Thrawn Rickle 56

Freedom Argentine Style

© 1994 Williscroft

The new popular president under congressional mandate has privatized a large segment of his government. He has pegged his country’s currency to the U.S. dollar with a legally binding commitment to issue local currency only when it is fully backed by international reserves. He has dropped trade barriers and most restrictions on commerce, opening the door to foreign trade and investment, and creating a healthy small business atmosphere. The effect of all this is a stunning turnaround in the economy of a country that, until recently, was captured in the grip of a repressive statist government and hyperinflation.

Today, Argentina is where it is happening, and the effect is dramatic. All over Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital and one of the world’s largest cities, new buildings are rising, old buildings are being renovated, and the hustle and bustle of commerce is a non-stop twenty-four-hour-a-day event. Shops are filled with high-quality local goods and foreign goods from all over the world. Admittedly, prices are a bit steep, but they are not unreasonable, and people are buying. For many merchants it is the most exciting time they have ever experienced.

Any time drastic changes are made to a socio-economic structure, negative fallout is bound to be present. In Argentina, as private companies take over the various bureaucracies formerly run by the state, one of the first management actions is to trim company payroll to a manageable size. This has left a lot of people out of work in a society that does not have a significant unemployment insurance system. The silver lining of this dark cloud is that by removing nearly all restrictions on commerce, the new government has paved the way for many of these out-of-work people to open their own entrepreneurial businesses. All over Buenos Aires, throughout Argentina in fact, small to medium-sized shops have opened, selling anything from domestic leather wares to imported electronics, serving food for every palate, supplying services from shoe shines to escorts for an evening at the opera, and many small manufacturers are supplying a cost-effective in-country source for the growing larger-scale industrial base. The free market sets the prices, and competition has sent quality sky-high. If the widget you manufacture in your garage cannot stand up to the wear and tear tolerated by the similar widget sold down the street, fold it up—go home and bake doughnuts, because you won’t last long in this buyer’s market; and besides, if you do doughnuts well, you just might be able to capture a share of that market—for a while anyway.

The atmosphere is heady and the pace is giddy. The taciturn need not apply; if you want security, go to Europe or the United States, because three or four other Argentines will gladly accept your job with its present risks. Are you slowing down your plant’s production line? Don’t turn to your union shop steward for support. He will expedite your removal so a more productive fellow worker can take your place. He understands that production is critical to plant survival, which ensures jobs for his workers, which ensures his union’s survival.

Competition is everywhere you turn in Argentina. A typical road may be striped for three lanes in each direction, but that doesn’t stop Argentine drivers from forming five and six abreast at the traffic signal stop line. Each driver pays attention to what is in front, and relies on others to do the same, which “protects” his flanks and back. Drivers compete for right-of-way at unmarked inter-sections, sort of an organized game of “chicken.” The driver with the most bravado usually blazes the trail followed by as many other cars as possible, before another brave soul ventures into the intersection from the right or left. Despite this managed chaos, accidents are rare. On a street corner five or six men argue politics; the discussion is loud and confrontational, yet blows never fall, and eventually they all leave for a round of wonderful Argentine wine at a local tavern that never closes.

.Yet, unlike many places on this planet that host free-swinging markets, in Argentina crime is low, and street crime is almost nonexistent. The typical eye-to-eye male challenge that most western males experience from other males when walking down an unfamiliar street (and often even on familiar streets) is completely lacking in Argentina. It is not that the men shrink from challenge, it is just that they do not see an approaching male as threatening. More often than not, eye-to-eye contact is an occasion for a friendly smile and a greeting. Taxi drivers are open and friendly, and they carry change. They actually speak the local language, and they even know their way around.

Very few street people roam the city. The parks are open all the time, and one can stroll through them without being molested by itinerant beggars. The rare panhandler usually is a disabled veteran from the Malvinas conflict; people seem willing to lend a helping hand to these folk. A woman is safe walking the streets any time of the day or night. Young boys and girls are safe anywhere in the city, and are frequently out and about, going to and from school or playing with friends. Teenagers hang out like anywhere else, but with a major difference: there is no graffiti, no vandalism, no gang fights; in fact, there are no gangs.

During the recent years of enforced military rule, parts of Argentina’s constitution were suspended or rewritten to ensure “legality” of the ruling junta. For ten years now that is all changed. Argentina is happily operating under its original constitution, ratified in 1853. With a few exceptions (like a requirement that president and vice-president be Roman Catholics, and a provision for official stature for the Roman Catholic Church), Argentina’s constitution creates a governing environment similar to that of the United States. Three branches of government exist with mutual checks and balances. The “upper chamber,” the Senate, is elected by provincial legislatures (as was the U.S. Senate originally), and the “lower chamber,” the House of Representatives, is elected directly by the people in the provinces; the President is elected directly by the people; and the Supreme Court Justices are appointed by the President with the consent of the Senate. Although Argentina officially recognizes the Roman Catholic Church, freedom of religion is otherwise guaranteed, and there is absolutely no religious repression anywhere in the country.

Some of the largest, most prosperous Jewish communities on the planet are found in the outlying regions of Buenos Aires. It is fascinating to enter these affluent, gated communities, guarded by fellows who clearly have no intention of fostering an environment where bullies can suppress their fellows. It is impossible to picture these young men being led off anywhere under duress. Imagine quiet streets lined with beautiful, architect-designed homes, happy children playing in total security, community centers focused on cultural and, where appropriate, religious events. Imagine these people fully integrated into society at large, as one might expect of a Methodist or Presbyterian in the United States.

The spirit of entrepreneurship exists even in the shantytown slums crowding up against parts of Buenos Aires. Abundant exceptions stand out amidst the squalor one often sees in these South American settlements. Flower gardens liven up an immaculately clean yard surrounding a humble dwelling that shows clear signs of renovation and improvement—indications of a new job, a successful entrepreneurial venture, or maybe just a change of attitude.

Argentina is filled with hope; but more than hope, Argentines have discovered that freedom, even though it carries significant risk, is a precious commodity. For the first time this century, and perhaps for the first time ever, Argentines have the freedom to make their own choices, unhampered by government regulation and control. They are free to build a society like that envisioned by Jefferson and Paine.

If the Argentines do not falter, they may become the first ever to live the dream created two hundred years ago in Philadelphia.