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Thursday, September 7, 2023

To Understand Javier Milei, Turn Your Eyes to Central Europe and the Baltics, Not Trump Tower

Comparing Javier Milei to Trump reveals a deep misunderstanding of what Milei is all about.

Image Credit: Ilan Berkenwald - Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

After the primaries, a prevailing narrative has painted Argentina’s presidential candidate, Javier Milei, with the same brush as former American president Donald Trump. But to do so is to misunderstand Milei’s vision and principles. The superficial resemblances between Milei and Trump may seem apparent to the casual observer. But dig deeper and the distinction is clear.

Javier Milei is not a mere populist figure seeking attention with polarizing speeches. He is, in essence, a radical reformist eager to sever the bonds with the cycle of decline that has plagued Argentina since Peronism ascended to power in 1946. Milei is under no illusion that the existing system could or should be saved. His ambitions do not lie in compromising with the populist strategies that have historically failed Argentina.

A Nation in Crisis

To grasp the sheer scale of Argentina’s decline, consider the fate of its currency. Once on par with the US dollar, the Argentine peso now languishes, with an exchange rate hovering around 800 pesos to a single dollar.

Much like this devalued currency, Argentina’s national healthcare and public education systems have been reduced to mere shadows of their intended purpose. The dire state of public hospitals reveals a system woefully under-equipped, lacking even basic supplies like gauze and antibiotics. 2021 witnessed a startling departure from public schools, with nearly 700,000 students dropping out. Whether due to a crippling shortage of resources or the grim realities of child labor, the outcome is consistent and disheartening: only about 10 percent of students manage to graduate high school on time.

In response to this bleak landscape, Milei advocates for a total transformation. He envisions an Argentine economy anchored in the principles of free markets, private property, Western values, and the nation’s classical liberal Constitution, which draws inspiration from Juan Bautista Alberdi. Rather than peddling baseless conspiracy theories or pointing fingers at marginalized groups, Milei gives voice to a sentiment growing, particularly among the country’s youth: Argentina’s statist, highly taxed and uber regulated economy has collapsed and it is irredeemable.

The More Accurate Comparison

One should look towards Central Europe and the Baltics to draw global parallels, especially post the Soviet Union’s implosion. In these regions, reformists did not aim just to amend the preceding system. They wanted to replace it, prioritizing a free market economy and individual rights.

Two emblematic figures that come to mind are Leszek Balcerowicz and Mart Laar.

Professor Balcerowicz’s transformative efforts led Poland out of the clutches of state-owned socialism into the thriving world of free-market capitalism. His strategic “Balcerowicz Plan” reforms ushered in an era of flourishing businesses and a thriving economy.

Then there is Mart Laar, the leader who took the helm of Estonia at the tender age of 32 in 1992. Guided by Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose and inspired by Balcerowicz’s transformative work in Poland, Laar embarked on an ambitious journey of sweeping institutional reforms. With a spirited cry of “Just do it!” he emphasized reviving the rule of law, reaffirming private property rights, liberalizing trade, and waging a relentless war against corruption.

Equating Milei with Trump oversimplifies the Argentine’s distinct perspective. To truly grasp his intentions, one must turn to the reformist legacies of Central Europe and the Baltic. Argentina might be on the brink of an epochal shift, and the compass is not directed at Trump’s America but towards the revolutionary paths carved by Balcerowicz and Laar. Seeing nothing redeemable in Argentina’s populist edifice, he contends it should be torn down, reminiscent of the disintegration of communism in the wake of the Berlin wall’s fall.