What American Conservatives Can Learn From Argentina’s Javier Milei
November 20, 2023 | Tags: Classical Liberalism, Elections, libertarianism, Politics, REASON
Javier Milei, the self-described classical liberal and anarcho-capitalist who won Argentina's presidential election on Sunday, campaigned with a brash message of slashing government programs, cutting taxes, and privatizing state-owned enterprises.
Whether he'll be able to accomplish any or all of that prodigious list of economic reforms—or his even bigger promise to fix Argentina's busted monetary system and curb the country's runaway inflation—will depend on how much support Milei can muster in the legislature and his willingness to follow through on these big campaign trail promises. Those are issues of great importance for the future of Argentina, but they are questions that cannot be answered today.
What can be definitively answered today is the political question raised by Milei's candidacy for Argentina's highest office: Can voters experiencing economic turmoil be persuaded that government is the problem, rather than the solution?
Milei won more than 56 percent of the vote in the final round of Argentina's election—a figure that President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump can only dream of approaching next November—and his victory seems to have been driven by young and working-class voters. Some of Argentina's poorest neighborhoods have been a beachhead for Milei's anarcho-capitalist message, as none other than Jacobin, an explicitly socialist publication, reported last month.
Because Milei is a political novice who proudly trashed both political norms and Argentina's ruling establishment, American media has been quick to compare him to Trump and the wave of right-wing populists the former president has inspired in America. But once you get past the aesthetics, the similarities between Milei and MAGA mostly vanish.
Look how The New York Times summarizes Milei's platform: "lowering taxes; slashing regulations; privatizing state industries; reducing the number of federal ministries to eight from 18; shifting public education to a voucher-based system and public health care to insurance-based; and cutting federal spending by up to 15 percent of Argentina's gross domestic product." Additionally, "he has said that as long as the state doesn't have to pay for it, he could support drug legalization, open immigration, sex work, transgender rights, same-sex marriage and selling organs."
While there might be some overlap with American conservatives when it comes to cutting certain taxes and regulations, the rest of Milei's political agenda is expressly libertarian and often directly at odds with the aims of the so-called "New Right."
On social and economic issues, Milei has advocated reducing or eliminating the role of government. (The one arguable exception is his support for abortion laws, but that is an issue that has long divided libertarians.) America's conservatives are moving in the opposite direction: ginning up culture wars to justify further intrusions into individuals' right to live as they see fit, and competing with the progressive left to pander with promises of more economic interventions: tariffs, industrial policies, direct subsidies to the working and middle classes. The loudest contingent of the American conservative movement has been promising that a more muscular and centralized government is the answer.
Milei's victory is not a part of that narrative. In fact, it should undermine it.
His is undeniably a populist victory, but it seems to have more in common with the so-called "Tea Party" era of Republican politics—when American conservatives called for slashing government programs and spending, even though they rarely followed through—or to the surprising presidential runs by former congressman Ron Paul than with anything Trump or his acolytes have supported.
More accurately, since other country's politics shouldn't be viewed through a U.S. lens, Milei's victory seems like a callback to the ideas that once helped Argentina become one of the world's richest countries. As Daniel Raisback wrote for Reason earlier this year, the country benefited from the ideas of "Juan Bautista Alberdi, the classical liberal polymath whose writings informed the crafting of the country's 1853 constitution." Following his lead, Argentina embraced free markets and free trade, and prosperity followed. "Buenos Aires began to rival New York commercially, and Paris aesthetically," Raisback wrote, but the success ended when Argentina's leaders embraced "economic nationalism" in the 1920s, leading to a century-long decline.
In short, Milei's election looks a lot like a rejection of the kind of economic nationalism that leading politicians in America are pushing, from Biden's "Buy American" mandates to Trump's anti-trade and anti-immigration views.
There are, of course, limits to how useful any foreign election can be as a guide for U.S. politicians. The political terrain in Argentina is not the same as it is in the United States. Most notably, the place suffers an inflation rate that makes what we have experienced in recent years look mild by comparison.
And libertarians should be cautious about fully embracing Milei until some of those other, more important questions are answered. Will he govern as the free-marketer inspired by Milton Friedman that he seems to be, or will his political inexperience and the inevitable difficulties in reforming broken institutions be his undoing? Will he be able to set his administration's agenda, or will more the more authoritarian voices in his coalition—like his vice president—get in his way? As always, we should judge him on policy, not politics.
But as a political matter, Milei's win should be a beacon to pro-freedom politicians in the northern hemisphere. Not only is it possible to run a campaign based on cutting the size and scope of government, but an unexpectedly large coalition of voters might be prepared to reward such boldness.
The post What American Conservatives Can Learn From Argentina's Javier Milei appeared first on Reason.com.