Jorge Luis Borges, Resurfacing On The Edges Of Libertarianism
The vigorous liberalism of Argentina's literary giant, Jorge Luis Borges, and his disdain for the 20th century's oppressive regimes, may yet make him an icon of today's youthful, if less learned, libertarians.
BUENOS AIRES — More and more young people are drawn today to libertarian ideas, where personal freedoms are valued over state intervention.
The youth of Argentina appear to find this ideology attractive, despite the disdain shown them by our intellectual élites and politicians. Many must wonder why the best trained and most educated members of society would despise the current, or may have felt they were "wrongly" moving against the tide.
But they needn't feel alone, for they have on their side the most important figure in our cultural history: the late novelist Jorge Luis Borges. With uncertainty clouding (until recently) the fate of his estate, and his literary legacy in posterity's hands, his political ideas may be said to be within reach of our youth.
Borges and his relationship to politics
Borges believed in, and loved freedom. Much has been said about his relations with politics, but attention has mostly focused on anecdotal aspects like his reputed lack of interest in everyday news or political positions based on aesthetic, or even heroic criteria. These led him to admire the patriotic soldiers who fought for Argentine independence (in the early 19th century) and to join the Conservative Party, for as he said, only gentlemen adhered to lost causes.
The libertarian does not propose a limited state but questions the need for its very existence.
Unfortunately such views cost him the Nobel prize, whose authorities believed political correctness took precedence over extraordinary literature. While we may find in the life of Borges diverse and even contradictory political expressions, it nonetheless retains in its many years a lasting, recognizable and constant thread of ideas.
Its central elements clearly fit into the philosophical principles associated with classical liberalism (different than the term used in U.S. politics), and particularly that twist on liberalism that has come to be termed "libertarianism." Unlike liberalism in general, the libertarian outlook does not propose a limited state but questions the need for its very existence, without however falling into "anarchism," which opposes all rules and authority (beyond the state). It may be closer to what is now termed "anarcho-capitalism," which proposes eliminating the state's "monopoly" in providing basic, public or social services.
Borges works in a bookstore in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
In his own words
Borges wrote quite a bit on the importance of the individual and personal freedoms, an example being his short poem Tú. He always rejected the purported reality of concepts like society, people, and "nations and social classes," which he deemed to be mere "intellectual amenities." The crowd, he wrote, was fictitious: "what really exists is the individual."
Admiring of the 19th century English philosopher Herbert Spencer, Borges wrote (in 1952, in the essay Otras Inquisiciones) that as Spencer had predicted, the world's most urgent problem in the 20th century was "the state's gradual intrusion into the individual's acts; in the fight against that evil, which bears the names communism and nazism, Argentine individualism, which was apparently useless and harmful until now, will find its justification and duties."
He imagined in the future an ideal world in which, in the libertarian manner, the state would be unnecessary. He qualified the state as "the common enemy now; I would like and have said it many times, a minimal state and maximum individuality." He doubted this could happen before several "decades or centuries, which is nothing historically," though he certainly would not live to see it.
The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges posing on his house terrace. Buenos Aires, 1977.
Mario De Biasi/ZUMA
But this stateless world, he wrote in his essay, would need an ethical and intellectually stronger humanity, quite unlike the "very immoral and barely intelligent" people of his time. Which is why, he added, "I believe dogmatically in progress." He expressed his libertarian views more clearly in interviews and conversations, which incidentally revealed his immense abilities in language use and clarity of thought. His opinions even emerge in the otherworldly fiction that marks his style.
His was a superlative mind that adhered to the same ideas that inspire them today.
In The Congress, one of the tales in the compilation The Book of Sand("El libro de arena"), the character Eudoro Acevedo asks, "What happened to governments? Tradition says they gradually fell into disuse. They would call elections, declare war, set tariffs, confiscate fortunes, order arrests and seek to impose censorship, but nobody on the planet obeyed them. The press stopped publishing their contributions and pictures. Politicians had to look for an honest job; some found their talent in comedy or as witchdoctors. The reality was very likely fuller than this brief account."
The youngsters now moving toward the ideas of liberty might do well to also approach the works of Borges, including books and conversations. For they will find there an extraordinary, literary body and a superlative mind that adhered to the same ideas that inspire them today.
It would be akin to becoming the political heirs of Jorge Luis Borges.
*Martin Krause is an economics professor at the University of Buenos Aires.
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