Argentina’s Manteros: Informal Sector Flourishes Amid Prohibitions, Taxation

EspañolFor a few years now — ever since Mauricio Macri became Buenos Aires mayor — Argentinean media outlets have enjoyed covering the subject of street vendors, or manteros. These stories are usually regarding the police attempting to enforce bans on their presence, and the result is always a complaint that Macri’s government is “right wing” and is heartless towards the poor.

Manteros are the entrepreneurs who settle on the sidewalk to sell their products on a blanket (or manta). Usually, business owners complain because these manteros do not pay taxes or request official permits the engage in trade — although sometimes they have them. Therefore, they offer lower and more competitive prices. As they usually stay on the sidewalk, they can also create traffic problems.

Recently, the Buenos Aires metropolitan police started yet another round of confrontations, in an attempt to get the manteros to disperse. Apparently, this time they were not only looking to clear the public space, but also to confiscate illegal merchandise from these vendors — mostly CDs and imitation clothes.

These actions naturally caused outrage among manteros, who have been protesting against it. Their motto is plain and simple: “we want to work.”

The eternal debate will focus on two things: the taxes manteros ought to pay — for their work and their merchandise — and their nationalities.

The matter of nationality is actually quite simple, and revealing: first, we like to generalize, when we could easily find Argentinean manteros; second, we are a long way from leaving behind reactionary and nativist tendencies. If we keep on blaming immigrants for our development problems, we will never be able to grasp the cosmopolitan nature of this world and the equality of each individual, regardless of nationality.

tax-memeBut we have to go deeper to analyze taxes. The main solutions to this problem with manteros — suggested by neighbors, business owners, congressmen, and other observers who think they can meddle in this affair — are far diversions from the real issue: taxation itself. The fact that Argentina has become the country with the highest taxation in Latin America is worth our attention.

A purported solution to a state-generated problem — smuggling and fiscal evasion due to excessive tax pressure — is even more state presence. Is that logic ever going to lead us to a solution?

Instead of lifting the weight on business owners’ shoulders by eliminating the taxes, the proposal seeks to somehow push manteros into this system. This is a far cry from Buenos Aires’ origins and legacy as a prosperous city. In colonial times, people knew how to defend their livelihoods, by taking stands against the unjust impositions of the central authority — that is, through smuggling.

I believe history has proved how counterproductive taxes are for economic activities. Instead of extending their burden, let us go back to our roots.

Exchange is the quintessential action that has brought human beings together from the very beginning. Exchange has allowed men to specialize in particular fields, and thus to make societies grow larger and more prosperous. No one should be able to limit that freedom, our natural right as human beings.

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