Streetwise Professor

November 28, 2023

Javier Milei: Argentinian Hercules?

Filed under: Economics,Politics — cpirrong @ 1:26 pm

On Sunday 19 November 2023 the flamboyant–outrĂ©, actually–Javier Milei won the presidential election in woeful, tragic Argentina. “Won” does not really fully capture the result–he trounced his opponent, winning almost 56 percent of the vote.

Milei is repeatedly compared to Donald Trump, but there is really no comparison. He is truly unique among prominent world political figures. So unique that mainstream sources don’t know how to pigeonhole him–though God knows they strive mightily to do so.

Since he is not a leftist, he is of course repeatedly called “far right.” But any epithet that is used to describe both the open borders, anti-collectivist Milei and the nationalist, anti-immigration Alliance for Germany (AfD) is obviously meaningless–except as a signal from the left that someone is beyond the leftist pale.

He is also referred to as a populist, but that also widely misses the mark. Milei is a self-described anarcho-capitalist, whereas most populists now and historically (such as the Populist Party in the United States in the 1890s) are openly hostile to capitalism and markets: modern populists hurl the “neoliberal” insult at those with pro-market views far milder than Milei’s.

Even Milei’s dogs’ names advertise his beliefs and intellectual heroes. They are Murray (for Rothbard), Milton (for Friedman of course), and Robert and Lucas (a twofer for the late Robert Lucas–one of my professors at Chicago). What, no Friedrich? Milei should have cloned another one! (These pets are all clones.)

When I wrote Milei is not a leftist, let’s say that rather understates the matter. Milei loathes leftists and leftism, and repeatedly refers to them on television and in public appearances in scatalogical terms, and calls them “leftards.” He despises collectivism, and asserts bluntly that leftists are out to destroy you. His mission is to destroy them first.

As someone so vehemently hostile to the left and well outside conventional political categories, Milei’s victory has triggered a mass moral panic, especially in the media. The New York Times’ coverage was (unintentionally) hilarious: “Some voters were turned off by his past outbursts and extreme comments over years of work as a television pundit and personality.” Well, obviously a lot more weren’t, but I guess one has to take solace where one can, eh, NYT?

Milei’s agenda is indeed a radical one, especially for a statist basket case like Argentina. To combat the country’s massive (140 percent annualized) inflation, Milei says he will dollarize the economy and eliminate (“burn down”) the central bank. He also wants to reduce radically the role of the state in Argentina’s economy. He says he wants to “chainsaw” the government–and emphasizes the point by campaigning with an actual chainsaw.

His election on this program sparked a rally in Argentine financial markets, with government debt rising modestly and stock prices rallying smartly.

But will Milei be able to deliver? Some early commentary has doubted his ability to govern based on the fact that his party’s representation in the legislature is well below a majority.

Yes, that may be an issue, but not the major obstacle to Milei’s ability to transform Argentina into what it was at the dawn of the 20th century–an advanced, rapidly growing economy and a relatively free society.

The real obstacle is one that is faced by anti-statists everywhere–the bureaucracy. (I do not say “civil service” because that phrase is at best aspirational and more realistically a patent falsehood. Akin to the Holy Roman Empire that was neither holy nor Roman, the “civil service” is neither civil nor a service.)

Argentina’s bloated state is its own clientele with its own interests–mainly self-preservation and an expansion of its powers. Moreover, it has created a whole host of patronage clients in business and labor. Milei’s agenda is an anathema to this nexus of public and private interests. They will go to the mattresses and make war to the knife to subvert Milei and his agenda.

Even a president with an electoral mandate–like Milei–faces formidable obstacles to implementing his agenda. The most important obstacle is what economists call an “agency problem” (which in the U.S. could be referred to as an “Agency problem”). The bureaucrats are agents of the chief executive, but it can be nigh on to impossible to get these agents to implement the executive’s directives if they don’t want to. Their incentives are not aligned with the executive, and are often antithetical. As a result, they resist and often act at cross purposes with the executive.

The modern chief executive’s power to force his bureaucratic agents to toe the line is severely circumscribed. At best, the executive can make appointments at the upper levels of the bureaucracy (such as the heads of ministries or departments), but the career bureaucrats who can make or break the executive’s policy are beyond his reach, and not subject to any punishment if they subvert the executive’s agenda.

This problem is not unique to Argentina. Indeed, it is the main defect in the governance of virtually every country in the world. Cf. Suella Braverman in the UK, who was recently defenestrated as Home Minister for daring to offend the sensitivities of the British civil servants. (I again emphasize this phrase’s oxymoronic nature.)

But the travails of the likes of Braverman (or Trump) are likely to pale in comparison to Milei’s in confronting the gargantuan Argentinian state and bureaucracy. Even if he avoids Trump’s fault of repeatedly appointing those hostile to his agenda to the positions in the bureaucracy he can hire and fire, Milei will still face the immense task of bringing those myriad bureaucrats outside his direct reach to heel.

There are indications that Milei understands this problem, and has devised a solution. Rather than attempting to control particular bureaucracies, he states that he wants to eliminate government departments (like the Ministry of Education) altogether. This is likely the only way to succeed, but whether he can cut the bureaucratic Gordian Knot a la Alexander brings us back to the question of his doubtful legislative backing.

Indeed, Milei needs to be more than a mere Alexander. He must be a Hercules to clean the Augean Stable of the Argentinian state. I don’t hold out much hope–Hercules is a mythical figure, remember. But it is at least refreshing that someone has been elected to play Hercules, and one who is eager to take on this labor. Would that this starts a trend worldwide.

Nota bene: This post also appears at the Brownstone Institute, under the title “Milei’s Task Ahead: Defeating the Administrators.” Give it a click. Brownstone is a good organization that deserves your support. The website has a lot of interesting articles and is worth regular visits.

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  1. Brownstone Institute, congrats Prof. Frequently quoted also in German language alternative media, since Jeffrey Tucker left to found Brownstone.

    Comment by Mikey — November 28, 2023 @ 2:07 pm

  2. @Mikey–Thanks. I have written a few things or Brownstone. Jeffrey asked me to write a piece on Milei to expand on a comment I made in a Brownstone writers’ group chat.

    Interesting to know that it is a presence in Germany.

    Comment by cpirrong — November 28, 2023 @ 4:25 pm

  3. This is going to be a wonderful socioeconomic experiment although that is easy for me to say since I am an ocean and a hemisphere distant from Ground Zero. The Argentines who actually live at Ground Zero may not appreciate the experience of being lab rats.

    Anarchocapitalism sounds wonderful but there is a legit question to ask: can capitalism operate much less thrive in an environment of anarchic chaos? How can markets function without the rule of law and the assurance that contracts will be respected?

    I know that Milei thinks he can shrink the State easily. I suspect this experiment will take a sharply authoritarian turn in short order and the conflict unleashed will doom, if not Milei, the glowing dreams of a peaceful and prosperous future for one and all. Order before democracy ‘n all that …

    Comment by Simple Simon — December 3, 2023 @ 12:27 pm

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