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October 31, 2014
Sunday, August 31, 2014

Populists at play

Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
By James Neilson / As I See it

The gov’t must have realized by now that their ‘socialism on steroids’ is liable to have unfortunate consequences

If some nice Radical politician, a law-abiding person like Raúl Alfonsín or Fernando de la Rúa, were in the Pink House, Cristina, Axel and the rest of them would be pestering him to give hard-pressed workers a fat wage increase and stop making them pay income tax. Should he tell them it was impossible because there was no money left, they would say he had forfeited his right to rule the country and set about urging their followers to speed him on his way. They would also demand an immediate end to inflation while warning his economy minister not to take the kind of measures that would enable him to do so.

But, as luck would have it, Cristina, a lady who is keen on shopping and wants everybody to do some, and Axel, who says he is a disciple of two Londoners, Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes, happen to be in charge of the country and money is currently in short supply. So, when confronted by aggressive trade-union bosses who want them to do what they said they would while still in the political wilderness, they have little choice but to behave much as in similar circumstances would the flinty neoliberal conservatives or weak-willed Radicals they say they despise.

The only serious difference between the Kirchnerites on the one hand and Hugo Moyano, Luis Barrionuevo and Pablo Micheli on the other is that the former are in government and the latter are not. When it comes to economics, their views are much the same.

The calamitous situation the country has got itself into can be attributed to the attempt by Cristina and her friends to apply principles that are currently being upheld by their trade-union foes: all they are asking is that they live up to what they say they believe in.

Like the lorry driver and his mates, the Kirchnerites long assumed that filling people’s pockets would not only help them get lots of votes but would also put the economy into overdrive. For a while, that cheerful formula seemed to work but then, as tends to happen after populists have been in government for several years, the country’s engine started to splutter and could explode at any moment.

Opposition leaders are watching what is going on with trepidation. They all agree that there is plenty to complain about, so the would-be general strike that was called by Moyano and company was, as they say, “legitimate,” but most appreciate that it would not be in their interest to support the labour leaders with excessive fervour; in the not too distant future, one of them could find himself or herself where Cristina is now. They all know that whoever wins the next election will have to submit the country to an excruciatingly painful cold-turkey cure, a prospect the presidential hopefuls naturally find daunting, but for understandable reasons they are reluctant to say out loud what they think will have to be done.

Populists thrive on the notion that in the last analysis everything depends on what, deep down, the leader wants. If he or she is a good person and wants people to be happy, the economy will provide them with all they need, but should the leader be a mean-spirited wretch, as is all too often the case, the poor will get poorer and the rich will live high on the hog. That pleasing theory has for long enjoyed the support of Peronists, Radicals and, in Argentina at least, leftists, all of them being individuals whose generosity knows no bounds. Unfortunately, it is dead wrong.

In the long run, countries prosper when governed by mean-minded penny-pinchers. Nobody has ever accused Swiss or Luxembourger politicians of being prone to bouts of lachrymose sentimentality but, despite the spiritual failings of such bourgeois reactionaries, their compatriots tend to be rather well-off, unlike the inhabitants of some countries, including Argentina, who have grown accustomed to being ruled by warm-hearted progressives.

In any event, the last thing market-friendly, middle-of-the-road pragmatists such as Mauricio Macri, Sergio Massa and Daniel Scioli would like to see is a toe-to-toe confrontation between Cristina’s Peronist government and a gang of Peronist trade-union heavies. It would be disastrous for them, and for the country, if people got used to the idea that big government and big labour represent the only available alternatives.

Though they will refuse to admit it, Cristina and Axel must have realized by now that, in the real world, putting into practice the populist, or Marxist-Keynesian, nostrums they favour is liable to have unfortunate consequences. That is a lesson Moyano and his fellows have not had, and, let us hope, never will have an opportunity to learn. Like the president before she found herself in charge of a country in which it was assumed that she and she alone could solve every singly problem that cropped up, the trade union leaders still cling to the old populist verities, among them the belief that because Argentina is “rich” all the government need do is distribute the wealth a benign deity has showered upon it.

This is what Cristina has done and, the way she is going, it seems she is determined to spend every last penny before the dark day dawns when she will have to let someone else take her place. Margaret Thatcher once famously remarked that “the problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.” Kirchnerite populism is socialism on steroids. When Cristina finally departs, Argentina will be flat broke.

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