False visions of political concepts thrive in Argentina, where dictatorships past and spin doctors present employ their own forms of double speak.
BUENOS AIRES — There is confusion in Argentina over concepts such as democracy, human rights, the market, competition, authority, and what constitutes progressive views. There is a similar misconception about the notion of liberalism, which in Europe and Latin America is often associated with free-market economics, and in the United States with progressive economic and social policy.
In our country, a skewed notion of this term is capable of shackling us to mistaken choices. Argentina's last dictatorship helped confuse us by appropriating the word “liberal,” using the same method as the Stalinists who baptized their states Democratic Republics — though that hardly makes us reject democracy.
In our country’s dominant collective imagination, liberalism is a selfish ideology that defends a minimal state, where unfettered ownership and free-market rights are pitted against income redistribution, social justice and economic equality. Liberalism here means Washington Consensus, flexible labor laws and trickle-down economic theory.
By this definition, if you oppose the perpetuation of poverty, concentration of income and wealth, or a state that only protects property owners, you are anti-liberal.
And given the failure of real socialist systems, anyone who is anti-liberal is obliged to embrace some version of populism. And if populism degrades democracy, it then becomes the inevitable price of equality. That, however, is the populist trap laid out with the complicity of politicians and intellectuals who hate modernity and constitutional democracy.
It is a false vision of liberalism and derives from a distortion of one of its distinctive features, the particular value given to liberty (in the words of the Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen).
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Indian-born Sen won the 1998 Nobel in Economics
Liberalism denies populism’s affirmation that advancing toward social and economic equality requires weakening the rule of law, disrespecting constitutional rights, and dividing ourselves into the elected and the inevitable losers.
There are no good and bad inequalities. Genuine liberalism, through rule of law and human rights, protects us against all of them and notably against their vilest examples — like racial, ethnic and religious inequalities. It is also a barrier against political inequalities: factious propaganda, persecuting dissidence, falsifying public information, harassment of those who investigate the state, etc.
Liberalism has been an emancipating ideology that fought the privileges of the nobility and favored equality and democratic revolutions. Today it defends the separation of church and state, decriminalization of “moral offenses,” gender equality, poverty eradication and action to benefit the underprivileged.
Special protection of liberty does not signify a commitment to Washington Consensus ideas or trickle-down theory, which occupy marginal rather than representative positions in the wide avenue of liberal thought. In fact, the policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, the Washington Consensus in the "90s, and the Tea Party today are products of Libertarian thinking, a school represented by authors such as Robert Nozick, in reaction to the liberal ideal.
The real liberal utopia
Modern liberalism is essentially egalitarian. It inspired European social democracy, the New Deal in the United States, emancipation of women, and the global human rights revolution.
As the late philosopher Ronald Dworkin explained, liberal values lead to the welfare state or a democracy of market socialism. In his Theory of Justice, John Rawls observed that a just society respects civil and political rights, and provides real equality of opportunities, distributing resources in such a way as to raise those who have less. Rawls proposes a democracy with ample distribution of property and incomes.
Carlos Nino has, meanwhile, written that liberalism demands the expansion of individual autonomy through a redistribution of resources serving the freedom to plan one’s life. That demands recognition of social rights, progressive taxation, and universal education and health care.
The real liberal utopia is contemporary Scandinavia, not Chile under General Pinochet. In Argentina, real liberals have been scarce. The closest to us was the late Raúl Alfonsín, the great social democrat who said democracy should feed, cure and educate and that there was no education without full equality.
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Pinochet (center) one week after the 1973 coup (National Library of Chile)
The option between anti-egalitarian liberalism and a populism of liberal handouts is not real. There is a much better alternative: egalitarian liberalism that combines respect for pluralism and division of powers, with a state intent on making the equal more equal. Liberalism is the doctrine of liberty and equality, and dissipating confusion in that respect would be a great step forward.
We could then understand that authoritarianism, demagoguery, corruption, and a belligerent discourse are not the price of equality, which requires a full-fledged democracy. When that happens, it may prove to be year Zero for our democratic life.