By Carlos Alberto Montaner
Liberty and progress (L&P) is a foundation dedicated to the economic education of Argentines. It is a very difficult task, not because of what they ignore, but because of what they think they know after eighty years of Peronism, today transformed into a false Keynesianism. The director of the foundation is my friend the economist Agustín Etchebarne. Now they are determined to create a political party and try to reverse the distressing decline that the nation has been experiencing for many decades.
The first thing worth noticing is that it’s easier to say than to do. While L & P stayed in the field of pedagogy and divulgation, it was well received by almost everyone. When it expanded its field of action, it found insults and that firmly established and hurtful truth: “When you enter politics, you discover that you have thrown your honor to the dogs.”
Nevertheless, it had to be tried. After all, the importance of Argentina always refers to Juan Bautista Alberdi’s liberal ideas (which, updated, are those of L & P) proclaimed in the book Bases and Starting Points for the Political Organization of the Republic of Argentina, with which the modern country was refounded after the Constitution of 1853. In a few decades it climbed to the cusp of the planet, along with the United States, Canada and England.
Argentina had one of the most prosperous economies in the world in the early 20th century. Maybe it was the sixth or the seventh. The country is huge, the largest in Spanish America. With two million seven hundred thousand square kilometers of fertile land and all kinds of climates, plus oil, gas, and large mineral reserves, it could comfortably host Portugal, Spain, France, Holland, Belgium, Great Britain, Germany, Austria and Italy in its territory. Those countries that during the Cold War were called Western Europe.
Today, creating a political party ruled by liberal ideas has nothing to do with the same task in the 19th century. Alberdi thought that “to govern is to populate.” And to eliminate the dead weight of the Church on the decisions of the State. And to decentralize public functions. And to reduce the size of the government. When people talked about redesigning the state, they thought about the government’s architecture that would be at their service.
Somehow it was an abstract debate about ideas. Today there is an instrument without which it is not possible to create a political party – surveys. Surveys show that people have specific problems.
Surveys must ask people what they think society’s three main problems are. Housing? Cost of living? Inflation? Lack of jobs? Insecurity? Corruption? Lack of justice? The answers will surprise us.
We liberals tend to intellectualize debates. We know that freedom must be at the forefront of our values, but society as a whole thinks about the problems it suffers and rejects what (mistakenly) considers an elegant chatter.
I think it’s great that L & P wants to come to power, but I clearly remember the case of Singapore, an infected islet that had been expelled from Malaysia in the early 1960s, when the Castros began their revolution in Cuba.
Today the city-state is the third country in per capita income in the world and one of the most developed. The father of the Singapore miracle, Lee Kuan Yew, a practical liberal in the economic arena, like the leaders of L & P, and founder of the People’s Action Party, began by finding out what the country’s main problem was: it was housing, according to the majority of society.
He began to fix it and communicate that he had solved it. If for Alberdi “to govern is to populate,” for Singapore “to govern is to communicate.”
There was no secret other than unleashing the forces of individual freedom and creativity, letting the formidable forces of spontaneous development operate, while copying the British political architecture and the Japanese achievements in the industrial arena.
In the era of social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, Argentine liberals must come to power and focus on solving the nation’s main problem, while furiously communicating it so that society gives them more time in power until they succeed in recovering the position that the country had in the early 20th century.
It is true that Singapore People’s Action Party is not a model of democracy, but Singaporeans, like Argentinians --like all desperate societies -- are more interested in results than in abstractions. Carlos Alberto Montaner is a journalist and writer. Born in 1943 in Cuba and exiled, Montaner is known for his more than 25 books and thousands of articles. PODER magazine estimates that more than six million readers have access to his weekly columns throughout Latin America. He is also a political analyst for CNN en Espanol. In 2012, Foreign Policy magazine named Montaner as one of the fifty most influential intellectuals in the Ibero-American world. His latest novel is A Time for Scoundrels. His latest essay is "The President: A Handbook for Voters and the Elected." His latest book is Sin ir más lejos (Memories), published by Debate, a label of Penguin-Random House.