A Political Earthquake in an Overeducated Latin American Republic: Argentina Elects Javier Milei

In stockjobber parlance, Argentina is “risk on.” By electing rising political star Javier Milei as President—he took office on December 10th—Argentina is the first modern nation to embrace the libertarian creed. We’ve not had such a determined political philosophy on the world stage since Goldwater—maybe Reagan.

The runoff on November 19th wasn’t even close. The official tally was 56 percent for Milei and 44 percent for socialist candidate Sergio Massa. He beat Massa in 20 of his nation’s 23 provinces, and shocked many observers by winning precincts in the Peronist strongholds of Buenos Aires and Formosa. His political program appealed to upper-class and middle-class voters. But he also attracted a working-class frustrated by rising costs of living that outpace salary increases meant to adjust for rampant inflation. Inflation in Argentina nears an annual rate of 150 percent as of this writing, and the prognosis for the future remains grim.

In psychological terms, the explanation for the dramatic shift is a bipolar nation. On the one hand, Milei’s success shows that ideas matter in Argentina. For decades a network of marginal educational institutions has cultivated economic and political commonsense in opposition to the dominant statist fictions.

That finally paid off.

Milei heralds, too, a new international federalism that spans the remnants of the Spanish Empire. Libertarians and conservatives from more stable countries like Chile, Perú, and Spain, along with exiles from stormier climes like Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, rallied in support of Milei’s La Libertad Avanza party. Remarkable, yes. But nobody should be surprised that Argentines recognized and embraced Milei’s alternatives, which include downsizing public education, privatizing state-owned industries, reigning in bloated welfare programs, reversing a downright sinister foreign policy, and eliminating a national bank used to finance redistributionist fantasies.

On the other hand, if you live in a democracy, you know desperation drives most serious changes. Marxist dogma at practically every level of humanist instruction in Argentina has been compounding that country’s woes for generations. She’s now listing and scraping along the rocky bottom for the umpteenth time. At one point she was an economic dynamo. Early in the twentieth century, Argentines ranked among the wealthiest people on earth. That was thanks to the free-market modernization shepherded by Juan Bautista Alberdi (1810–84), the great federalist and classical liberal reformer. Alberdi—whom Milei claims as his polestar—was the architect of the celebrated Constitution of 1853. But the progressive era killed that dream. Around 1930, a gust of anarcho-syndicalist violence blew the nation off her keel. She has tossed about ever since.

Dictatorial regimes, economic stagnation, and clumsy top-down approaches to life’s problems ruined a proud nation. When Mexicans and Panamanians begin to shake their heads, you know you’ve had a bad run. Argentina is now the antithesis of the cultural and economic boom in neighboring Chile that’s borne so much fruit since the 1980s. Another bout of hyperinflation looms, and her poverty rate hovers around 40 percent. The status quo has finally become unacceptable.

Milei seems like the right man for the job. An economist by trade, he’s also a formidable public speaker, and he grasps the psychology and symbolism of mass movements. He taunts Argentina’s ruling Mandarins by calling them the “caste,” and he stokes the public’s wrath with millennialist language. He vows he’s come “not to lead lambs but to awaken lions.” Milei’s nicknames, “el peluca” and “el león,” refer to his free-flowing mane, so his vow is an artful Freudian projection of his ego onto the faithful. Milei leans into the crowds that flock to him on the streets. At rallies he gambols about on stage, conducting the chants of his followers with outstretched palms and rhythmic gestures, as if lifting everyone skyward. “¡Que viva la Libertad!” he shouts, finishing with an impish growl, “¡CARAJO!”—the trembling volume of it all makes it easy to imagine him playing guitar for the Ramones or Metallica. His vice president, Victoria Villarruel, a species of “iron lady,” has brought grace, beauty, and much-needed seriousness on matters related the police and the military.

Milei’s a showman, but he’s also shy and nerdy at the right moments. During interviews, he furrows his brow as he stares down the questioner. He then brightens and formulates a response, curling and flipping his hands in front of him. Sometimes it looks like he’s carving explanations out of the air. And he’ll often interrupt to correct a mischaracterization of him or drive home a point with a clever metaphor from economics.

Above all, Milei gets the struggle for cultural pride and reasonableness. He gets it more than most on the Hispanic right, which is so often castrated by remorse about its past. And he ought to get it. Argentina is a case study of how leftist indoctrination at every level of the education system can bleed over into the public square with disastrous consequences.

In the language of Milei, bubbles in financial derivatives coincide with excesses in “political derivatives,” referring to all those politicians, regulators, and bureaucrats so unmoored from their only true source of value—the people. Such officials play inflationary games involving reems of weird 100-year bonds, worthless currencies, and targeted tax codes floated to pay for “free” education, health care, and social insurance. This is how the political caste satisfies its voters with fake largesse. Fake because the result is just debt, more IMF bailouts, and a zombie economy. The true tragedy of this bankrupt pathway to “social justice,” common in Latin America, is that it represses everyone’s creativity and dignity, turning them into passive wards of a failing state.

This is why Milei’s stance on monetary policy is so controversial. It’s the biggest threat to the caste’s livelihood. It also stabs at national pride. People who should know better reject dollarizing the economy out of spite for “gringos.” It’s a masochistic echo of the Falklands War. It’s also ironically illogical since gringos first turned to the dollar—the Spanish silver coin known as the “real de a ocho”—when seeking a remedy to an inflationary and fiscal crisis that plagued the U.S. after its Revolutionary War against England.

But Argentines have been at the mercy of their inflationary tyrants for so long it’s hard to remember which crisis unleashed the beast. The nation named after silver (from the Latin argentum) and located next to a river named after silver (el Río de la Plata) has such a warped monetary landscape that it resembles an intumescent nightmare filled with those fuzzy corkscrew thingumabobs in a painting by Joan Miró. I challenge anyone to explain the different exchange rates and qualification requirements for Argentina’s “official dollar,” “blue dollar,” “foreign tourist dollar,” “MEP dollar,” and “savings dollar.” When you’re done with that, try pondering their caps, regulations, and tax implications. You’ll pull your hair out (and probably growl). Here’s another downside to inflation: the staggering opportunity costs imposed by having to navigate such an ugly web of fiscal madness. I wager the oversupply of psychoanalysts in Argentina relates to the way her citizens are hopelessly anchored to legions of accountants, tax preparers, and lawyers.

Argentina’s problems aren’t just economic. The nation embodies the modern era’s titanic struggle between radical individualism and collectivist morality. The Mediterranean mentality of the country’s elites is steeped in Freudian psychology, French philosophy, and Marxist rhetoric, which restrict their capacity for pragmatism and optimism. But that same mentality punches far above its weight in golf, soccer, and motor sports; it displays an enviable sense of beauty when it comes to fashion, architecture, or music; and it rushes pell-mell into irresponsible expressions of joy and fury. The Ramones are so popular in Argentina because they’re Italian-American rebels. Ayn Rand mesmerizes Argentine conservatives because she’s an individualist raging against the tyranny of charity. Argentina rolled the dice in its conflict with Thatcher’s England because they’re the only people beyond Spain who could be bothered to remember Blas de Lezo or Álvaro de Bazán.

There’s an old joke about Argentines: “What’s an ego?” “I don’t know, what’s an ego?” “It’s that little Argentine we all have inside of us.” And there’s the rub, a paradox unveiled by the election of the world’s first libertarian president since Thomas Jefferson. To bring that about required Milei’s overbearing sense of self alongside the unruly independence of his core voters.

Another paradox applies only to the center-right these days. Milei’s unique success carries significant risk for fans worldwide. If he fails, supporters and affiliates will be cast into the wilderness for another forty years. The stakes are high, and the Latin American left is adept at messaging and marching. They and their international associates sense an opportunity to do big damage to libertarianism and conservatism. We should expect street mobilizations, strikes, vandalism, and violence more intense than anything we’ve seen in the West for fifty years.

Milei can fail in two ways. His plans could meet so much resistance that they yield nothing tangible. The leftist reaction, which is acute among academics and public employees, combined with the inflationary legacy of the outgoing Kirchnerist regime of Alberto Fernández, might leave such deep socioeconomic scars that no plan will produce the recovery needed for Milei to claim success. Worse still, he might lose his nerve in the face of such a Herculean task framed by so much public vitriol.

Overthinking your reelection can be the biggest mistake of all. If Milei wants to create something durable and not be a bump in the road to serfdom like Macri or former President Menem, then he must expend his political capital early and hope for the best. This is no time for gradualism. And supporters, investors, and donors had better rally to the cause. Likewise for center-right Hispanics, who must overcome envy and doubts about Milei’s style. Spain in particular must listen to former President Aznar and strive to become a catalyst for freedom linking Latin America, Europe, and the United States. A sane and vibrant Argentina represents a lifeline for Spain more than any other country, especially as it flirts with its own brand of leftist disintegration.

But already there are warning signs. Milei’s closing argument in the final debate was visibly cautious. And his “non-negotiable” drive to dollarize might be floundering. His choice for minister of the economy, Luis Caputo, headed the Central Bank under Macri, and he’s opposed dollarization in the past. As of this writing, Emilio Ocampo, Milei’s original nominee to head the Central Bank, presumably to dismantle it, now appears to have been nixed and replaced by Santiago Bausili, another Macri moderate.

Ominous, too, Milei has for a while been walking back his promises to privatize public education and the department of health. He also seems less inclined to cut the nefarious “planes sociales” by which the government pays people not to work. Nor do his meetings with establishment American Democrats like Bill Clinton and Chris Dodd bode well.

Has “the caste” already tamed “the lion”? It’s too early to tell. On the positive side, one of his first acts in office has been the reduction of 18 government ministries to nine. Milei knows all about the serious economic reforms embraced by Germany after WWII and Chile after Allende. He has before him the outrageous yet steely example of President Nayib Bukele, who has tried to stabilize El Salvador by buying bitcoin and cracking down on criminals. He also has the support of Brazil’s former President Jair Bolsonaro. However, he should in no way expect help from a Biden Administration that remains committed to the leftist destruction of U.S. institutions.

It’s possible Biden’s handlers and Milei might reach agreements on foreign policy. Milei has said his first allies will be Israel and the U.S. Surrounded by Obama lackies, Biden is no fan of Israel. But China is different because Biden must counter accusations his son was bribed by the CCP. Argentina is the antipode of China and therefore key to the CCP’s efforts to take on the U.S. in space. The Chinese presence in Argentina also suggests a showdown in Latin America that the CCP hopes will mirror and counter American alliances with Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. Naturally, the financial corruption of the Kirchnerists figured into the foreign incursion. What exactly does Argentina get in exchange for that Chinese base at Las Lajas? No one knows. Argentines aren’t stupid; we can assume someone got paid. If Milei follows through on his foreign policy statements, that could indicate his catlike independence from the caste.

Jorge Luis Borges once said he thought we’d eventually merit freedom from governments. The left will highlight the apocalyptic implications of an anarcho-capitalist at the helm in Argentina. But anyone who thinks the primary risk to Argentina is the loss of its manifold tentacles of government remains in the throes of delusion or else wants to delude others—probably both. Rich libertarians and conservatives like Musk, Adelson, and Koch need to get creative. Activists and institutions that already support private education, free markets, mineral rights, and personal liberty in Brazil, Madrid, Texas, and Florida also need to step up. The long-term implications for Europe, Latin America, and the U.S. are too great. Argentina is at the epicenter of a struggle for freedom, commerce, and reason in a country that has abandoned those virtues, but which can still access the history, willpower, and intelligence needed to recover them. The world is watching. Milei deserves a chance to succeed.

Photo by Henner Damke — Adobe Stock — Asset ID#: 159552796


  • Eric-Clifford Graf

    Eric-Clifford Graf (PhD, Virginia, 1997) teaches and writes about the liberal tradition as authored by men like Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Douglass, and Jorge Luis Borges. His latest book is ANATOMY OF LIBERTY IN DON QUIJOTE DE LA MANCHA (Lexington, 2021). All of his work can be found here: ericcliffordgraf.academia.edu/research.

12 thoughts on “A Political Earthquake in an Overeducated Latin American Republic: Argentina Elects Javier Milei

  1. Sorry for the dissatisfaction. I’m mostly just interested in Argentina. I think the case study is worth having. Argentina has been playing at socialism, and for whatever reason (corruption? economic fragility? perpetual bankruptcy?) it has failed miserably. To shout, “Be like Sweden!” strikes me as unhelpful. Let’s give Milei a chance and see what happens. Chile compared to the rest of LATAM probably answers your question, though. They have made remarkable progress. Yes, surely with substantial US assistance, but then again, NATO makes things easy too. And I’m not so sure those happy Scandanavian countries aren’t in some kind of demographic death spiral. On some level, it might be naive, but consistent law and order, small government, and free market principles work better than kleptocracies, class warfare, and debt-financed “free” stuff. Is it really rocket science? Perhaps Jefferson was right. Sloshing about between dictatorial regimes and mob rule is going to lead to compounded degrowth.

  2. It would be informative to read an analysis as to why welfare states in Latin America have failed when they have succeeded in Scandinavia and western Europe. Simple shouting “socialism” when the quality of life in these states is, on measures such as happiness, are higher in those states than in the US. Unfortunately, this analysis provides no insight into why the countries in the west and north of Europe, while “socialist”, lead to high standards of living and citizen satisfaction, and the opposite in much of Latin America.

    1. Marc, socialism is when the government owns or controls the major means of production and distribution. Most of the European countries that you are thinking of aren’t socialist. They are capitalist, with high taxes and welfare.

      Their businesses are mostly privately owned and controlled.

    2. A deep analysis of the differences between Scandinavian and LAmer. ”socialisms” would answer your question. Differences between aims, bureaucratic efficiency, and, I might say, ethnicity, go a long way toward explaining why one works decently and the other, horrifically. I’m not implying a deficit of intelligence, but an ethos of responsibility towards one’s own population vs. a balkanized country full of race baiting ”minorities”. See: America.

    3. One might argue that it takes a while for socialism to kill its host, thus a ‘healthy’ host (read wealthy, demographically stable, and highly-educated) takes longer to be depressed by redistributionist schemes than a less healthy host state. As Europe struggles with increasingly-unsustainable statism, the chickens may be coming home to roost. In this way, Latin America was a bellwether that Europe (and to some extent, North America) have ignored. That wealthy, educated states who have had much of their security needs covered by a powerful friend for decades have -only- done as relatively well as Europe, and not spectacularly better, could be seen as a condemnation of the entire social welfare model, that depresses conditions and weakens that which sustains it until such time as it can no longer be sustained, and it inevitably collapses under its own weight.

    4. i think you are mistaken when you label the Scandinavian countries as welfare states, or socialist. While the left in America likes to label them as socialist, as they are desperate for socialist success’s, they aren’t really that far left in economic policy. Also, they have little, or no corruption, or state owned enterprises (same thing). I am not any kind of expert on Argentina but i suspect they have had a history or rampart corruption and state owned enterprises, a recipe for disaster anywhere.

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