Argentina has recently celebrated its two hundredth anniversary, but the recent hundred years have been poor compared to the first hundred. The reason is simple: government policy. While Argentina’s first century was defined by capitalism and innovation, the second has seen underdevelopment and authoritarian government. One needs only to look at the performance of Argentina’s economy to see which of the two methods is better.
|Juan Bautista Alberdi|
Argentina did not enjoy prosperity immediately after securing its independence. Instead it plunged into a long civil war which concluded in 1850 with the formation of Argentina as a nation and the establishment of a liberal republican constitution. The constitution was drafted by Juan Bautista Alberdi and was very similar to the U.S. constitution. It is thanks to that constitution, with its liberal trappings for the respect of law and private property that allowed a country like Argentina to experience an economic miracle during its formative years.
Argentina’s achievements during this time were countless: the population increased from one million in 1850 to eight million in 1914, the area sown increased from 1,200,000 to 60,000,000 acres, exports increased from 30 million gold pesos in 1870 to 389,000,000 in 1910, the railway network grew from 457 miles in 1870 to 17,500 miles in 1910, the per capita growth between 1875 and 1913 was more than three percent annually. Immigration to the country was explosive with six million souls arriving to Argentina during this time period.
Human development also increased during this time with the mortality rate declining from 22.98 per 1,000 in 1889 to 15.2 by 1908. For comparison the mortality rate was 14.8 in Berlin, 15.1 in London, and 18.6 in New York City in 1908. In 1869 Argentina had an illiteracy rate of 70% which fell to 22% by 1930. Primary school enrollment increased from 20% in 1870 to 64% in 1920; during the same period primary school enrollment in Italy rose from 33% to 55%. Large public works were constructed during the era that are still extant: the Colon Theatre, the Retiro and Constitution station, the Central Post Office, the Congress (a replica of the U.S. Capitol building), the subway system (a first in South America), and a telephone network (only a few of years after New York’s).
Argentina’s liberal constitution allowed the country to enjoy unprecedented growth and develop an economy larger than the rest of South America combined. At its height Argentina was a lighthouse of prosperity not only for the continent, but for the world.
|Argentine Central Bank|
In comparison the past hundred years have been filled with populist measures, with a few exceptions. The beginning of the decline may well be set in 1935, when the Argentine Central Bank was created and an expansionary monetary policy was adopted to fund public spending of the government. Railway companies, oil and all energy, communications were nationalized. Corruption has spread across the nation. The enlargement of the national government destroyed the last vestiges of federalism and made the provinces totally dependent to the central government.
This all came along with a mercantilist trade policy, principles of national protection and tariffs on imports. This pulverized the progress and development of the country. Individualism was replaced with a culture of collectivism. The very concept of private property was destroyed and replaced with the idea that one can live off the state’s gifts. There have been short periods of lucidity in these hundred years, but unfortunately statist ideas prevail over freedom. Today Argentina is ranked 137 (out of 152) in the Economic Freedom of the World report of the Cato Institute.
Argentina was once poised to reign supreme on the world stage, but today much of its wealth has been destroyed. This can be reversed but the path ahead is a difficult one.