Nichols: Why is ‘Libertarian’ Reason Unreasonably Smearing Argentina’s Javier Milei?

by | Mar 28, 2024 | Opinion

When I saw the recent hit piece by Antonella Marty, CEO of Sociedad Atlas at The Atlas Society, in Reason magazine attacking Argentina’s new president Javier Milei, I had to rub my eyes in disbelief. Could this really be coming from the CEO of a prominent libertarian think tank, published in a respected libertarian outlet ? The op-ed, which portrays Milei as an authoritarian populist, is so rife with distortions and unfounded allegations that it borders on intellectual malpractice. As a proud libertarian, I feel compelled to set the record straight and defend a man who is bravely trying to pull his country out of the abyss of socialism.

Let’s start by examining the central claim of Marty’s piece – that Milei is not a “real” libertarian because of some of his policy decisions and rhetoric. But since when did the Atlas Society and Reason magazine, of all places, provide a platform for such blatant purity testing and gate-keeping? The reality is that governing is messy business, especially in a country as dysfunctional as Argentina. Milei has inherited an economic catastrophe marked by hyperinflation, stifling regulations, and unsustainable government spending. In this context, some deviations from libertarian orthodoxy are not only understandable, but necessary as transitional measures.

For instance, Marty makes much hay over Milei’s proposed tax increases, conveniently ignoring that these are part of a broader plan to stabilize Argentina’s finances and pave the way for real free market reforms down the line. As Milton Friedman himself once said, “I am in favor of cutting taxes under any circumstances and for any excuse, for any reason, whenever it’s possible.” But even Friedman recognized that in extreme crisis situations, temporary revenue measures may be needed before taxes can be cut. Milei grasps this nuanced reality, even if Marty and the editors who published her apparently do not.

Marty also has the audacity to attack Milei for making “only” modest reductions to Argentina’s bloated bureaucracy. But let’s be real – ANY cuts to government in a place like Argentina are a minor miracle. Criticizing Milei for not taking a chainsaw to the entire state apparatus on Day One is about as useful as condemning a recovering alcoholic for just having one drink instead of a whole case of beer. Change takes time, and Milei has his work cut out for him trying to dismantle the deeply entrenched Peronist system that has ruled Argentina for generations. The fact that he’s already slashing ministries and regulations is worthy of praise from libertarians, not petty gripes published by a think tank and magazine ostensibly committed to advancing liberty.

RELATED: Petersen: Javier Milei Stands as a Beacon of Hope for Economic Freedom and Traditional Values

Perhaps most absurdly, Marty tries to paint Milei as some sort of social conservative extremist. Yes, he is pro-life – a position shared by many libertarians who believe that abortion violates the non-aggression principle by ending an innocent human life. And yes, he uses politically incorrect language at times. But only through the most bad faith, uncharitable reading could this be twisted into Milei being an “authoritarian” who wants to police people’s personal lives. One would think that Reason, with its long history of advocating a “big tent” libertarianism, would understand that libertarians are a diverse bunch with room for disagreement on sensitive cultural issues. Personally, I’m pro-life, but I’m not about to “cancel” every libertarian leader who sees things differently, and I’m disappointed to see Reason giving a platform to this kind of intolerance.

It’s not just specific policies where Reason gets it wrong – they fundamentally misunderstand and misconstrue Milei’s political style and appeal. The article constantly drops the dreaded “P-word” – populism – as if it’s some magic rhetorical kill shot. But here’s a newsflash: in a democracy, being popular is generally a good thing! Leaders who speak to the frustrations and aspirations of the people, even in a fiery way at times, are not automatically suspect. Would Reason prefer that Milei be an aloof, uncharismatic technocrat with no ability to inspire and motivate Argentinians desperate for change?

Let’s not forget, every successful transformational leader in history has been labeled a “populist” by the entrenched elites they threaten. The American Revolution was a populist revolt against the monarchy. The abolitionists were populists agitating against the slaveholding class. Barry Goldwater, who more or less launched the modern libertarian political movement, was decried as a dangerous populist by the Republican establishment.

In each case, “populism” was just the slur of choice for those clinging to a failed status quo. The same is true in Argentina today. The corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, and crony capitalists who created the current mess are terrified that Milei’s populist message is breaking their grip on power. That’s why they amplify any smears they can find, including sadly from supposed “libertarians” abroad.

The article’s harping on Milei’s unorthodox personality and communication style also comes off as “elitist concern trolling”. So what if he has an eccentric public persona, or if his economic writings contain some unoriginal passages? Voters chose him because of his core ideas and vision, not because of his quirks or whether his footnotes are up to academic snuff.

Here’s what really matters: is Milei directionally pro-liberty? Is he trying to steer Argentina away from the brink and toward a freer, more prosperous future – even if it takes time and the path isn’t always linear? From his public statements, policy proposals, and early administrative actions, the answer is clearly yes.

Is he perfect? Of course not. Will he make mistakes and fall short of the libertarian ideal? Almost certainly. But that’s not the bar any politician should be judged against, especially one inheriting such a colossal mess. The relevant question is: will Milei leave Argentina better than he found it by chipping away at state power and expanding individual and economic freedom? There is every reason to believe the answer is yes.

As an analogy, consider when you’re lost deep in the woods, exhausted and running out of supplies. There are two possible guides offering to help. One claims they can teleport you back home in an instant with no effort. The other says the journey will be arduous, and they’ll likely make some wrong turns, but they’re committed to getting you out as quickly as possible. Only a fool would follow the first guy. The second one is Milei.

My message to my fellow libertarians, both in the U.S. and Argentina, is this: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Our movement is finally starting to gain real political traction beyond just intellectual debates, as Milei’s election shows. With that comes an obligation to engage the system as it is, not as we wish it were.

Purist fantasies about some libertarian philosopher-king waving a magic wand and creating ancapistan overnight were always silly, and they’re downright counterproductive now that we have actual skin in the game. By all means, let’s hold Milei accountable and push him to be the best liberty-advancing president he can be. But he needs our support, not myopic attacks and purity tests from those who seem more interested in preening their libertarian bona fides than achieving real results.

Argentina’s situation is dire, but thanks to Milei, there is finally some real hope. Rather than smugly cutting down that hope because it doesn’t fit our preconceived notions of what an ideal libertarian leader looks like, we should be doing everything in our power to fan and nurture its flames. The future of a great country – and maybe the future of liberty itself – could well depend on it.

Brian Nichols is host of the Brian Nichols Show – powered by Amp America. You can follow Brian on X at @bnicholsliberty.

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