Javier Milei arrived at the Davos Economic Forum last week and easily commanded the stage, rebuking Davos Man with wit and wisdom. While most of the attendees arrived in their private jets, Milei flew on a commercial flight sporting his signature sideburns and slightly mischievous smile. Along with his unique appearance another constant feature of Milei has been his dire warnings about the failures of collectivism. And frankly no other political leader at the event could say they know more about the dangers of collectivist political economies than the new Argentine leader.
If you’ve never watched one of Milei’s speeches or television appearances, I strongly urge you to do so. The breadth of his knowledge about economic history and theory is remarkable and on evident display. You will be moved by the passion he brings to his discussions and presentations, and left wondering why other political leaders can’t match his abilities and energy. Politicians aren’t dumb, far from it, but their idealism tends to erode as they chase votes leaving their principles behind. Not Milei. He may not succeed in his mission to dismantle the sclerotic bureaucracy and dysfunctional central bank of Argentina, but he’s been unwaveringly clear about what he believes and what he’s trying to do. He’s trying to save Argentina from almost a century of exploitative and destructive fiscal and monetary governance.
At Davos he began by presenting the case that Angus Deaton has made about the importance of market systems in promoting economic development since 1800. He also cited, by name, Israel Kirzner, and sounded almost like Ayn Rand when describing heroic entrepreneurs and parasitic state actors and bureaucrats. Milei rightly defended the importance of considering government failure and rejected neoclassical claims of pervasive market failures. It’s almost as if the Mont Pelerin Society were his audience, not Davos.
The international media have tried to link Milei to Former President Donald Trump, right wing populism, and other anti-establishment politicians. There’s little doubt Milei is taking on Argentina’s elites, and Mr. Trump and his supporters are broadcasting a similar anti-elite message to anyone who will listen. It’s also true that Trump and so many of his supporters (such as Heritage Foundation president Kevin Roberts, who also spoke at the Davos Economic Forum) have tried to embrace Milei with complimentary comments at Davos and on social media. Though the Trump camp might align themselves with Milei, the policy offerings from the economic nationalists bear little, if any, resemblance to the economic courage of the Argentine upstart. Rather than the thin gruel of economic grievance offered by American right-wing populists, Milei’s policies are built on his vast knowledge of sound and successful, albeit politically unpopular, economic thinking.
Milei’s ideas are a consistent set of interlocking principles based on an unqualified commitment to free markets in a classical liberal political economy. He, along with millions of Argentines, have experienced for years how significant government intervention severely damages an economy. After his victory on a platform of reversing that thievery and mismanagement, Milei must now confront the entrenched interests that have benefited from this vast web of crony capitalism. Milei will be lucky if he can simply stop the bleeding and redirect Argentina in a different direction.
Our GOP mouthpieces want to tell you that they are doing the same thing against the “deep state” who purportedly stole an election from President Trump in 2020 and are hurting Americans with elitist economic ideas about free trade and immigration. And America does face significant challenges, but the issues they cite are not the cause of our problems. The ideas of the economic nationalists in the US and elsewhere are hopelessly contradictory, politically expedient, short-term slogans to win an election and inflame passions. There is no underlying theory or consistent foundation to their hodgepodge of policies selected exclusively to please blue-collar voters in key electoral college states in 2024. If there is any underlying theory to these economic nationalist ideas it is collectivism, the exact danger that Milei himself identified in his speech.
Contrast Milei’s intervention at Davos with Kevin Roberts, whose comments at the Davos summit constitute little more than a laundry list of issues that appear to have been bounced off of focus groups for key voters in swing states. At the top is immigration. Roberts said the next conservative president will “take on” elites on behalf of “the average American.” He promises a Republican president would stand up to China, which he described as the “number one adversary to free people on planet Earth.” Presumably more tariffs will dispatch the Chinese, similar to Trump’s first term. It’s interesting that while conservatives are no longer globalists on topics like Ukraine, they apparently are “planetary” in their concerns.
None of these issues are consistent with free markets and liberty oriented economic policies. Argentina has long had one of the most open immigration policies on the planet; it has struggled with free trade, which remains a key factor in producing growth, as much as some people wish to distort the facts about that.
Milei’s popularity among young people throughout Latin America owes to the spark of hope he’s provided to them in countries mired for years in the exact political interference that the economic nationalists wish to expand. Just because something polls well in Michigan and Ohio doesn’t mean it’s right, moral, or consistent with growth, freedom, and prosperity. Perhaps Milei’s style and substance could rub off on Trump and the conservative populists. Instead of trying to claim him, they might endeavor to learn from him.