May 21, 2013
Lots of free stuff
When thousands of young Britons went on a looting spree in September 2011, their older compatriots wondered what on earth had got into them. The standard explanations did not hold up. Poverty? Many seemed quite well off. Racism? The mobs were admirably multiracial. Tory spending cuts? They had hardly begun to bite. Though leftwing zealots and some foreign correspondents did their best to make out that what they were seeing was a rebellion against capitalism, others came to the conclusion that it was a cultural thing, that in an epoch in which one’s identity depended on getting one’s hands on stuff, too many young people thought they were entitled to grab whatever they wanted and, while at it, smash a few shop windows. Mob psychology did the rest: if thousands were running wild without anyone doing much to stop them, why not join in? Once the consumerist riots were over, the law courts worked overtime to tell the looters they had got it wrong: hundreds, including many who could easily have paid for what they stole, were sent to jail.
Argentina is a poor country. Average purchasing power here is less than half what it is in the UK. If they were suddenly transplanted to almost anywhere in northwest Europe, most Argentines would qualify for government handouts. Were looting a logical response to poverty, hardly a day would pass without dozens of supermarkets being ransacked. But most politicians deny this is the case; according to Cristina’s supporters, the country is prospering as never before, her antagonists have no desire to “criminalize poverty”.
So, by and large, their verdict is much the same as the one reached by their British counterparts. They agree that poverty is a big problem, but assume that when law and order breaks down it is either because agitators are egging people on or because initially well-meaning but in the long run harmful policies turn able-bodied youngsters into feckless thieving parasites. That is the view of the many who, like Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, take it for granted that most looters are unemployed youths who do not bother to study. Instead, they, and their parents, loaf around waiting for the government to give them a few pesos and feel terribly offended should the money fail to arrive.
That may seem harsh, but there can be little doubt that social programmes backed by most politicians, academics and journalists have had a deleterious effect on much of the populace that has been told time and time again that the poor are innocent victims of an unjust capitalist order and that their fate will depend not on their own efforts but on a moral revolution at the top, the idea being that if the country’s leaders were more generous everybody would benefit. This way of thinking is not new. For well over a century, kind-hearted people have attributed what used to be called “the social question” to corrupt politicians, greedy financial operators and businessmen who would be only too happy to see slavery reintroduced.
Politicians have found the notion that liberal capitalism is to blame for widespread poverty in Argentina, a country that once symbolized opulence but now stands for failure, irresistibly attractive. By letting them off the hook, it allows even the wealthiest to see themselves as victims of malignant forces all decent people should oppose, a point of view that is shared by most intellectuals both here, in Europe and, to an increasing extent, in North America.
This is unfortunate. For decades it has been evident that the more capitalist or “neoliberal” a country’s elite happened to be, the richer and more “inclusive” it will become. While Switzerland, Luxemburg and Hong Kong are swimming in money, others have fallen behind after giving too much power to politicians and bureaucrats. The Chinese “miracle” began the day Deng Xiaoping realized that capitalism worked far better than Marxist socialism and started letting the markets drive his enormous country’s economy: Hong Kong conquered the mainland much as, according to Horace, in cultural terms Greece conquered Rome. In Latin America, Chile had already got the same message; by most accounts, its GNP per head is now far higher than Argentina’s.
The many millions of Argentines who live in extreme poverty depend largely on the underground black economy, which is about as neoliberal as you can get but is constantly under threat and is unable to develop very much. But if a government made a genuine effort to reduce the gap between the black economy and the legal one by loosening up the rules, so, among other things, it would take about an hour, as in New Zealand, to do the paperwork needed to start a new business, instead of several months as is the case here, and most transactions could take place without having to consult some venal and semi-literate functionary, opportunities for those on the edge would be sure to multiply. That in turn would affect the mentality of people accustomed to depending on government largesse by making them aware that it would be better to convince a local businessman they are employable than get into the good graces of a minor political boss or, as apparently is all too frequent these days, the neighbourhood drug dealer. Argentina’s chief problem is not the wrongheadedness of the political elite, it is its success in inculcating its self-defeating principles in the bulk of the population, including the huge numbers that are now “structurally” poor.