Rugged Individuals Don’t Need Latin American Populists

Los políticos populistas de la región parecen pelearse por ser los que más viviendas, escuelas y hospitales hicieron. (Flickr)
Latin America’s populist politicians compete over who gives voters more “free” housing, schools, and hospitals. (Flickr)

EspañolWe are born and, as soon as we can, we try to crawl, walk, and run. We then try to read, swim, write, and climb the highest tree. We like challenges and adventures. We want to test ourselves, to do things for ourselves.

Bruises, wounds, and mistakes don’t matter in the end. We ask the reason for everything, and we expect explanations. We want to understand nature and its laws. We want to experience the world, to dominate it, and to enjoy it. And we feel, consciously or unconsciously, that we have the necessary tools to do it: an effective body and mind.

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Some children find a chance to overcome challenges in their homes or schools. They receive compliments for their achievements. They learn about an understandable, logical world. They are taught that life is worth living. They have incentives to make decisions, to explore, to question received wisdom. Their mistakes are not considered dramatic, but they are not their neighbors’ fault either.

They are taught to respect their own freedom and property more by example than with words. They are also taught to respect others’ freedom. So when they are ready to vote, they don’t only feel but also think that they are ready to cross that wonderful door that will lead them to independence.

In other houses and schools, kids get different answers to their questions. When they attempt to be creative, they are told: “because I say so,” or “you are not going to make it,” or “you should do it like everyone else.” When they dream, all they hear is: “you better play it safe.” Adventure turns into danger, all disobedience ends up in punishment, and any mistake turns into disappointment.

Any sense of ownership is branded as selfishness, and the love of liberty is considered rebellion. The logical and benevolent world collapses, along with children’s self-confidence. When these individuals are ready to vote, they are convinced that the best recipe to avoid failure is to put their lives in the hands of someone who “knows” more than them.

Then the elections arrive. For whom they will vote? The answer is simple: for the candidate who reflects their own concept of themselves. If they think they are valuable, they will vote for someone who respects their dignity. If they think they are useless, they will vote for a candidate who treats them as such. That is the ugly truth.

If someone thinks he is not qualified to be responsible for his own life, will he vote for someone who promises to leave him alone and in peace in a world of freedom and competition? Or will he rather be tempted to vote for handouts, subsidies, defense against potential enemies, and the redistribution of wealth? Will he choose someone who says the individual is the only one responsible for his future and his children, or for someone who promises to carry his voters on his back?

And when voters choose a populist candidate, a vicious chain of events is set off. Once the “savior” is in high office, he does everything possible to hold on to power. He makes himself needed, like a drug, and he takes advantage of people’s weaknesses in order to create an addiction.

If we listen to any Latin American politician’s speeches, it is easy — and sad — to figure out what they think of their voters. They seem to compete to give away the most “free” housing, schools, and hospitals. Or to mastermind the most universal child allowances, while implementing countless social programs. The rule is to subsidize, to protect, to take care of others.

But assistance-based models are far from being a success. The evidence shows beyond doubt that welfare-dependent models don’t allow people to escape poverty and achieve subservience by standing on their own two feet.

A truly successful government would say openly: “We have ended all social programs and public services. Nobody needs them. All citizens are now able to pay for the products and services they need and want in their lives.”

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Here is some illustrative data: in Argentina, for example, 21.6 million people receive money from the state. 8.5 million people depend on social programs. How many Argentineans support these 21.6 million citizens? Only 7.5 million.

Can more than 50 percent of a country’s population live at others’ expense, especially when those others are so few?

Migrants who crossed the ocean in the late 19th century, leaving their family, lands, and history behind, did not do so because someone guaranteed their survival on this side of the planet. Some were much poorer than the poor currently living off social benefits. But instead of looking for protection, benefits, or privileges, they came with the single goal of finding peace, freedom, and the opportunity to make their own way.

In Latin America, there is now hope that we can break free from populism. But we definitely have to start at home, by passing on values of self-sufficiency to our children and building their self-esteem. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, we will be what we think of ourselves. As Henry Ford once said, “Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.”

Hopefully, we will abandon fear, resentment, and victimization once and for all, and we will begin to trust the opportunities that life and nature itself offer us. The day that happens, populism will have died, and politicians will stop using others’ needs, poverty, and hunger to advance their self-interest. Hopefully, these words will be replaced by production, wealth, growth and, most importantly, freedom.

Translated by Rebeca Morla.

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