National Review said it couldn’t be done, referring to the economic policies advocated by Javier Milei, the frontrunner in Argentina’s October 22 presidential elections, after his win in the August 2023 primary elections.
New York Times journalist Benny Johnson released an interview by Viviana Canosa with Milei, referring to him as the “Argentine Trump”.
Al Jazeera, the BBC, Reuters, The Economist, The Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times, Le Monde, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, El Diario, El Mundo, El País, among others have labeled him a far-right populist. Although the latter label doesn’t quite fit.
Yes, he appeals widely, especially as a protest vote against consecutive disastrous governments, and he’s not given to diplomatic language, peppering his statements with both profanity and ad hominem attacks, and — on the face of it — his ideas are radical and simplistic. However, unlike the proposals that most populists spout, proposals of which they have little idea what the intended or unintended consequences might be, Milei’s ideas are well thought out and backed by years of experience both as a private sector and a government economist.
Besides earning two master’s degrees in economics, he became the chief economist at Máxima AFJP (a private pension company), a head economist at Estudio Broda (a financial advising company), and a government consultant at the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes. He was also a senior economist in HSBC Argentina. He has an impressive 14 published books and articles on economics — in addition to two years in the national legislature.
While the label of “far-right populist” doesn’t quite fit, Milei is not given to diplomatic language, peppering his statements with both profanity and ad hominem attacks.
The Economist opened with a dark, sinister photograph of Argentina’s likely next president, the admittedly radical, Milton Friedman-quoting, Libertarian Party (yes, big L libertarian) Chamber of Deputies representative Milei, as if the implementation of libertarian ideals and policies were not just impractical but dangerous, and would lead to chaos and authoritarianism: “Javier Milei’s dangerous allure.”
Although The Economist has been trending leftward in the past few years, I still subscribe to it and am still somewhat vulnerable to its reportage. Was Milei all he was cracked up to be (reading The Economist’s accolades), or was he a wolf in sheep’s clothing (reading the critical observations)?
Enter Julio, my Venezuelan nephew. Julio had spent a few years in Argentina under the Kirchner and Fernandez regimes as an arbitrageur, taking advantage of the Peronists’ economic mismanagement. Previously, he’d been a Latin American securities analyst for Morgan Stanley. He knows his stuff. While his wife held an executive position at the Argentine branch of an American pharmaceutical, he walked a fine but sinuous legal line, leasing industrial generators to manufacturers who couldn’t stomach the periodic power outages from the national electric utilities. Julio is an ultra-free marketer.
He sent me a YouTube link to a Tucker Carlson interview with Milei in Spanish. After watching the 30-plus minutes, I got a measure of the man. After every one of Tucker’s questions Milei weighs his answers carefully. He’s thoughtful, reflective, and has a broad knowledge base. He doesn’t have the facility — bordering on glibness — of Vivek or the soundbites and dogwhistles of less-than-from-the-heart politicians. He has gravitas (in spite of his tousled, Beatles hair, which he says he never combs), and has an original way with ideas. For example, he dared to criticize Friedman, loosely quoting him as saying, “the only duty of a business is to make money.” No, Milei opined, business has another duty, to defend and preserve the system that allows it to thrive. “When we sleep, socialism advances.” Milei correctly rejects the idea that the Nordic model is socialist, saying that the Nordic countries are “more pro-market than people think.”
He clarifies his admiration for Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro by saying that anyone who is against socialism and “social justice” is an ally.
On a lighter note, when Tucker asked to what he attributes his rockstar popularity, Milei responded that he’s a futbol star (he was a goalkeeper for Chacarita Juniors until 1989), he also sang in Everest, a Rolling Stones “cover band” (in other words, a real rock star), and an academic economist — an irresistible combination.
Milei rejects the use of the far-right label to describe his views and says, “I’m a classical liberal and libertarian; these positions are things of the left, because for the left, everything that is not on their side is on the right,” and adds that he’s a minarchist and anarchocapitalist. He clarifies his admiration for Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro by saying that anyone who is against socialism and “social justice” is an ally. All other policy positions are up for debate. One example of this nuance is his advocacy of free and open trade with the world, except for socialist countries. About China, Milei said: “People are not free in China, they can’t do what they want and when they do it, they get killed. Would you trade with an assassin?” But he clarifies this position with a libertarian twist — he’s talking about government-to-government trade; individuals and businesses can trade with whomever they wish.
Much of the media often purposely blends aspirational and philosophical views with policy proposals, as it does with Javier Milei. It is a subtle way of spinning their opposition to whomever they are profiling, surreptitiously implying that such beliefs are proposed as laws, thereby concluding that a candidate is incapable of governing. Using good libertarian methodology, Milei separates his personal views (or aspirations) from democratic and republican methods (or policy).
In spite of being a Catholic, Milei strongly condemns Pope Francis (an Argentine) for his coziness with left-wing autocrats, his failure to censure them, and his criticism of capitalism, saying that he’s a “Jesuit who promotes communism,” “an unpresentable and disastrous character,” and “the representative of the evil one on earth,” as well as “a fucking communist,” a “communist turd,” and a “piece of shit.”
His opposition to abortion — legalized in Argentina in 2020 — also has a novel twist: it is based on fundamental rights. He holds that alongside the rights to liberty and property, the right to life is uncontestable to a living homo sapiens, which a human fetus is, adding that abortion violates the nonaggression principle. He respects the right of a woman to the sovereignty and control of her body, but not to the control of the baby’s body: “The woman can choose about her body, but what she has inside her womb is not her body, it is another individual.” He would resolve the political issue with a referendum on the 2020 law and would respect the will of the people.
He condemns Pope Francis as a “Jesuit who promotes communism,” “an unpresentable and disastrous character,” and “the representative of the evil one on earth,” as well as “a fucking communist,” a “communist turd,” and a “piece of shit.”
Milei has been accused of numerous woke transgressions, incivilities, and misogynistic behaviors, from calling a female reporter who labeled him a totalitarian “a donkey” to calling the Argentine Minister of Productive Development, Matias Kulfas, a “piece of shit” and the Minister of the Economy, Martin Guzmán, “useless.” Family and gender judge Carmelo Paz accused Milei of employing “gender violence” and forbade him from participating in public gatherings as a panelist or lecturer within the boundaries of the city of Metán, under the threat of legal action.
Building on a woman’s right to control her own body, he proposes to legalize the organ trade, seeing it as a way to reduce waiting lists for transplants, and said that there could be market mechanisms to encourage organ donors, adding, “If women can have control over their bodies, why not everybody else?”
Milei supports drug legalization as a component of a free society. But he once warned: “If you want to commit suicide, I don’t have any problem. Drugging is committing suicide. If you want to get high, do whatever you want, but don’t ask me to pay the bill. Because if you are not going to take charge of your decisions . . . well, that seems unfair to me.” He said that he had smoked marijuana only once and recalled: “I remember laughing a lot.”
Milei has no problem with same-sex marriage (though he believes that the state ought to stay out of the marriage business), prostitution, or gender identification. One can identify as a cougar, “as long as you do not make me pay the bill.” Referring to public funding for gender-affirming care and public education, he said: “I have no problem, but don’t impose it on me by the state. Don’t steal money from people to impose someone else’s ideas on them. That is violent.”
At 52, Milei is not married. In May 2022, he stated: “I will not be apologizing for having a penis. I don’t have to feel ashamed of being a man, white, blond with light blue eyes.” And he champions free love, according to an October 2017 interview with La Nación, later disclosing on television that he’s been involved in several threesomes, and describing himself as a tantric sex instructor, claiming to be “capable of remaining three months without ejaculating.” TMI! At least the man is transparent . . .
Milei proposes the “deregulation of the legal market” for weapons and “the protection of its legitimate and responsible use by the citizens.” As a law-and-order advocate, Milei endorses the unrestricted ownership of firearms.
He champions free love, disclosing on television that he’s been involved in several threesomes, and describing himself as a tantric sex instructor, claiming to be “capable of remaining three months without ejaculating.”
Milei got vaccinated against covid, notwithstanding his doubts about the vaccine’s safety: “Pharmacological products require ten years of empirical testing and this product is a year and a half old.” He opposes mandatory vaccination.
Elections will be held on October 22 for president, vice-president, members of the National Congress, and the governors of most provinces. The candidate is running under the slogan: “I didn’t come here to lead lambs but to awaken lions.” Polls indicate that nearly 35% of voters opt for Milei, versus his closest contender, Sergio Massa (of the disastrous ruling Peronists), who polls nearly 5% points lower. There are five candidates, with three polling in double digits. If no one gets the required 45% of the vote, a runoff will be held on November 19.
Milei describes the ruling class as “useless, parasitic politicians.” In September 2021, Milei said: “The first thing I am going to say to the shitty, silly, parasitic and useless political caste who have never worked is what I am not going to do. I will never go against private property, I will never go against freedom, I will never raise a tax, I will never create new taxes.” Upon assuming office as congressional deputy, Milei fulfilled one of his campaign promises by raffling his salary to a random person each month, aiming to “return money to the citizens.” He describes this monthly raffle, which is open to anyone, as a way to get rid of what he considers dirty money and says: “The state is a criminal organization that finances itself through taxes levied on people by force. We are returning the money that the political caste stole.” To date he has raffled over 7 million pesos.
Although opposed to most government hand-outs (a philosophical position), in August 2023, Milei stated that he would not end social programs right away (a policy position). These support millions of people in a country where almost 40% of the population is impoverished, folks he described as “victims, not victimizers.” He added that ending this type of social assistance would take up to 15 years.
Milei is the owner of five English mastiffs, clones of Conan, his favorite but now dead dog, with which he now communicates through a mystic. (He also communicates with Ayn Rand.)
“The state is the greatest enemy of wealth. If the increase in its size is financed with taxes, the real wage falls. If it is with debt, they are future taxes. And if that debt is external, it raises the equilibrium exchange rate with respect to wages and makes food more expensive, creating more poor people.”
As to macroeconomics, he said: “Central banks are divided in four categories: the bad ones, like the Federal Reserve, the very bad ones, like the ones in Latin America, the horribly bad ones, and the Central Bank of Argentina,” which he proposes to abolish for its mishandling of the currency. The latest figures put Argentine inflation at 114.2%.
Milei proposes to dollarize the Argentine economy, a solution both lauded and criticized by National Review and The Economist, which both seem to favor default on Argentina’s foreign debt, which is the source of National Review’s pessimism: “Argentina is on the brink of default, which dollarization would make even more painful, since there would be no lender of last resort if the central bank disappeared with the peso.” Now, I’m no economist, but instead of an either/or choice, I’d advocate both — with default if necessary — since each has its inevitable pitfalls. Riccardo Grassi at Mangart Advisors, a Switzerland-based hedge fund involved in Argentina’s huge 2020 debt restructuring, said, “Argentines keep huge amounts of dollars in their houses. Dollarization is a rational idea” — and one that the Cato Institute advocates.
In July 2023, the journalist Juan Luis González released El Loco, a biography of Milei, with whom he held a number of interviews. No doubt, one of the sources of the book’s title is the fact that Milei is the owner of five English mastiffs, clones of Conan, his favorite but now dead dog, with which he now communicates through a mystic. (He also communicates with Ayn Rand.) When asked about the incongruity between his coherent perception and such irrationality he replied, “What I do with my spiritual life and in my house is my business.” Four of the dogs are named Milton (in honor of Milton Friedman), Murray (in honor of Murray Rothbard), Robert, and Lucas (the last two named for Robert Lucas, a Chicago School economist and 1995 Nobel laureate).
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Argentina is not the first country to flirt in a big way with libertarian ideals. The most famous — and controversial — was Chile, when the Pinochet regime invited Milton Friedman’s “Chicago Boys” to design a free market economy for the country after Pinochet’s overthrow of the socialist Allende regime. The “Chilean miracle,” as it was dubbed, transformed Chile into Latin America’s best performing economy and one of the world’s most business-friendly jurisdictions, according to the Heritage Foundation.
In 1977 when Great Britain joined the European Economic Community, precursor to the European Union, its bilateral and preferential trade agreements with the members of its Commonwealth had to be terminated. Ironically, in Europe’s quest for free trade inter se, free trade with other clubs, not to mention the rest of the world, took a back seat. After the oil shock of 1973, when a barrel of crude went from $3 US to $20 virtually overnight, New Zealand sank into dire economic straits, worsened by its quasi-socialist economic regime. As reported and analyzed in by Liberty soon after its founding in 1987, New Zealand adopted radical libertarian approaches to its economy. Though tough, the new policies yielded successful results.
China changed. Deng Xiaoping said: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”
As if the Chicago Boys weren’t good enough, when China began its turn toward free markets in 1978, it invited Milton Friedman to present a series of seminars to inform the cadres about economic freedom. In 1980 and again in 1988 Milton and Rose accepted the invitation. Though the exact connection between his recommendations and China’s new policies is lost in history, China changed. Deng Xiaoping said: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” It was a way to sell the changes to those that mattered. Today, in spite of Xi Jinping’s despotic control, China’s acceptance of mostly free markets has benefitted its population in ways that Mao would never have dreamed of.
Finally, and not an especially favorable reflection on libertarians, is the Costa Rican experience. A thriving democracy, Costa Rica has a lively political environment. (I once saw a lovely chanteuse warming the crowd at a political rally in Puerto Limón before urging a vote for the party she represented.) The Costa Rican Libertarian Party has been effective in influencing policies. In 2006 and again in 2010, it attained third place in national elections, receiving 20% of the popular vote. In essence, it became a power broker in the halls of congress. Unfortunately, it later turned Right on some social issues, while some members became mired in money scandals. Today it retains at most a 1% following.