By Shayne O’Loughlin
In a previous article, I took a journalistic approach to covering the curiosity that was Javier Milei, the libertarian Argentine presidential candidate, with a healthy balance of skepticism and optimism. No doubt that in a nation where a political ideology like Peronism has dominated politics for more than half a century, placing any bets on black would have been too dangerous a gamble.
After the release of that article, the first round of the Argentine election commenced on October 22nd, and the results were not as conclusive as I had anticipated. The Peronist candidate Sergio Massa had amassed 36.8% of the vote, with Milei and right-liberal Patricia Bullrich coming in second and third places with 30% and 23% of the votes respectively. Opinion polling in the interim between the first and runoff rounds of the election showed wavering support for Milei, what seemed like the product of Bullrich’s center-right coalition dividing their support between the establishment candidate and the radical libertarian candidate, with an obvious bias towards the more politically digestible option.
Admittedly, I had lost much of my own inertia towards a potential Milei victory, now being much more careful in sharing my confidence with my cohorts. I muttered about every libelous article calling Milei a ‘Trump-like’ ‘far-right conservative’ I saw, but I couldn’t overcome the defeatist attitude that I’d bet my older libertarian friends felt seeing Ron Paul be stomped out of the GOP’s presidential race twice in 2008 and 2012.
In a moment of unexpected allegiance, Bullrich endorsed Milei for the runoff, but this did not seem to bring any solace to the greater libertarian sphere. Then, Milei had a televised debate with Massa which—perhaps due to the lack of general interface between the English- and Spanish-speaking social media worlds—yielded mixed results. Just a few days before the election, Milei’s Instagram account released a list of clarifications in response to purported policies he supported and character traits he displayed. These included more hilarious corrections like explaining that, no, he wasn’t a Nazi or attempting to reinstate a dictatorship, and, no, he didn’t have sex with his sister. More concerning were some policy corrections that this post made, like claims that Milei did not want to privatize education, healthcare, or social security, and that he would not be embracing a large-scale right to bear arms or the legal sale of organs.
From a libertarian perspective, these seemed like huge recissions of his previously stated principles, likely in an attempt to save face before the runoff election. The question of whether Milei had actively espoused these principles publicly in the past is not relevant to what he should advocate as a libertarian candidate. Anyone who adheres to the non-aggression principle would support such policy decisions, and his refusal to do so raised some red flags. Others found more raised when Milei showed support for Israel after the Hamas terror attacks earlier in November. The Israel-Palestine conflict is a great point of contention among libertarians, with many extolling neutrality rather than interventionism. This, along with Milei’s anti-abortion views, has divided libertarians’ opinions on him.
Suffice it to say, some of Milei’s greatest critics have been from libertarians themselves, and the brunt of it has shown itself during this interim when tensions were high and hopes relatively tempered.
Then, on November 19th, Argentina had its runoff election. Pollsters predicted a close race, and the collective nail-biting reconvened accordingly. There was reportedly evidence of ballot tampering among anti-Milei dissidents, including video footage apparently showing leftists easing their bowels on La Libertad Avanza ballots. Despite the fears of election fraud, official ballot counters promised to count these damaged ballots regardless. The results sang like poetry, like your favorite underdog team pulling ahead in the championship game despite the odds against them. As the counting went on, results were expected at 7 P.M. EST, and slowly but surely, the votes came in.
Starting with overseas votes, Milei won handily. Within the first 5% of votes counted, Milei’s chances of winning increased from being nearly 50/50 to over 90%. Out of Argentina’s twenty-four provinces, Milei would go on to win twenty-one of them. He would lose in Argentina’s most populous province, Buenos Aires, by only 1.47%. With all said and done, Milei won with 55.7% of the vote; an >11% lead, and the largest in Argentinian democratic history. By 5:30, Massa had already conceded defeat.
The center stage at Milei’s headquarters was pummeled with cheers of “Presidente! Presidente!” and “Libertad! Libertad!” from the audience, as the lion himself entered the colosseum. Behind his podium he read his speech, promising that a new age had dawned in Argentina, defined by a respect of property rights, law and order, and free trade.
“Today is a historic night, not for us,” Milei continued, “but because one way of doing politics has ended and another has begun.”
The subtext of this quote couldn’t be any more obvious: “The age of overbearing statism is over. Long live liberty.”
It’s never so simple, however, to say that this is true. Yes, a self-described anarcho-capitalist won a presidential election, but that is just a superficial view of the events that transpired. An anarcho-capitalist country this does not make.
To the credit of my libertarian peers, the work has already begun on a crucial step I frankly wasn’t expecting: we must be hypercritical of every action Milei takes. With one man playing representative to a whole ideology in its first run-in with power, more so than ever libertarians must remain vigilant to the blowback we’ll most definitely receive. Every media outlet and power-grabber is going to be looking for failures in Milei’s presidency to apply it to the whole of libertarianism. This will be made easy by dishonest actors using selective evidence to vindicate their worldviews.
As such, we must be on the frontline as harsh critics, and as first responders when a policy of his pushes against libertarian principles, but we must also work to debunk propaganda when we see it. We should also use Milei’s presidency as a litmus test to see where the outer limits of our abilities rest, should we have political sway in the future. We shouldn’t be surprised at the adversity we face, nor should we expect that the political means will lead to anything more than providing a temporary (yet hopefully fruitful) respite from state interventionism.
We must remember next that the majority of Argentines are not radical libertarians. When forced between a rock and a hard place, people will try to push the rock every time. The Argentines responded to a 140% inflation rate and 40% of the population living under the line of poverty by electing someone who promised change.
A firebrand like Milei is a populist, with the benefits and drawbacks inherent to populism. He can channel the resentment of the populous into something constructive, but he does so at risk of simplifying his message to appeal to a wider range of voters. While he draws the attention of many, their allegiances are fickle. This is a fact of the democratic system, where high time preferences from voters beget high time preferences from politicians. The populist strategy is like a hypergiant star, burning brightly, but hardly sustainable in the long run. If Milei’s policies take too long to yield results, voters might become jaded by the next election, and vote him out prematurely.
Some argue whether real change can come from the ballot, and say we need to cultivate a culture of liberty in order to maintain its tree. One way some libertarians call for this is by using counter-economics; trading and bartering goods and services away from the prying eyes of government taxation, effectively creating a culture parallel to government influence. Then if the government attempts to intervene in reaction, it would not be so easy for them to assume control. An example of this already taking place within Argentina with masses adopting the US Dollar as an alternative to the much weaker Argentinian Peso. It’s because of this distrust in the country’s own financial institutions that Milei’s explicit policy on abolishing the central bank helped win him the president’s office. One may wonder if a top-down approach to creating a libertarian culture among the population is possible. This is a question whose answer we can only predict from our armchairs, as Milei takes on the task.
Even under the worst-case scenario, we shouldn’t lose hope in the ideas that underlie the movement. As I write this, news is still coming out about Milei’s proposal to privatize the airline industry in Argentina, by giving shares of Aerolíneas Argentinas over to the workers along with a year of funding from the government for them to attempt to make the business profitable. This strategy is being adopted as opposed to the usual privatization scheme of auctioning the monopoly off to the highest bidders, a strategy which has led to further cronyism and little palpable change.
What makes this idea remarkable, ignoring the potential effectiveness of this strategy in keeping Aerolíneas Argentinas afloat in the long term, is where the idea hailed from: the New York City apartment of the economist Murray N. Rothbard who, in 1969, included his article “Confiscation and the Homestead Principle” in his biweekly magazine The Libertarian Forum. It needs to be reiterated that from the early days of Rothbard’s salons, where the principles of libertarianism were first expounded among maybe a dozen friends, to today with the upcoming inauguration of the first libertarian head of state, only about six decades have passed.
With this in mind, it’s almost miraculous that it has only taken this long to see policy decisions by perhaps its most radical godfather come to fruition. For the wayward soul who yearns for freedom, we have a responsibility to spread the ideas of life and property. To be effective activists for freedom, we have to continue to learn, educate, debate, and discuss. Whether Milei lives up to the hype, we must take his presidency as it comes: as a learning experience on the road to liberty in our lifetime. To those who fight for freedom the world over, I call you in chorus:
“Long live freedom, damn it!”