October 31, 2014
Cristina the market killer
Peronists and Radicals share a distrust of capitalism
Like many a ruler before her, Cristina has put on her rhetorical armour and ridden bravely into battle against the horde of price-gouging retailers, financial speculators, malicious journalists, oilmen and political freebooters who are causing such suffering in her domains. In words that are strangely similar to the ones that were used by the authors of the Roman emperor Diocletian’s famous maximum price edict of 301 AD, Cristina accuses the greedy rabble she has in her sights of looting the country, spreading despair, impoverishing honest folk, and, while at it, seeking to deprive her of the power that is rightfully hers. They will soon get their comeuppance.
Given the strident tone of her call to arms, it is reasonable to suspect that Cristina would not be averse to subjecting the malefactors to the rough treatment Diocletian and other absolute rulers bothered by inflation thought they deserved, but luckily for them she frowns on the death penalty. Will consumers who share her view as to who is responsible for the rapid rise of the cost of living prove equally kind-hearted? Perhaps, but the sudden proliferation of posters encouraging people to get even with well-known businessmen who are allegedly stealing their money made it look as though some government supporters think the time has come for lynch mobs to help keep prices down.
Cristina wants “the market”, that vaguely defined but terribly powerful entity many good progressives would like to do away with, to stop misbehaving and obey her. “Orthodox” economists may prattle on about the law of supply and demand and say there is no such thing as a free lunch, but the president is not having any of that. Along with most other Argentine politicians, she knows that unless she keeps it down, the market can be a very dangerous beast.
According to Raul Alfonsín’s backers, his government fell months before the day set for its departure as a result of a market coup d’état. Cristina believes the market is now licking its chops in preparation for making a meal of her, of her “model” and, as though that were not enough, of Argentina’s last chance of becoming a decent country. A large number of people, including many who dislike her and would be pleased to see her go, agree that all the country’s many economic problems have been caused by big business. For them it is an article of faith.
Diocletian’s attempt to stop prices going up failed. Apparently he was reluctant to apply the death penalty and the mob violence that erupted was not gruesome enough to dissuade shopkeepers and producers from hoarding. Cristina’s efforts to emulate her illustrious predecessor will no doubt suffer the same fate. As Adam Smith remarked, bankers, shopkeepers, middlemen, manufacturers, farmers and the rest of them are in it for the money, not because they feel an overwhelming desire to feed, clothe, shelter and supply with appliances their fellow citizens.
The trick is to arrange matters so that their greed, distasteful as it may be to high-minded individuals like Cristina who would never dream of letting themselves be led astray by a desire to acquire more money, can be put to work for the common good. Most Western governments, including socialist ones, have long understood this. Argentina’s have been a notable exception. Over the years, its governments have contrived to impoverish a country that, had they been just a wee bit more inclined to let the private sector do its stuff, would be wallowing in riches.
Time after time, Radicals like Alfonsín have told us economics should be firmly subordinated to politics. The Peronist battle hymn orders the faithful to fight capital; Carlos Menem got in many people’s black book by changing sides in the 1990s. Deep down, both Radicals and Peronists agree anyone who favours private enterprise must be a traitor in the pay of British or North American corporations. As the two movements have successively lorded it over Argentine political thinking for the last hundred years, it is not that surprising that most people are inclined to take a dim view of anything connected with capitalism as it is practiced elsewhere.
Cristina may feel that there is still much that needs to be done, but by less exacting standards than hers the long campaign that has been waged by Radicals, Peronists and others of a likeminded disposition to save Argentines from capitalist savagery has been a resounding success. Men and women who in other parts of the world would try their hand at business either emigrate or take up politics, a far less risky and on the whole more profitable activity for those who give priority to their own personal welfare.
Whenever the capitalist enemy threatens to make inroads, its foes close ranks and proceed to beat it back. After many painful defeats, most foreign investors have either slunk back home, taking their unwanted capital with them, or gone underground to hide behind Argentine front men and wait for the political climate to change. Many local businessmen have emulated them: it is reported that, thanks largely to their presence, Miami is experiencing a property boom. As for those nasty money-grubbing hucksters who despite everything still linger around, Cristina and her soldiers are determined to teach them a salutary lesson by driving them all to ruin. They think the country would better off were it to rid itself of anything that remotely resembles a market economy. The way things are going, they have a good chance of achieving their aim.