Radiography of Javier Milei: politics and his dangerous friendships

The president-elect's proposals form a 'totum revolutum' that should be unraveled in order to understand the to understand the phenomenon he represents.

Javier Milei

Javier Milei addresses his supporters after winning the elections in Buenos Aires on November 19, 2009. TOMÁS CUESTA (GETTY IMAGES)

Unexpectedly, but understandably, Argentina has just elected Javier Milei as president. It is understandable that Argentines did not trust Sergio Massa, the Minister of Economy who leaves office with 140% year-on-year inflation, one of the worst rates in the world, and 18.5 million poor Argentines. But Milei's triumph is unusual. For several reasons. First, he entered politics only two years ago, supported by youtubers, tiktokers and other social media professionals. He had no party, nor the support of the unions, the Catholic Church and the mainstream press. Second, his histrionic character and the insults to which he has accustomed his opponents are not usual, not even in the picturesque Argentine politics. Third, Milei's personal image is far from that of a presidential candidate. He lives alone with four dogs -named after his favorite economists, Milton (Friedman), Murray (Rothbard), Robert and Lucas (Robert Lucas)- and his style is a graft between Mick Jagger and Elvis Presley through the Latin sieve. Fourth, he presents himself as a libertarian and proposes radical reforms aimed at putting an end to what he identifies as the enemy triad: communism, statism, and collectivism.

This fourth point is the most politically significant. Some media have pointed out that this is the first time in history that a country elects a libertarian president, a hasty statement if we take into account that Thatcher and Reagan shared fundamental aspects of this ideology. But Milei is not only said to be a libertarian. In Spain, the right wing, at least the one represented by Esperanza Aguirre, sees him as just another "liberal", while the left wing combines the superlative "ultraliberal" with the San Benito of "populist". It is convenient to unravel this totum revolutum of political concepts, not so much to indulge in the fetishism of labels -after all, as Shakespeare said, what's in a name? -, but to better understand Milei's ideology and how he is perceived.

The first thing we must ask ourselves is whether Milei is a libertarian, the label he prefers. The term sounds artificial: "libertarian" is an automatic translation of libertarian, which in the Spanish context also generates a certain confusion, since it refers to the Libertarian Movement, the anarcho-syndicalist organization of the late 1930s, which has nothing to do with what Milei advocates. Libertarianism has its origins in the classical liberalism of John Locke and Adam Smith, which identifies individual freedom as the supreme value and derives from its important restrictions on the size of the State and its impositions. For unclear reasons, in the United States the term liberal came to designate any new idea, whether or not it was related to the classical liberal conception. Progressive thinking, which advocated a strong State with great taxation capacity came to be identified as "liberal" and hence the proposals of economists such as Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman, faithful to the original liberalism, were placed in the orthopedic category of "libertarian".

In Europe, this shift of labels has not taken place. The European left, unlike the American left, disavows the liberal name, which is still linked to the defense of individual liberties over and above considerations of libertarianism above considerations of distributive justice and the common good. There are those who believe that, in these parts, the distinction between libertarians and liberals is artificial and unnecessary: they are the same thing. But more and more people are using "libertarian" to designate the more extreme libertarians, those less willing to compromise liberty. What is clear is that libertarians are liberals, although, depending on who you ask, they represent only the most fanatical. Libertarianism is not homogeneous. It is a cathedral with several naves and a common foundation that can be summarized in three points supported by all liberals: 1) broad civil, political, and economic liberties; 2) free markets; and 3) a modest role for the state. These premises lead liberals to reject, also unanimously, political systems that give great weight to the authority of the state: fascism and communism, of course, but also the modern welfare state. From here begin the internal discrepancies that give rise to three great liberal families, in which Milei participates to varying degrees.

First, there are the anarchist liberals, also known as anarcho-capitalists. They are the most radical, those who reject any state, however minimal it may be. They consider that a social relationship is legitimate only if it is voluntary. Since the State is not a voluntary organization, but a coercive one - its rules apply to us, whether we like it or not - it is illegitimate. Period. On several occasions Milei has stated that, at least theoretically, he identifies with them. Influenced by the economist and historian Murray Rothbard, of the Austrian school, he does not hesitate to present the State as a criminal organization that practices its particular form of armed robbery with taxes. Replacing the State with the market means replacing violence with freedom: moving from a system in which a few - the politicians - impose their criteria on the rest, to one in which we all decide, and no one in particular, in a decentralized manner. The label of ultraliberal, therefore, makes some sense if we take into account that in Milei's utopia there are no constitutions, but contracts; we are not citizens, but clients.

But running for president with this body of doctrine is like saying "I want to preside over a criminal organization", "I want to be Al Capone". This explains, secondly, why Milei has veered towards a Lockean or mini anarchist, like Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand or Robert Nozick, who justify the existence of a minimal or gendarme state focused on defense against external enemies and on the protection of the right to life, liberty and property. The only legitimate taxes are those required to maintain the institutions of this mini state: the army, the police, the courts, and the registration of property. Many of Milei's proposals attempt to minimize the pantagruelist state fattened by Peronism. His government program includes, among other measures, privatizing loss-making public enterprises, eliminating and lowering taxes to encourage the development of private initiative, ending limitations on access to foreign currency, eliminating export taxes, and one of his boldest proposals, getting rid of the Central Bank.

Of course, Milei's program will not transform Argentina into a minimal state. But for a third group of liberals, the Kantians, this is not necessary. They believe that, in addition to operating as a gendarme, the State can have a limited welfare function. Hayek, for example, was in favor, albeit vaguely, of ensuring a minimum below which no one should fall, especially those who could not fend for themselves. Milton Friedman proposed, somewhat more firmly, to replace welfare state benefits with a kind of basic income: the negative income tax, which allows the state to provide an income supplement to those who do not reach a minimum income. Milei has not embraced this form of liberalism, or at least not explicitly, as he has the previous two. But in an interview in the weekly magazine The Economist he admitted that it is not possible to completely eliminate social benefits, hence he proposes to optimize them. An example in this direction is his proposal to replace the public education system with a voucher model, à la Friedman, which consists of giving parents an amount of money - a redeemable voucher - to pay for the expenses of the educational center they choose for their children, what economists call "a demand subsidy".

Milei walks through the different naves of the liberal cathedral as it suits him. Is he also a right-wing populist? The accusations come because of his flirtation with Trump, Bolsonaro and Abascal -Orbán he says he does not know him well enough. During the campaign, Milei approached these leaders with a vehement discourse against feminism, climate change and the LGTBI collective. Some say that this is a strategic move to capture conservative votes, but liaisons dangereuses do not come for free. Trump, Bolsonaro and Abascal have openly protectionist, nationalist, anti-abortionist, and anti-immigration positions that shatter the foundations of liberalism. Tariffs, tougher borders, Make America Great Again and abortion bans are restrictions on freedom that no one can defend without having their liberal pedigree called into question. Milei is adamant about protecting economic liberties, but he has promised to repeal abortion law and is beginning to propose a tough approach to immigration from neighboring countries, which accounts for 5% of Argentina's population.

The election of Milei raises serious questions. On even days he is an economist who knows liberal doctrine, and, on odd days, he is an out-and-out populist. Who will govern? The Friedman disciple or the Trump admirer? Will Argentina be the new laboratory of liberalism, like Pinochet's Chile, or will he change left-wing populism for right-wing populism? We are not far from finding out, Milei and his "four-legged children" -Milton, Murray, Lucas and Robert- move into the official residence on December 10th.

This article was originally published in Spanish in El País.

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