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Interrogating Javier Milei – The American Conservative

Earlier this month, Argentine president Javier Milei delivered a half-hour address at the Milken Institute’s annual global conference. During his speech, Milei railed against the horrors of socialism and collectivism, lauding a revisionist, free-market history of both Argentine and human development. Free-market capitalism, Milei says, generated “an explosion of wealth that lifted 90 percent of the world’s population out of poverty [via] the Industrial Revolution.” Argentina, on the other hand, allowed itself to be seduced by the “siren songs that inevitably lead to socialism and poverty.”

On their own, both claims are not difficult to refute. Indeed, it was neither Adam Smith nor Milton Friedman who delivered onto Britain, Europe, or the United States the industrial revolution. Rather, in Europe, industrialization was the product of aristocratic mercantilism—not free trade. Similarly, America’s industrial might derived from the American System of Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, and Henry Carey that promoted domestic industry via protectionist measures. 

No surprise, even the vaunted glory of Argentina’s turn-of-the-century prosperity came with a number of “market distortions,” such as subsidizing mass migration from Europe as well as the mass giveaway of virtually free land for low-skill immigrants. One could also critique the parameters by which Milei and libertarians gauge prosperity. Sure enough, during the early 20th century, Argentina had one of the highest rates of per capita GDP on the planet. Yet productivity and educational outcomes were far worse in Argentina than those of per capita peers on account of the country’s status as an agrarian resource colony. 

It was, instead, the populist, anti-communist Juan Perón—as well as his military and civilian successors—that transformed the country into a middle class, industrial republic with aviation and car manufacturing by the mid-20th century. In the words of Dr. William Godnick at DoD’s Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense, “Argentina would not have an auto industry were it not for protectionist policies.” Of course, such statements are neither a defense of socialism nor of gross mismanagement across multiple administrations in Argentina since the 1970s. Rather, they are an acknowledgement of common good capitalism as it has existed in practice as opposed to the utopian delusions of “real libertarianism.” 

More importantly, Milei’s speech features a veiled if much more pernicious critique. The West, he says, “is in danger because its leaders turned away from the ideas of freedom, ideas that made [it] the most important civilizational feat in human history.” For those acquainted with the quotidian concerns of libertarians, it’s clear that the rising tide of global protectionism is among the chief threats to Milei and Milken attendees’ [investor] “freedom.”   

Just days after the address, President Biden announced a series of sweeping tariffs on various Chinese goods including electric vehicles, semiconductors, steel, and solar panels. And while market fundamentalists could well hand wave away such moves as dangerous statism, American conservatives know full well that the current administration’s protectionist policies have been both a continuation and expansion of those enacted by Donald Trump. 

The Republican frontrunner has called for a further 60 percent tariff on all Chinese goods as well as a tariff of at least 10 percent on all $3 trillion worth of American imports. To say that this does not conform to Milei’s libertarian agenda is an understatement, his embrace of Trump at CPAC notwithstanding. The Argentine leader has stated categorically that “tariffs should not exist.” While Donald Trump appeals to blue collar workers in defense of the American auto-industry; Milei carries water for global financial elites, the “true heroes of the history western progress” as he told Milken attendees. 

None of this is lost on the man who said recently that reading Gérard Debreu’s Theory of Value gave him more pleasure than reading his first Playboy magazine. In more measured settings, the Argentine leader has waxed considerable ambivalence towards America’s 45th president. In an interview with the Economist, the interviewer asked whether Milei admired Donald Trump. His response:

I, let’s say…I mean…what I can say is that there is an alignment with all those who are willing to fight against socialism at the international level.

All those who want to fight against socialism at the international level are my allies. Because the enemy is socialism, the enemy is statism, the enemy is collectivism. And all those who are willing to fight that fight, we are all together.

Later we will discuss the emerging order, whether it will be more or less liberal, whether it will resemble classical liberalism or minarchism or anarcho-capitalism, but that is a second order discussion.

Of course, both supporters and detractors know full well that the former president is not a classical liberal, a minarchist, or an anarcho-capitalist. Moreover, per Milei’s reading of history, all that is not of the free market is—by definition—a nefarious form of collectivism. 

It should also be noted that, in some ways, the Argentine president is closer to president Biden on matters of foreign policy. In the same interview with the Economist, Milei proclaimed: “I was one of the first, I would almost say I was the first to condemn the invasion of Ukraine. In fact the Ukrainian Embassy lent me the flag of the Embassy so that I could go and protest. And I did, actively.” Milei’s approach towards foreign policy is largely confined to Cold War maxims as opposed to national interests.

This is not to say that Trump (or Biden for that matter) should not pursue good relations with Milei’s Argentina. On the contrary, Washington should promote good relations—and investments—in most all Latin American countries as a counterweight to growing Chinese influence in the region. With that said, the underlying geoeconomics of Cold War II will inevitably push both the United States and its allies towards increasing protectionism and industrial policies. Javier Milei may have embraced both MAGA and Donald Trump; his policies, however, harken to a bygone era in American politics whose time has run its course.

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