Copyright 1993 Michael C. Monson. Mr. Monson is a freelance writer residing in Phoenix, Arizona.
With the fall of Communism, economic development is now the principal concern of hundreds of millions of Eastern Europeans and citizens of the former USSR. In determining which policies to pursue, though much can be learned from the successful economies of other countries, every bit as much can be learned from countries whose economies have gone awry. This article seeks to illuminate how to develop economically by focusing on an economy that has seen perhaps the most dramatic swings of this century—the economy of Argentina.
Today, it is not widely known that for generations Argentina was the most prosperous country in Latin America. This is the story of how it got there, how it fell, and how it is now trying to get back.
Despite possessing the crown jewel of the pampas, the richest agricultural region in all of Latin America, Argentina was for the Spanish conquistadors a mere afterthought. The Spanish were interested in gold, and Argentina had none. So, while Spain focused on the mines of Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia, Argentina languished.
To protect the flow of mineral treasures back to Spain against pirates, Spain limited the routes of all trade fleets primarily to Panama and Lima. Only a few ships were permitted to land in Argentina. The sheer distances of transporting goods to the authorized ports made it effectively impossible for Argentina to export goods and made imports astronomically expensive. Buenos Aires became the most expensive city in Latin America.
Of course, all the Spanish regulations and restrictions did not stop trade, they just drove it underground. By the mid-1600s the port of Buenos Aires was brimming with Dutch and English ships engaged in open smuggling. Smuggling had become a way to survive. By the time the Spanish fleet system was abolished in 1735, 90 percent of Argentina’s commerce was transacted illegally.
Another thorn in Argentina’s side related to the Portuguese settlement of Sacramento located just across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires. The lower duties exacted by Portugal enabled Sacramento’s merchants to offer lower prices than the merchants in Buenos Aires.
In addition, as if Spain was not doing enough to impoverish Argentina, Spain imposed tariffs on trade between Buenos Aires and internal South American markets. Spain also implemented controls on the flow of specie. Spain was, in effect, strangling Argentina economically.
In response to growing protests, the Spanish Viceroy of the Rio de la Plata jettisoned the mercantile monopoly in 1777 and embraced free trade. While free trade was ostensibly limited to ships of Spanish registry sailing within the Spanish Empire, the practical effect was to liberalize trade across the board. Prosperity surged on a tidal wave of commerce. The population of the province of Buenos Aires tripled over the next 22 years. The annual exportation of hides increased nearly tenfold within five years, and customs receipts rose 20-fold in fewer than 20 years. Commerce expanded so rapidly that the region quickly became the wealthiest in South America.
The Napoleonic conflict in Europe at the turn of the century caused a series of trade disruptions which led to increasingly strident demands by Argentines for unrestricted free trade. Because the merchant-monopolists made rich from Spanish trade regulations were among the most prominent supporters of continued Spanish colonial rule, Argentines increasingly looked to independence as the only means of assuring complete free trade. In 1809 a memorial was drawn up protesting the state of the economy and requesting the resumption of free trade. This memorial was a direct catalyst of the initiation in May 1810 of the revolution against Spain.
Alberdi and the Era of Free Markets
Having been impoverished by Spanish governmental regulation but made wealthy by free trade, Argentines had learned from experience the value of capitalism. Argentina was thus receptive to the ideas put forth in 1852 by Juan Bautista Alberdi, one of Argentina’s greatest jurists, in his classic Bases for the Political Organization of the Argentine Republic. Alberdi wrote: “Today we must strive for free immigration, liberty of commerce, railroads, the navigation of our rivers, the tilling of our soil, free enterprise, not instead of our initial principles of independence and democracy, but as essential means of assuring ourselves that these will cease being mere words and will become realities.”
Alberdi’s classic had a major influence on the drafting of the Constitution of 1853 which supported free markets and favored foreign investment. Alberdi’s call for free enterprise and free immigration, though directed at all of Latin America, was most fully implemented in Argentina.
The results of embracing free-market principles were dramatic. During the 50-year period preceding World War I, Argentina experienced a phenomenal rate of economic growth, one virtually without parallel in world history. From 1865-69 through 1910-14 railway trackage grew at 15.4 percent per year from 503 kilometers to 31,104, exports at 6.1 percent from 29.6 million gold pesos to 431.1 million, and real GDP at a probable 5 percent or higher.
In 1890 the new leader of Argentina refused to accept the presidency until prominent citizens lent enough money to the government to avoid defaulting on British loans. It was considered critical that Argentina not be deemed an insolvent nation. This attitude helped Argentina garner massive amounts of investment from overseas. By 1889 Argentina was receiving 40-50 percent of all British overseas investment. British investments in Argentina exceeded those in either Australia or New Zealand.
Argentina’s railroad system, the largest in Latin America and one of the largest in the world, was primarily built with British capital. Railroads were critical to Argentina’s rapid development, and without foreign capital simply could not have been built as rapidly or as extensively.
The three decades spanning the turn of the century were years of stunning economic growth. Wheat exports rose from less than 100,000 tons per year to approximately 2,500,000. Frozen beef exports rose from less than 25,000 tons to more than 365,000. Railway mileage went from 2,800 to 21,000. It was a period, for the most part, of laissez-faire capitalism. Foreign investments and immigration were encouraged. Personal liberty and economic liberty were supported.
During this period the most influential philosopher in Argentina was the libertarian Herbert Spencer. Indeed, a leading critic attacked Spencerian philosophy for turning Argentina into “one colossal estancia, bristling with railroads and canals, full of workshops, with populous cities, abounding in riches of all kinds, but without a single learned man, artist, or philosopher.” While intellectuals might deplore Argentina’s growing wealth, the masses did not. During this period, Argentina probably ranked second only to the United States in the number of immigrants, and was far ahead of the United States in the proportion of immigrants to total population. More than two million people poured into Argentina from 1881 through 1910. Most of the immigrants were not intellectuals but working poor looking for a better life. During these decades Argentina’s economic prospects looked as attractive as those of any other country in the world.
Despite this huge influx of immigrants, from 1886 to 1914 per capita wealth grew five times as fast as the population. Argentina’s per capita income equalled Germany’s by 1895 and was higher than those of Austria, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. Literacy skyrocketed from 22 percent in 1869 to 46 percent in 1895 and 65 percent in 1914, a level higher than most of Latin America would achieve even 50 years later.
In 1910 Argentina had the tenth most important economy in the world and was one of the five largest exporters. Its capital was the second largest city in the Western hemisphere. Its foreign trade exceeded that of Canada.
In less than 30 years Argentina had undergone a renaissance. From the most prosperous country in Latin America it had become one of the most prosperous and admired countries in the world. Unfortunately, the free-market policies which had propelled Argentina to its economic success were now to be progressively abandoned. Argentina’s demise was not swift and solely the result of a single cause. It took the Argentine government years to decimate what was at the beginning of this century one of the strongest economies on this planet.
The Decline Begins
Precursors of this decline began to appear during the Irigoyen administration which took office in 1916. Though not the first Argentine leader to talk of economic nationalism, Hipolito Irigoyen was the first to give it prominence as a policy. Harangues against foreign investments became more common and strident. Legislation was passed controlling hours of work, setting minimum wages, and otherwise “protecting” workers. Now that the government was taking care of them, a law was also passed penalizing strikes.
In 1919 Argentine government expenditures began a steep ascent and the bureaucracy grew apace. In 1922 a national petroleum agency was set up to develop all newly discovered oil fields, on the basis that public utilities should be owned by the state. In 1927 a bill to nationalize Standard Oil passed the lower house but was defeated in the Senate. Around the same time, agricultural subsidies were initiated. Over the next several decades, the cost of the ever-expanding Argentine government would become a growing burden on the back of the Argentine economy.
During the 1920s a measure of anti-Americanism developed. The United States had a large share of several Argentine markets but Argentina had been unable to develop large export markets to the United States due to a variety of U.S. restrictions and constraints. Partly in response to this trade deficit, substantial increases in tariffs were promulgated in 1923 to “protect” Argentine commerce and generate more revenue for the state. “League of Nations tariff studies in 1927 concluded that, although the 1925 Argentine average tariff on a representative group of manufactured commodities was below that of the United States, it was above those of Canada, France, Germany, and Italy, among others, and at about the same level as that of Australia.” While Argentina’s tariffs on selected items might have been below those exacted by the United States, the ratio of total import duties to total imports was higher in Argentina as more items were subject to tariffs.
Despite the ominous trend away from capitalism, Argentina’s economic growth through 1929 remained robust, comparing favorably with growth in Canada or Australia. However, from 1927 to 1929 governmental revenue dropped 1 percent while expenditures rose 34 percent, and gold convertibility was abandoned in December 1929. True governmental profligacy had arrived, with the treasury openly looted. One of the results was political destabilization. In 1930 Argentina suffered a military coup and lurched toward fascism. Military expenditures increased despite the economic depression, and protectionism was promoted through further increases in tariffs.
In response to the worsening economic and political situation, capital began to take flight. Rather than deal with the economic and political problems, the government attacked the symptoms by instituting exchange controls, suppressing unions, and initiating strict press censorship.
In 1931 a rival military faction took control. While implementing some welcome fiscal reforms, an income tax was also introduced along with the first substantial moves toward government control of the general economy—marketing control boards for meat, cereals, milk products, and wine.
Though Argentina struggled through the decade of the thirties, it was virtually the only Latin American country to maintain service on its external loans. Despite the counterproductive governmental policies, the Argentine economy was still resilient enough for 1937 Argentine per capita income to equal that of France.
Massive Intervention Unravels the Economy
Economic conditions began to unravel rapidly in the face of massive governmental intervention in the economy instituted after another military coup in 1943. The federal government increasingly intervened in provincial affairs, reducing the ability of the provinces to offset the effects of misguided federal economic policies. Political parties were banned, press restrictions increased, and political opponents harassed and threatened; all of which served to reduce the ability of Argentines to debate policy proposals.
With dissent muzzled, a plethora of decrees began to emanate from the government in late 1943. All strikes were banned. A 20 percent reduction in rural rents was decreed. A cut in Buenos Aires tram fares was ordered. The British-owned gas company was nationalized. In April 1944 the government took over the entire grain trade including grain elevators and warehouses. The government ordered a rent freeze in Buenos Aires and sought to control food prices. The government intervened in the economy whenever it thought it could gain support from some benefited constituency.
To maintain the support of the military, military spending soared from 17 percent of total governmental expenditures in 1943 to 43 percent in 1945, while the army grew from 30,000 to 100,000. This growth occurred despite Argentina’s neutrality during World War II.
While tariff rates in the United States steadily declined after 1932, in June 1944 Argentine tariffs were again raised substantially and quotas were imposed on a variety of imports. Protectionism became official policy, and freed from the rigors of international competition, Argentine productivity began to decay. A minimum wage was established for rural workers.
Throughout all of this, the country was deluged with propaganda justifying every new intervention. Every intervention was for the welfare of the people, another piece of “progressive” legislation. Argentina was progressing in one sense. It was progressively reducing the liberty of its citizens and, as a natural corollary, their standard of living.
The First Perón Era
During this period one man was becoming increasingly powerful in the government. As Secretary of Labor, he began in 1944 to pour forth a torrent of enactments mandating improvements in workers’ pay, vacations, pensions, and housing. He intervened in strikes to impose settlements favorable to the unions, but only those unions recognized by his department, thereby undermining union leaders opposed to him. In 1946 this man, Juan Perón, became President.
Perón was a demagogue promising a higher standard of living and more political power to the workers and peasants. Having gained power on the basis of economic intervention in the economy, he now opened the floodgates. If the public mistrusted bankers, he would nationalize the banks. He did so in March 1946. If the people wanted money, he would print it. Money in circulation skyrocketed. If the state needed money, he would expropriate it. Companies throughout the country began to be nationalized.
In May 1946 he created a new agency to monopolize the trade in all major exports except wool. This agency through its monopoly bought domestic supplies at prices far below world levels and sold them overseas at a gargantuan profit. The effect was devastating. Denied fair prices, producers cut back production, laying off thousands of workers who flooded into the cities.
To delude the public into thinking that the government was acting rationally, a five-year economic plan was issued in late 1946. Its primary aim was industrialization to free Argentina from “foreign shackles.” Now any doubts about the wisdom of governmental policy could be dispelled by pointing to the projected results of the five-year plan. No need to worry, the government had a plan.
With businessmen no longer able to plan, as economic decisions were increasingly dictated by economic decrees emanating from the government, the economy began to falter. Rather than giving the government cause to reflect, the declining economy merely spurred the government to even more oppressive intervention.
In 1949 Perón replaced the 1853 Constitution. The new constitution gave the federal government complete control over the economy. Now the frequency of expropriations increased, strikes were opposed, and new press controls initiated. As more and more Argentines began to realize that their country’s economy was crumbling, the government announced sterner measures to dampen dissent. In 1950 new treason, espionage, and contempt laws appeared. The supreme court was packed. In 1951 the government even expropriated La Prensa, the most prestigious paper in the country and one of the premier papers of the world. Propaganda increased, including a fatuous second five-year plan in 1952. By now the government was routinely falsifying data to obscure the bankruptcy of its economic policy.
By 1950 Perón’s regime was on the ropes economically, but was saved by a $125,000,000 loan from the U.S. taxpayers. Perón was free to wreak yet more havoc on the economy of Argentina.
As a result of printing money by the bushelful, inflation was accelerating. Rather than deal with its own profligacy, the government instituted a two-year wage freeze in 1952.
As a result of the 1943 rental freeze in Buenos Aires, there was now an acute shortage of rental housing in the capital.
As a result of governmental expropriation of agricultural wealth through the government’s marketing monopoly, agricultural output in the Pampas region was by 1955 only 84 percent of what it had been in 1935-39. In 1909 Argentina had been the world’s largest exporter of grains. By 1951 Argentina was importing wheat.
As a result of governmental trade policies and nationalizations, Argentina’s economic performance began to lag the economic performance of other recently settled countries such as Australia and Canada. “Argentina turned her back on the worldwide expansion of trade, while Canada and Australia profited from it.” By 1954 the average age of a car in Argentina was 17 years.
As a result of governmental profligacy, a country that had a history of being one of the world’s primary beef producers was reduced to suffering periodic bans on domestic beef sales, “meatless days,” in order to funnel all available beef to the export market to generate hard currency for the exchequer. This in a country where in 1773 a traveler had written: “Meat is so abundant that when it is carted in quarters across the plaza, if a quarter happens to slip off, the driver never stops to pick it up . . . and even a poor beggar on the street doesn’t bother to take it home with him.”
With the economy grinding to a halt and public opposition mounting, the government was forced to lift the wage freeze in April 1954. Now the underlying inflation that the government had tried to hide through its wage freeze became obvious. It was the last straw. In September 1955 Perón was forced from office by the military.
During his reign money in circulation increased at least fivefold. Foreign reserves declined to one-seventh of what they had been. Per capita GNP was only 16 percent higher in 1955 than in 1943. Exports had declined precipitously. After decades of being the premier economy in South America, Argentina had now been passed by Venezuela in per capita income and by Brazil in foreign trade.
Perón, the demagogue who had promised a better life to the workers and peasants, had instead destroyed Argentina economically and destabilized it politically. He had transformed Argentina into a welter of conflicting special interest groups focused solely on appropriating for themselves the largest possible share of the economic pie. Argentine politics had become a matter of courting special interests at the expense of national interests.
Political and Economic Instability
Over the next 21 years Argentina suffered 12 different governments. The longest reign of any government was four years. A couple of governments disappeared within three months. There was no continuity of policies. Economic planning was impossible, for a subsequent governmental decree might destroy any projected benefits. Capital fled the country.
Periodically when the economy was suffering there would be a move toward economic deregulation, but soon such a policy would be jettisoned to favor some special interest. Despite the havoc wreaked by Perón’s interventions in the economy, there was still widespread support for socialism, that is, for government control of the economy. In May 1958 a 60 percent wage boost for unions was suddenly decreed along with a general price freeze, an increase in pensions, and a reduction in transit fares. In 1959 there was a devaluation. In 1960 inflation began to skyrocket and devaluations became routine.
The state became known for deficits, inflation, price controls, devaluations, debt renegotiations, favoritism toward nationalized companies, and ludicrous regulations like the freeze on agricultural rents in place since 1943. By the late 1960s an entire generation of Argentines had been raised in an environment in which the primary purpose of government appeared to be to divide the spoils. Government had become just what Voltaire had declared it to be: “A device for taking money out of one set of pockets and putting it into another.”
In such an environment it is not surprising that changes in how the spoils were divided became viewed as attacks on constituencies. Beginning in late 1969 Argentines began a long descent into violent attempts to secure control over this division of the spoils.
In this time of trouble the country turned again to its self-proclaimed savior, Juan Perón, living in Spain. From 1955 on he had remained the most popular Argentine politician and leader of the strongest political party. Despite his shattering of the economy, the continuing economic decline ironically caused many to recall his era as a period of prosperity and to give him the credit. He was being judged not on the basis of the economic shambles which his policies led to after he was in office, but rather on the state of the economy he inherited as a result of the policies of his predecessors.
Perón ruled from late 1973 until his death in July 1974. In May 1974 Perón had given his Marxist supporters an ultimatum to subordinate themselves to his control or be expelled. The result was a virtual civil war. By 1976 there was a political murder every five hours and a bomb explosion every three. Thousands of people, the desaparecidos, were secretly arrested, incarcerated, tortured, and killed by the military governments of the late 1970s. Now Argentina was not only bankrupt economically but also in terms of social justice. As former President Arturo Frondizi (1958-62) warned in 1974: “[T]here is no investment; where there is no investment there can be no economic development; and where there is no economic development there can be no social justice.”
The relative decline of the Argentine economy is virtually unprecedented in modern times. From one of the most free and prosperous countries in the world, Argentina had declined in less than 75 years and in the absence of war to a country periodically ruled by despots whose standard of living had collapsed. As late as 1945 Argentina was still the seventh wealthiest country in the world. In 1984 it ranked between the 60th and 70th. By 1984 more than 60 percent of the economy was state-owned. There was a government monopoly or near-monopoly in oil, natural gas, minerals, telephones, airlines, railways, chemicals, steel, insurance, banking, broadcasting, electricity, ad nauseam. In an attempt to avoid the disastrous effects of governmental interference in the economy, the underground economy had grown to such an extent that by some estimates it had become as large as the official economy!
From 1979 to 1986 per capita income declined 16 percent to the level of 1966. In 1914 hourly pay rates in Buenos Aires were 25 percent higher than in Paris and 80 percent higher than in Marseilles. In 1986 they were at the level of Korea. In a country once called the breadbasket of Latin America, 17 percent of Argentines in 1986 were living on the food dole.
Argentina’s history of inflation mirrored its economic decline. “Between 1914 and 1929, the U.S. consumer price index rose by 71 percent and that for Canada by 51 percent, while the Argentine increased only by 31 percent.” However, during the 1930s Argentine inflation began to outpace inflation in the United States, and by 1949 Argentine prices were rising much faster than in the United States or Western Europe. From 1955 through 1959 the cost of living in Buenos Aires rose by 39 percent annually. By the late 1980s it was not unheard of for 30 percent price increases on everything in a store to be announced over the loudspeakers.
The average annual growth rate of real GDP for Argentina during 1980-88 was negative. Argentina ranked 123rd among 138 countries. Of the 20 poorest countries in the world, only Mozambique had a lower growth rate.
Moving Away from Socialism
In 1989 a new government came to power and under its fourth minister of economy, Domingo Cavallo, began the arduous task of turning a bankrupt, socialistic economy into a capitalistic one, precisely the task facing the new democracies of Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States.
To increase economic freedom the economy was deregulated. Regulatory agencies were not merely directed to reduce paperwork or advised that there would be a hiring freeze, they were abolished. Recently the number of abolished regulatory agencies stood at 36. Trade restrictions were lifted, foreign exchange controls eliminated, and restrictions on days and hours of business jettisoned.
To increase economic incentives tax rates were cut. Capital gains tax rates were not indexed to inflation or reduced by a token amount, they were eliminated.
To increase competition several steps were taken. All import quotas, except on cars, were abolished. The average tariff was sliced from more than 40 percent to 9 percent. All subsidies to private companies were scrapped.
To decrease economic uncertainty regarding the future, the role of the government in the economy was reduced. Legislation was passed requiring that Argentina’s currency be backed by hard currency reserves. Another law made it illegal to institute wage and price controls. State enterprises were privatized, and the federal government’s work force was cut by 20 percent.
The results of moving from socialism toward capitalism have been dramatic. In 1991 and 1992 the formerly bankrupt government ran a surplus. Inflation has fallen dramatically to a 20-year low. In 1990 the annual inflation rate peaked above 20,000 percent; today it is under 20 percent. The economy grew 5 percent in 1991, a rate higher than that achieved by the United States, and 6 percent in 1992. Argentina has renewed foreign-debt payments, the Argentine stock market has soared, and Argentina just completed its first successful placement of Argentine bonds in the Euromarket. Argentina’s foreign debt, which had been trading on the secondary market at 13 percent of its face value, has risen to 45 percent.
Sadly, the history of Argentina provides a paradigm of how socialistic policies can bankrupt a society. As Domingo Cavallo has said: “For fifty years [Argentina] had politicians worried about how to take from John to give to Peter, rather than thinking of the future, of the sons of Peter and John . . . .” Fortunately, Argentina is now on the way to providing another paradigm, that of how to convert a bankrupt, socialistic economy into a thriving capitalistic one. If these free- market policies are continued and expanded, then the prospects for Argentina’s future may be as bright today as they seemed nearly 100 years ago. 
- John A. Crow, The Epic of Latin America (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1980), p. 372.
- Crow, p. 378.
- Crow, pp. 596-7.
- Carlos F. Díaz Alejandro, Essays on the Economic History of the Argentine Republic (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1970), pp. 2-3.
- Just recently I saw for the first time a Washington-based former government official advocate that the United States default on its national debt.
- Sanford A. Mosk, “Latin America and the World Economy, 1850-1914,” in People and Issues in Latin American History edited by Lewis Hanke and Jane M. Rausch (New York: Markus Wiener Publishing, Inc., 1990), pp. 88-9.
- Arthur P. Whitaker, Argentina (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1964), p. 61.
- Whitaker, p. 61.
- Michael G. Mulhall, Industries and Wealth of Nations (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1896), p. 391.
- Arturo Cruz, Jr., “Glory Past but Not Forgotten,” in Insight, August 6, 1990, p. 10.
- The 1916 election was the first in which all adult males could vote without meeting either a literacy or property qualification. Women were not permitted to vote until 1947.
- It is fascinating to note that this same counterproductive policy and variants of it are currently being touted as a solution for our trade imbalance with Japan.
- Díaz Aiejandro, p. 284.
- Argentina did belatedly declare war on the Axis in April of 1945.
- In the 1980s the United States government created an accounting gimmick, which permitted America’s savings and loans to appear to have more capital and obscured the bankruptcy of governmental policy, that would lead to America’s most costly financial disaster.
- Díaz Alejandro, p. 112.
- Crow, pp. 374-5.
- Some pockets were bigger than others. When Perón fled in 1955 his personal cellars in Buenos Aires held $25,000,000 in gold. This figure is dwarfed by the billions alleged to have found its way into various pockets during the administrations of Mexico’s José Lépez Portillo and Luis Echeverría.
- Richard Gillespie, Soldiers of Perón:Argentina’s Mon-toneros (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), p. 223.
- Donald C. Hodges, Argentina, 1943-1987 (Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1988), p. 184.
- Norman Gall, “The Four Horsemen ride again,” in Forbes, July 28, 1986, p. 102.
- Díaz Alejandro, p. 362.
- The Economist Book of Vital World Statistics (New York: Times Books/Random House, 1990), pp. 40-7.
- Joel Millman, “Who’s out of step?” in Forbes, January 20, 1992, p. 60.