headed, but that the proponents themselves must be evil to have enacted or suggested them.

Criticism and disagreement should not be allowed to curdle into the hateful vitriol that demeans so much public discourse today. Words have consequences and can inflame thuggery or worse. Even attempted suppression of free and open debate, or official delegitimization of those with alternative policy proposals, is dangerous. Such outrages must be resisted, before more people like Cavallo and Hausmann are threatened – and before the disease spreads to North America and Europe.

Indian polity should learn the lessons as well. The way political parties abuse and change bureaucracy on coming to power is blatant abuse of power.

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