BUENOS AIRES | Why isn't Argentina as wealthy as Canada? For that matter, why are all the countries of Latin America, without exception, so much less prosperous than their neighbors to the North?
Such questions are apt to come to mind here in the Argentine capital, a city of grand boulevards, elaborate architecture, and quaint neighborhoods with cozy cafes, old-fashioned tango halls, and elegant restaurants serving enormous slabs of juicy beef raised in the pampas, the vast grassy plains beyond the city.
Not far off the beaten track, however, lies a different Buenos Aires: Sprawling shantytowns, shacks made of scrap materials; slums lacking basic sewage, water and electrical services. Many villas miserias, villages of misery, have no names, just numbers, e.g. Villa 31. In sum, and disconcertingly, Buenos Aires is a European city encircled by a country that remains very Third World.
Anyone attempting to write a brief essay on the disparity between Latin America on the one hand, and the United States and Canada on the other, will be tempted to look for a single-cause explanation. The reality is almost certainly more complex — an equation combining history, culture, economics and politics.
Latin America "was not poorer to start with, in say the seventeenth century," wrote Harvard Professor David S. Landes in his landmark 1998 study, "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some Are So Poor." On the contrary, "The Spanish and Portuguese invaders thought of their English rivals as orphans of destiny."
In the Southern Hemisphere, there was gold and silver for the taking. In the North, there was wilderness. "The best the English could do was lurk like jackals on the flanks of the Spanish bullion fleets while their colonists struggled to survive in a hostile environment."
Of all the nations in Latin America, Argentina seemed the most promising. After breaking from Spain and achieving independence in 1816, immigrants poured in from Europe, Italy especially. Argentina had fertile soil, and climates ranging from subtropical to temperate to subpolar.
From about 1870 to 1930 there was a golden age during which Argentina's per capita GDP was neck and neck with Canada's. After that, however, and despite sitting out World War II, Argentines began to make unwise choices.
In 1946, they elected Juan Domingo Peron president. His young wife, a former actress, quickly became the object of a personality cult. "Evita" — celebrated in an eponymous 1979 Broadway musical and a 1996 motion picture starring Madonna — grew up poor and cared about the poor. Whether she helped the poor is a separate question. She famously said: "One cannot accomplish anything without fanaticism," a thesis perhaps not based on a thorough reading of history.
Argentina's congress gave her an official title: "Spiritual Leader of the Nation." Not long after, in 1952, at 33 years of age, she died of cancer. Three million people attended her funeral.
The ideology that came to be known as Peronism was a not-so-distant cousin of fascism, Italian-style. Socialist and nationalist, it stressed social justice — an infinitely flexible phrase — and the empowerment of the working class at the expense of those labeled exploiters and oppressors.
In practice, that meant forced industrialization, income redistribution, government subsidies, protectionism and import substitution. Such policies proved unproductive. At the same time, unchecked government power facilitated corruption, further limiting economic development.
President Peron was overthrown by the military in 1955. Over the decades that followed, he would be re-elected (twice), as would other politicians who proudly called themselves Peronists. There also would be additional periods of military rule. In the 1970s and early '80s, a particularly bloody junta "disappeared" an estimated 30,000 dissidents, unionists, students, writers, artists and others.
Argentina's per capita GDP today is less than a third that of Canada. Last year, the peso lost half its value against the dollar. Mounting debt, hyperinflation, serial devaluations and capital flight are perennial drags on the economy, as are bloated bureaucracies and continuing corruption.
Nevertheless, Argentina's economy is the third largest in Latin America. And, of course, the country is much healthier — economically, politically, in many ways — than oil-rich but tragically impoverished Venezuela. Argentina also is wealthier — not to mention freer — than Cuba.
All this strikes me as fascinating in itself. But I find it instructive as well, not least because, in the United States today, so many people on both the left and the right exhibit aspects of Peronist thinking. In particular, "victim-politics populism" (hat tip to National Review's David French for that apt term), an attraction to fanaticism, and the cultivation of grievances, the belief that whatever you lack must have been taken by evil "others."
Also echoing Peronism is the failure, mainly on the left, to distinguish between rights and social benefits. Rights — e.g. freedom of religion, speech and the press — can be guaranteed by virtually any government. Social benefits can be provided only by economic systems that produce wealth year after year.
Socialism never achieves that. What does? The creation and maintenance of an opportunity society; policies that encourage entrepreneurship, innovation, risk-taking investment, enterprise and the flourishing of the individual and family.
In one of Buenos Aires' great and gaudy theaters, I attended a spectacular tango show. It ended with newsreel footage of Eva Peron projected on a big screen behind an entertainer with a pencil moustache singing "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," the song from "Evita" by English composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and English lyricist Tim Rice.
Many members of the audience — by no means all — took to their feet to applaud and cheer. I found that fascinating and, again, instructive.