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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 08-06-2024 05:49

Friends will not always be friends

Professionalism is plunging to new lows under a president who at times seems to take the first half of his self-definition of “anarcho-capitalist” just as seriously as the second.

Politicians are widely blamed for Argentina’s decline or how else would Javier Milei be president but here’s a news flash – politicians are considered despicable creatures more or less worldwide but in developed countries their defects are counterbalanced by a professional civil service. The problem is thus not so much our local politicians being a uniquely awful breed since they are more or less the same elsewhere but the lack of more permanent foundations to keep things running between and beyond elections – a factor rarely mentioned in political analysis where the elected representatives generally end up taking the flak from those who voted for them.

Instead of correcting this imbalance, Milei’s chainsaw aimed at the political “caste” seems to hack away far more at the administration with dozens of his own senior officials (including the Cabinet chief) among the thousands of state employees fired in less than half a year – the antithesis of administrative continuity and permanence. While it would be an understatement to say that not all the inherited bureaucrats are worth keeping, professionalism is plunging to new lows under a president who at times seems to take the first half of his self-definition of “anarcho-capitalist” just as seriously as the second. Rather than a technically proficient government, this ramshackle administration comes across as a club of friends until they cease to be friends – which happens quickly enough in order to disguise their own failings.

Given the trials and tribulations of the ‘Ley de Bases’ omnibus bill in Congress, the government could be forgiven for concluding that the main obstacle to its progress lie there but if next year’s midterm landslide blared by Milei in fact transpires, his government will still find the implementation of its drastic policies shackled by its dysfunctional administrative instruments. Having the right ideas and even talent is simply not enough – stick Michael Schumacher or Lewis Hamilton or Max Verstappen into a Chevrolet CMC or a Tato Nano and then see how many races they win.

In the four decades this columnist has been following Argentine political life, this fundamental importance of the state machinery has been almost totally ignored. Thus President Mauricio Macri boasted of his Cabinet being “the best team in the last 50 years” and was widely mocked for that, especially after the wheels came off at the other end of his Presidency, but he may not have necessarily been wrong there – he could have had the best team in the last 50 years and his administration would still have been doomed to failure with the bloated and inept state apparatus at its disposal.

During those four decades this columnist remembers only one sustained attempt to build a professional civil service – under Carlos Menem, the president whom Milei seeks to emulate in many aspects but not so far in this. When Menem came to power in the volatile hyperinflationary Argentina of 1989, he placed the dynamic technocrat Gustavo Beliz (then aged only 27) in charge of the National Institute of Public Administration (INAP, in its Spanish acronym, created by Arturo Frondizi in 1958 but long since dormant) with the mission of creating a trained and professional civil service. But in 1992 Beliz was promoted to being Interior minister – i.e. his priorities passed from being administrative to being political like everybody else – where he lasted only eight months. After many years in Washington in 2019 Beliz made something of a comeback as Strategic Affairs secretary in the Frente de Todos Presidency of Alberto Fernández but he was unable to turn his attention to the civil service with its appointments being decided elsewhere – instead he spent his time touching base with various international organisations before resigning in despair in mid-2022.

This idea of a professional civil service as a counterweight to irresponsible electioneering politicians adding to the checks and balances of a constitutional democracy might seem to form part of bringing Argentina back into the world as a normal country but it remains a hard sell. Even a technically upgraded bureaucracy runs counter to the backlash against an overtaxed and over-governed country leading to the election last year of a libertarian government which the dogmatically deregulatory Federico Sturzenegger is about to enter. Apart from raising hopes for the future (which he cannot ensure will be better but which he can assure will be different – good enough for many people), Milei also appeals to a somewhat naïve nostalgia for a glorious past when an Argentina of eight million people was supposedly a world power and the richest country in the world at the start of the past century. Within that golden age of 1880-1930 many identify the 1920s as the best decade – its main president Marcelo T. de Alvear was rarely in the Casa Rosada before noon and went to the Teatro Colón almost every evening so that would seem to be an argument for small government.

Nevertheless, the current deregulatory drive and the creation of an efficient civil service need not be mutually exclusive objectives – there is every argument for dismantling the current bureaucracy strewn with political appointments as long as it is constructively replaced. But first an “anarcho-capitalist” president will need to recognise that a mixed economy is the reality of today’s world – and that is true across the spectrum from Communist China to the most pro-market governments. 

Milei says of his critics that they “do not see it” but what he himself does not see is a civil service worthy of the name. ​

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys, who first entered the Buenos Aires Herald in 1983, held various editorial posts at the newspaper from 1990 and was the lead writer of the publication’s editorials from 1987 until 2017.

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