Op-Ed

Peronist creed still afflicts Argentina

ALWAYS LOYAL: Demonstrator holds a placard supporting Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernandez of the Peronist Party. Peronist Loyalty Day is celebrated every Oct. 17.
ALWAYS LOYAL: Demonstrator holds a placard supporting Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernandez of the Peronist Party. Peronist Loyalty Day is celebrated every Oct. 17. AP

Who ever said that there is an unusual crisis in Argentina? It’s the same one, always.

Excessive public spending, galloping corruption, a patronage state, disregard for obligations, cronyism, inflation, lack of supplies, black market in dollars.

The official exchange rate is eight pesos to a dollar; the “blue dollar” rate, as it’s called, is 15. The forecast is that the gap will expand as uncertainty prolongs and panic spreads. Why is it that, every so often, as if it were some strange recurring curse, Argentina, despite its legendary natural wealth, plunges into chaos?

Many of us believe that the concentration of talent in this country is the greatest in the region. Argentines are the best educated and best informed Latin Americans. They had almost 80 splendid years, 1853-1930, a period in which they created a controlling and amazingly resistant middle class.

Nevertheless, amid ups and downs, the country, once one of the world’s most prosperous, began slowly to regress. In the 1980s, U.S. essayist Larry Harrison published a book titled Underdevelopment is a State of Mind. He stated — and, in my opinion, proved — that attaining prosperity or living in poverty was the result of the beliefs, attitudes and values held by people. Some cultures were predisposed to create wealth, others to destroy it.

Mariano Grondona, a renowned Argentine thinker, wrote a magnificent book, The Cultural Conditions of Economic Development, in which he studies this issue in depth. The Argentines — essentially a product of the fascist influence, incarnated in Juan Domingo Perón, a military attaché in Benito Mussolini's Italy before he seized power and his country's history — threw overboard the teachings of Juan Bautista Alberdi and Domingo F. Sarmiento, two liberal politicians and thinkers who lived in the second half of the 19th century, and replaced them with the Peronist creed.

They did not understand that prosperity and economic growth within liberal democracies were a consequence of the primacy of individual rights, limited government, the real separation of powers, respect for private property, the rule of law, well-functioning institutions, accountability on the part of the authorities, the existence of a market, meritocracy and a climate in which wealth was generated and preserved. (That, with some variants, is the behavior of the world’s 25 most prosperous countries.)

It was the republican model of government, and they dismantled it. Increasingly, the Argentines thought (and were influenced from everywhere with differing intensity — fascism, military nationalism, communism, Keynesianism) that directing the economy and distributing the wealth were functions of the state, without realizing that governments are tremendously inefficient and unfair, totally incapable of carrying out those tasks with a minimum of success.

Analyst Esteban Lijalad explained that to me, with some simple information culled from the periodical surveys that he does for an advertising company in Buenos Aires, the nation’s lungs and brain.

When Argentines are asked if they prefer the state to intervene in all sectors of the economy, 53 percent answer yes. When asked if it should intervene in some sector, the percentage drops to 35. Those who prefer no intervention in any sector account for 9 percent. Those who don't know or decline to answer are very few.

The terrible experience of the entrepreneurial state matters not. (For example, one decade to obtain a telephone line, one thousand bribes to keep it working.) To most Argentines, private enterprise is wicked. To enrich oneself is censurable. Individuals are made suspicious by their selfishness.

The solution to all ills will come from the altruistic state, which will miraculously multiply and distribute the bread, the fish and the delicious malbec wine. What's essential is not reality but ideology, distorted perceptions, and the assurances of a kind “philanthropic ogre” who dispenses favors to the needy.

On this occasion, I came to Argentina with Álvaro Vargas Llosa to present another book that we wrote with Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, published by Planeta Books, precisely on this subject: Latest News from the New Ibero-American Idiot. It contains a juicy chapter on Argentina. It is the third installment of a saga that began almost 20 years ago with the Guide to the Perfect Latin-American Idiot.

It is clear that we are the idiots. We apparently cannot understand that the disease has no cure.

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