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Hispanic Americans and the Legacy of Statism

By: José Azel - Aug 23, 2013, 9:04 am

Every month 50,000 US citizens of Hispanic heritage turn 18. In this US electoral cycle, with over 23 million eligible Hispanic-American voters, many research efforts have been undertaken to identify their distinctiveness and political preferences. Interest-group specific issues such as US immigration policy are often highlighted as the main drivers for the Hispanic-American vote; surely, but there is a more fundamental sociopolitical driver at play.

The sociopolitical heritage from Spain and the post-colonial experience of Latin America has engendered in the Hispanic-American population an understanding of the role of government significantly different from the principles of limited government and imprescriptible rights embraced by the Founding Fathers. Thus classical liberalism, or libertarianism in the contemporary American coinage, does not come naturally to Hispanics.

In a 2012 nationwide survey of 1,006 adults, in answers to the question: “Which of these two statements comes closer to your opinion, (1) The less government the better, or (2) there are more things the government should be doing;” 59 percent of the white non-Hispanic population responded “the less government the better.” In contrast, only 32 percent of Hispanics responded similarly (Excel).

In a question regarding preferences for free market versus government solutions, 35.8 percent of white non-Hispanics opined that the free market can handle economic problems whereas 83.3 percent of Hispanics expressed that a strong government involvement is required.  The political philosophies of classical liberalism that limit the role of government and place the individual in center stage are not nearly as ingrained in Hispanic heritage as they are in the American sociopolitical discourse. In some measure, this undermines effective pluralistic participation in the civil institutions of free societies.

The Hispanic collectivist and statist political tendencies are even more markedly present in societies that have lived for extended periods of time under totalitarian rule. For the Cuban people, in particular, the experience of living for more than a half-century under a totalitarian regime, and under the constant bombardment of Marxist-Leninist rhetoric, means a legacy of a civil society unprepared for the responsibilities demanded of a citizenry in a liberal democracy and a competitive market economy.

When thinking of democratic governance, an operational question becomes: Does civil society produce liberty or does a firm commitment to natural rights produce civil society? The answer requires an understanding that a free society is a pluralistic society without a common hierarchy of particular ends. The Founding Fathers approached the issue by championing three possible limitations to federal power; separation of powers, federalism, and entrenched individual rights.

The first two confines are institutional, and it is only an unwavering commitment to individual rights that offers the best protection against creeping totalitarianism. By definition, a society which seeks to implement collectivist policies cannot be democratic in the sense of guarantying individual freedoms since pursuing socialist egalitarian goals necessitates the coercive action of government.

In today’s highly competitive and interconnected economic milieu, a society seeking to be successful needs to promote the development of the unique talents of individuals. This necessarily leads to people achieving unequal results since individuals differ in ability and interest.

Latin American political thought, seduced by the siren song of “social justice,” has trouble accepting the unequal results of the marketplace. Unhappy with the marketplace and ignoring the Kantian precept that laws must be based on the protection of rights, not the attempt to create happiness for the citizens, the power of the state is invoked. Characteristically, some form of messianic, personalistic collectivism is sought, often under a new set or rules or by a new name. Hugo Chavez’s “Socialism of the 21st Century” is just one example of the ideological grotesqueries that result when we do not take our political ignorance more seriously.

Capitalism is rationalistic, anti-heroic, and anti-mystical. Free markets, with all its warts, are the economic system of free peoples. In the Hispanic electorate, if we peel off most arguments against the free market, an intellectual discomfort with freedom itself is revealed. That is truly unfortunate because the only enduring foundation for improving the human condition is liberty.

This article first appeared in the Miami Herald.

José Azel José Azel

Senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. Azel was a political exile from Cuba at the age of 13 in 1961 and is the author of Mañana in Cuba. Follow @JoseAzel.