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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 15-07-2022 13:00

Devil take the hindmost

In an age in which it is assumed that just about everything must change with the times or be thrown on the scrap heap, people who are unable to keep up risk getting swept aside.

Progress has its drawbacks. In an age in which it is assumed that just about everything, from the humblest of consumer products to the most rarefied of intellectual fashions, must change with the times or be thrown on the scrap heap, people who are unable to keep up risk getting swept aside. The same can be said about societies. They cannot afford to fall behind.

Those worried by what is going on in the world have recently taken to drawing up lists of countries they expect to see go over the proverbial cliff before the year is out. Some in Africa that tend to be overlooked by the media did so long ago. Others, such as Sri Lanka, seem likely to join them. And then there are the “dead men walking” whose prospects look decidedly bleak: Lebanon, Pakistan, Turkey and, needless to say, Argentina. Will any of them pull back from the brink? Some could, but few would bet much money on it.

When reporting on what has gone wrong in such places, journalists tend to write or say much the same things. There is no great difference between the ills attributed to Turkey, the Lebanon or Zimbabwe and those they think are bringing down Argentina: ideological folly, rising inflation, fuel shortages, widespread discontent, a blatantly corrupt political class, a lousy credit-rating and the extremely painful impact of Vladimir Putin’s land-grab in Ukraine. According to the gloomier prognosticators, tens of millions of people in Africa and the Middle East who depend on grain shipments from Ukrainian ports could soon starve to death. Even in Argentina food prices are rocketing.

To make matters worse, the rich countries are in no mood to lend a helping hand to those threatened by famine or worse because they too are in difficulties. In the United States, the ruling Democrats fear that in the November midterm elections they will suffer what Barack Obama described as a “shellacking” when his lot were on the receiving end because petrol prices keep going skywards. As for the Europeans, including the British, they are even more pessimistic than their transatlantic counterparts; they see a nasty recession accompanied by high inflation fast approaching. Though most politicians gamely insist that after a few months, perhaps years, of hardship things will pick up again, their confidence is wearing thin. In any event, they believe charity should begin at home.

One might think that it would be relatively easy for poor countries to improve their circumstances. They do not have to invent anything or try out new policies because others have already shown which ones work and which most definitely do not. All they need do is take a close look at what the North Americans, Europeans and Japanese have done and follow suit, as indeed, with enormous success, did the Singaporeans, South Koreans, and then the mainland Chinese after it became plain to the Communist Party bosses that Marxist economics and its softer variants led nowhere worth going.

Argentina’s unhappy performance over the years should be studied by development specialists because it helps explain why many societies refuse to take advantage of the two centuries of experience provided by the richer countries. While hardly anyone here, with the possible exception of clerics like Jorge Bergoglio and their admirers, think poverty is life-enhancing and is therefore against economic growth on principle, a very large number of people are reluctant to change their ways. Under the pretext that doing certain things like reining in spending or demanding that public servants be up to the job would be tantamount to giving in to foreign pressures, they have systematically thwarted efforts to make the economy more efficient.

They are still at it. Even the moderate approach which, to the surprise of many, the new Economy Minister Silvina Batakis adopted soon after taking office, has raised the hackles of Kirchnerites devoted to the status quo who can be expected to organise huge protest demonstrations in an attempt to bring her to heel. If they manage to do so, the markets will take over and apply their own ruthless austerity programme, but this is something they refuse to take into account.

Development means change. One of the many paradoxes of the age we are living in is that those who want Argentina and other poor countries to copy what others have successfully done are regarded as conservatives, while their opponents, who do their utmost to stop this from happening, consider themselves to be progressives. Here, the Kirchnerites, many other Peronists and leftists typecast as Trotskyites cling desperately to fantasies that were already out of date in the 1970s, when most of their present leaders were students who dreamed of a purifying revolution like the one they imagined had taken place in Cuba over a decade earlier. Unfortunately for a great many people, including most of those who, despite everything, regularly vote for them, they continue to wield veto powers and use them to prevent Argentina from climbing out of the hole into which they have pushed her.

Opponents of development as defined by the wealthier Western countries are fond of assuring their followers that evil men in New York, London and other such places are determined to keep the rest of the world poor and use organisations like the International Monetary Fund to ensure it remains so. This sounds plausible to them because they think in conspiratorial terms. The truth is that Western leaders, whether politicians or business tycoons, would dearly like all countries to prosper if only because they would then be able to make even more money and, as a bonus, cease worrying about the many geopolitical problems arising from the division of the world into haves and have-nots.

Among these difficulties are the ones posed by the arrival of contingents of unwanted migrants fleeing hopeless poverty and violence. Given half a chance, many enterprising people trapped in backward countries will risk their lives in an attempt to reach the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, continental Europe or Australia. They certainly do not share the prejudices of those Western progressives who tell them the countries they live in are responsible for all that is bad in today’s world. Instead, they see them as the nearest approach to Utopia that can be found anywhere on earth and very much want to enjoy the benefits that even the “underprivileged” among their inhabitants have access to.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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