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Milei’s Long-Term Victory Depends on Him Winning in the Battle of Ideas

On Sunday, Javier Milei was elected president of Argentina by a comfortable margin, with 56 percent of the vote. He will be sworn in as president on December 10. 

Over the past year, however, Milei has made a name for himself as an extremely vocal critic of socialism, central banks, and many types of government intervention in general. He has become memorable for fiery commentary condemning the Left’s ideology and tactics while expressing an interest in immediate (i.e., not gradualist) change. He has said he seeks to abolish Argentina’s central bank and introduce the US dollar as the country’s dominant currency. 

His fiscal policy is far more in the free-market direction than any other head of state in a country as large as Argentina (with 46 million residents). Milei has expressed admiration for the work of Murray Rothbard, F.A. Hayek, and a variety of economists who are more centrist than Rothbard and Hayek, but which we might reasonably describe as more-or-less free market. Moreover, Milei self-identifies as a supporter of the Austrian School of economics. 

If Milei remains committed to reining in (or abolishing) the central bank, lowering taxes, and cutting government spending, Milei has the opportunity to push through real economic reforms that could provide relief to the beleaguered Argentinian middle class. These people have suffered greatly under decades of easy-money-induced price inflation, and an ever-growing burden of taxation and regulation. 

Many libertarian supporters of Milei (both inside and outside the country) have responded to Milei’s candidacy with celebratory enthusiasm. Some have declared him the next Ron Paul, and many others seem to assume that his election will translate into actual implementation of his stated policies.  That could happen, but unfortunately, the hard part has only begun.

It is entirely possible that Milei is sincere in his stated goals and in his apparent commitment to radical opposition against the disastrous status quo in Argentina. If so, that is excellent news. After Milei’s election comes the real test, however. Assuming that Milei is sincere right now, that doesn’t mean he won’t later be unwilling to carry out such policies if they prove to be unpopular as his administration unfolds. Given his short history of serving in political office, we have little to suggest a likely outcome one way or another. 

Another possibility is that we may find that he lacks the political skill necessary to harness and exploit what free-market sentiment in the country presently  exists. He will have to do this to actually push through any of these reforms. What political skills are necessary? Milei must be able to convince a sizable portion of the voting public that his policies will work or are working. This doesn’t necessarily mean a majority have to be enthusiastically with him at all times. But he at least has to be able to use public opinion to pressure the legislature and powerful interest groups. Since Milei will not be a dictator as president, he will be forced to somehow squeeze concessions out of countless socialists and interventionists in government who quite literally hate him and his policies. 

This is not just a problem in countries with democratic institutions. Not even dictators can simply enact radical policies at will. As absolutist monarchs and countless military dictators have found in their days, chief executives meet fierce opposition from entrenched interests within the state in all types of regimes—except, perhaps, in fully totalitarian ones. The sorts of reforms Milei wants will hurt many interest groups who have benefited from inflation and high government spending. The productive class may suffer greatly under these policies, but there are also millions of politically active voters who believe they benefit from Peronist-style economic policy. Those who think they stand to lose from reform will resist.

No Victory Is Possible with Progress in the Battle of Ideas 

For the sake of argument, however, let’s say that Milei is both sincere in his views and is also among the most skilled politician we’ve seen in decades. Let’s say he is skilled at the tricks successful politicians employ to confound adversaries and build coalitions. 

Ultimately, not even these skills can bring about the successful implementation of true radical free-market reforms if Milei and his supporters lose the battle of ideas in the meantime. Milei can only succeed if the public agrees that Milei’s policies are “worth it.” After all, as Milei tries to push through reforms such as tax cuts or limits on monetary inflation, his political opponents will flood the media with explanations of how Milei is hurting ordinary people, destroying the economy, or is somehow “a threat to democracy.” Milei’s intellectual opponents will trot out economists to explain how high taxes and inflation are actually good. The public will hear from various “experts” about how Milei is wrong, and the usual socialists and interventionists have it right. 

These tactics are especially dangerous in the short term because efforts by Milei to cut spending and rein in price inflation will be sure to cause plenty of short-term pain in the economy. Cuts in government spending and an end to easy monetary policy tend to pop financial bubbles and drive government-dependent industries into decline. Surging unemployment results in the short term as bankruptcies spike. That, of course, is bad news for any elected politician. 

Unless the public can be convinced that this pain will lead to better days ahead, the public is likely to abandon Milei and his policies in short order. Then, four years form now, the Peronists will return to power and the status quo will proceed as if nothing ever happened. 

The only antidote to this is to relentlessly fight the battle of ideas in academia, in the media, and with the public. Free-market intellectuals, activists, columnists, and speakers must never tire of endlessly recapitulating the truth about freedom, free markets, and peace.  So long as a sizable portion of the public thinks the Peronists “get it right,” no free-market reformer can win.   

After all, the only reason any people—including Milei—quote Austrian School economists or appreciate the wisdom of free-market classical liberals is because those people learned those ideas from some teacher, publication, or organization. Without scholars like Rothbard, Hayek, and the others that Milei says he admires, there would be no Milei campaign as we know it. Without organizations like the Mises Institute, it is a safe bet we would not be hearing Milei call for the abolition of a central bank. Without hardcore classical liberals like Mises, Rothbard, Hayek, Molinari, and Bastiat, there would be virtually no one, anywhere, calling for radical cuts to taxes, spending, and state power overall. 

Those who wage these battles of ideas provide the foundation for the political movements that build upon the ideas. Yet, these movements can only succeed if the public learns—to at least some extent—why fiat money is bad, why state power is a problem, and why high taxes are disastrous. The public doesn’t need to know the technical details behind these arguments, of course, and is probably not interested. But the public must believe on some level that freedom and free markets are good things. 

It remains to be seen if the voting public is willing to give Milei a chance to try beyond the very short term. Much of that will depend on whether or not Argentine libertarians have managed to sufficiently preserve or advance some lingering measure of pro-liberty sentiment. If they have not, Milei will fail politically, regardless of his political skills. If that happens, free-market activists and intellectuals will have to simply keep up the fight until the political situation again favors a viable free-market candidate.  

The situation is very similar for the rest of us in the rest of the world.

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