Last week, I was invited to a panel discussion at the Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Madrid.
The panel was titled “populism and economics,” inviting us to discuss the relationship between these two highly debated topics.
I think the panel went very well under the leadership of Juan Pina, who is the General Secretary of Fundación para el Avance de la Libertad. I would also like to thank Arturo Fabra, Director of UFM Madrid, for the invitation and for everything he is doing to advance liberty in general.
When I was invited to participate in this event, I immediately thought about focusing my remarks on Latin America. Specifically, I tried to explain the relationship between Latin America’s populist tendencies and its lack of economic development. In short, I argued that our lack of economic development makes our countries vulnerable to populism, demagoguery, and ultimately, socialism.
I posited the question: how can our countries have stable democracies when the overwhelming majority of our people live in intolerable conditions of misery?
Our people do not vote for populists for mysterious reasons. On the contrary, if we have millions of people left behind, forgotten, and desperate for a better future, it is perfectly rational to expect them to believe and follow those who promise them a tabula rasa and the construction of a new political and economic system. This is the eternal promise of populist leaders.
At the panel, other speakers tried to define populism in vague terms, alluding to the fact that populists tend to allure the masses and craft policies based on that. I tried to provide a more exact definition:
“Populism is not a political ideology, it is a way of doing politics. Populists divide societies between a victimized majority and a corrupt minority. Populists argue that these minorities have somehow hijacked the state. And that because of it, they need a blank check to reform the country. This is why populism is incompatible with liberalism. Because while the basic premise of liberal democracy is to form an state that treats all of us equally, the basic premise of populist politics is that a specific sector of society has to be marginalized and punished.”
I mention this because I believe in the importance of clearly defining the concepts we are trying to explain. This is not me trying to be intellectually picky. Words do matter; concepts matter. Words have the role of channeling our thoughts properly. Accordingly, clear concepts are the key to truly understanding the thing we are trying to define. And let me tell you, if we believe that populism is “talking to the people,” then we are in serious trouble.
If we want liberal democracy to become the norm in Latin America, we need to then roll of sleeves and “talk to the people.” We need to communicate why our ideas will benefit those millions of people who are currently living under intolerable conditions of poverty and exclusion. We need to explain to them why market institutions matter. We need to communicate to them why the rule of law matters.
If we don’t do that, then our countries will continue to vote for populism and demagoguery. In this sense, I don’t blame the people for believing in populists like Hugo Chavez or Cristina Kirchner. I blame “our camp” for not being able to convince our people. We need to make democracy and markets sexy again. This is the challenge we have ahead.