Why so many young Colombians support Gustavo Petro

Gustavo Petro's supporters have a naive belief in the supposed wonders of populist socialism.

Gustavo Petro has had a surprising rise, and is currently polling second, behind Ivan Duque (Flickr).

I’m becoming something of a broken record. Writing about the same topic over and over again can exhaust the reader. It seems that there were no more pressing topics, but even giving so much importance to the same person can be counterproductive.

However, there are other risks and their effects could be even worse: starting with the candidate Gustavo Petro coming to power. The level of concern increases as he rises in the presidential polls.

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Populist Petro is currently leading in Bogota, among the youngest voters, and in some coastal regions of the country, despite the fact that the candidate has hardly shied away from heralding his preference for a very centralized economic model. He enjoys a volatile relationship with the media, and has called for increasing the size and scope of the state in almost all areas, justifying his proposals with the rhetoric of class warfare, which divides society into “the rich” and “the rest.”

Why do so many people seem to support an option like that? It is possible that his surprisingly high support is based on the naivety of the voters.

They are seduced by the siren songs trumpeting the possibility of free goods and services. Many “petristas” and voters on the left, frame the political debate as a question: do you want a country with free education for all? Well, then vote for Petro, or candidate XYZ. There can be no greater naivety. Not only because nothing is free, but because there is no clarity regarding where these populist demagogues would find the resources to finance such a promise. Moreover, these naive voters seem to believe that, even if this measure were implemented, that there would be no unanticipated consequences or other objectives that would have to be sacrificed. They seem fundamentally unaware of one of the principles of economics: resources are scarce, and tough decisions on scarce resources do not always obtain the desired results.

They are naïve because they ignore issues related to the quality of education, focusing only on its mere existence. They are naïve because they believe that education causes economic development, failing to consider that it can a consequence of it. They are naïve because they assume that the implementation of their policy proposals is contingent upon the decisions of an autocrat.

They are naive because they maintain their faith in a Marxist myth, according to which society can be understood as a realm of an eternal conflict between social classes. They believe that inequality is the expression of that conflict. They can not understand that this phenomenon is unacceptable when it is the result of deliberate decisions on the part of specific authorities, but not when it arises from the interaction among individuals. In a free society, individuals have the freedom to make their own choices, and rise and fall on their own merits.

They are naive because they believe that a well-spoken dictator, who gains steam in the debates (like a good demagogue), represents those who supposedly belong to the dispossessed class. They assume that positive changes can only occur through the direct intervention of a ruler. They imagine a world without inequality as if that were not only possible but desirable. How can they contemplate a world in which it does not matter what you do, or how you act, or what decisions you make if you always know what you are going to get? They are naïve because they claim to defend diversity, but in reality, they despise the product of diversity: unequal results in society.

They are naive because, without knowing how, they assume that although Gustavo Petro had a disastrous tenure as mayor of Bogota, for some magical reason, he will now fulfill all of his promises and save the country.

They are naïve because they believe all of the promises of the left, even if they are with respect to unrealistic, undesirable, or dangerous projects, and then they wonder why the projects do not come to fruition. To evade their responsibility they prefer to believe in conspiracy theories: if their budding dictator does not win by democratic means, they are already planning the electoral fraud allegations; if he can not advance his domestic agenda, they will find fault with the “establishment” and the traditional politicians; if the left-wing populist in question does implement his agenda, and the unavoidable negative consequences begin, they will say that this is the fault of the “American empire”, of the “business elite”, of the “internal enemies”, of the “transnational corporations,” and of “transnational capitalism.” Just like all socialist dictators have done in countries like Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia.

And these nations should serve as a warning to those who are listening to the siren song of left-wing populism: why are they unable to see that the Petro-style ideology has not worked in other Latin American nations where it has been tried?

They are naïve because they believe that the Venezuelan disaster is due to oil and not to the economic model itself. They deceive themselves by saying, without looking at the evidence, that Rafael Correa of Ecuador is an example of good results. It does not compute for them that a policy may appear to be positive in the short term, but that it may be negative in the long term. They admire Evo Morales because he took power indefinitely, even though real well-being has improved only marginally for the indigenous people themselves. Completely sold on rhetoric and ideas, they credit the situation in Uruguay to be the result of the “poorest president in the world,” while entirely ignoring the role of the country’s existing institutions; institutions that not even Mujica can upend.

The problem with those that vote for naivete is that it affects many more people than just the followers of Gustavo Petro. For that reason, it is important to illuminate the fallacies in his arguments. It is our responsibility, through the advancement of ideas, to prevent the type of naivety that has achieved little in Colombia; and hopefully, we can stop the rise of Petro.

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