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Argentinians Pick Their Poison
This Sunday, the country picks between two men who should never be allowed near the levers of power.
Argentina heads to the polls on Sunday for a presidential runoff, so you know right away another tragedy is in the offing. The vote is a grim pick-your-poison affair, with Javier Milei—a libertarian Trump-fan who campaigns swinging a literal chainsaw like some kind of demented teenager—up against the front-runner Sergio Massa—a staid, middle-of-the-road center-left finance minister who’s wrecked the country already.
Now, if you’re like most non-Argentinians, you picked up on the T-word in the last paragraph and your mind is made up already. If you’re against Trump—and most readers here will probably fall into this category—you’re likely feeling sure that however bad this chap Massa’s record might be, he can’t possibly be worse than the chainsaw guy. And if you’re for Trump, well, you also probably feel like you know as much as you need to know about this election—surely it will take Javier Milei to make Argentina great again. Such, alas, is the polarizing potency of “the Orange One” that it collapses all controversies, foreign and domestic, into itself.
That people rely on this kind of heuristic is fully understandable. But it’s also unfortunate, and nowhere more so than in Argentina, a country that specializes in scrambling the outside world’s political and economic categories. Because Sergio Massa isn’t just a staid, establishment politician: he’s a staid, establishment Peronist politician. And Peronism has been a sort of biblical plague for Argentina.
Let’s get down to basics. The man who lent his name to the movement Massa now leads was Juan Domingo Perón, who was Argentina’s president between 1946 and 1955, and again briefly in the early 1970s. Perón was the OG Populist, husband of Evita, and a kind of Trump avant la lettre whose toxic legacy explains almost everything about Argentina’s bizarre, century-long process of dis-development.
Peronism is notoriously difficult to pigeonhole in ideological terms: a bizarre left-right-populist mash-up that’s better understood as a vibe than an ideology. In the 1930s, while spending time in Europe, Perón wrote with glowing admiration about Germany under Adolf Hitler and (to an even greater extent) Italy under Benito Mussolini, greatly admiring the latter’s seemingly magic rapport with the common people.
That unmediated connection, that strong-man bond between the government and the masses, has been the backbone of Peronism ever since. And while Peronism after Perón veered between left- and right-wing variants over the decades, it never shed Perón’s signature trait: an unerring knack for making the most destructive of all possible economic policy choices through repeated, ham-fisted attempts at debt-financed wealth redistribution that end up making everyone much, much poorer.
The story’s been told a million times before, but it remains as shocking as ever. On the eve of the First World War, Argentina was a developed country. Its GDP per capita was on par with France and Germany’s, and much higher than Spain’s. In the ensuing hundred-odd years, the country’s traversed the gap between developing and developed nations—backwards. It was a process of systematic blundering that’s become its own subfield of development studies under the sadly ironic name of “Argentinian exceptionalism.” Long story short, Argentina’s per capita GDP, which was more than 80% of America’s a hundred years ago, is barely 30% of America’s now.
The dynamics at play are captured in one of the most cited papers in Latin American studies. In “The Macroeconomics of Populism,” Rudiger Dornbusch and Sebastian Edwards explain how reckless redistributive policies in the region set in motion predictable cycles that first bankrupt the state, then set off an inflationary spiral and eventually lead a new government to go begging for a rescue package from the International Monetary Fund which, inevitably, gets blamed for the entire sorry mess. As decades of scholarship prove, at the end of this cycle the very people the redistributive policies were ostensibly meant to help are invariably poorer than they were at its start.
The sad bit is that Dornbusch and Edwards’ paper was published in 1991. It spawned a cottage industry of research to document the finer points of economic policy around the region. And yet all these years later, Peronism continues to make the same mistakes. Like the French Bourbons of the 18th century, Peronists learn nothing and forget nothing, leaving the country trapped in an infernal Groundhog Day of economic malpractice, with the public sector still spending way too much, inflation still out of control, and working people still getting poorer and poorer with each run-through of the populist cycle, forever.
Venezuelan intellectual Moisés Naím has called this kind of policymaking “ideological necrophilia”: the rock-solid attachment some politicos in the region have for dead economic ideas. And it is ongoing, because let’s not forget that Sergio Massa is Argentina’s sitting finance minister, and personally responsible for the latest set of populist spending splurges that have seen inflation shoot up to 143% a year and the poverty level rise above 40% of the population, all while the country struggles to dig itself out of the most recent IMF rescue package on its way to the inevitable next one.
Come to think of it, there’s a grim contradiction in our original description of Massa as an “establishment Peronist”: a howling oxymoron. Imagine a Republican politician in the United States in the year 2093 being described as an “establishment Trumpist” and you get some taste of how entrenched Peronist misgovernment has become in the country’s political culture.
It takes grasping the scale and scope of Argentina’s economic dysfunction to begin to understand why otherwise reasonable people might be tempted to vote in large numbers for a figure like Javier Milei on Sunday. Luxuriating in his extremism, Milei proposes the kind of libertarian shock therapy that fell out of favor in the region years ago: privatizing all publicly-owned companies in a hurry, shutting down ministries, slashing state spending as a proportion of GDP by a staggering 15 percentage points, abolishing most taxes, adopting the U.S. dollar and ending the entire Peronist giveaway state in one fell swoop. That’s what the chainsaw is about: a none-too-subtle hint that the guy’s vision for cutting back on Argentina’s hypertrophied state is the opposite of surgical.
In a country where huge swathes of the population are dependent on government patronage to put food on the table, this is a daring platform indeed. Massa overperformed in the first round of polling last month precisely by reminding people of the implications of Milei’s plan for their own pocketbooks. Here, Peronism comes full circle: using the reaction to the insane spending policies that made Argentina poor in the first place as a reason to vote for… those same policies.
Of course there’s every reason to fear Milei’s extremism would be self-defeating in office: shock therapy failed pretty much everywhere it was tried in the 1980s and 1990s, destabilizing already frail societies and leaving vulnerable people in such dire economic straits that reform itself came to be seen as the enemy. Ideally, Argentina would pursue a careful, gradual path away from the ruinous legacy of Peronism. Alas, the candidate who was proposing that path came third in the first round of voting (she then endorsed Milei for Sunday’s run-off).
And so whatever happens, Argentina is in for a bad time. That large numbers of Argentinians are fully awakening to the toxic legacy of Peronism is something that we should all welcome: seldom has an ideology given rise to so much misery over so many decades. But the vehicle they’ve picked for their revolt is a man plainly unsuited for government: a far-right narcissist ideologue blind to all nuance, unconcerned with the human costs of the tectonic shifts he is proposing and apparently allergic to dialogue and compromise.
Having campaigned swinging a chainsaw, Javier Milei seems determined to govern in the same manner. You wouldn’t want to be in his way when he does.
Francisco Toro is a contributing editor at Persuasion.
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