The Politics of Mario Vargas Llosa

Marie Arana, the Peruvian-born former editor of the Washington Post’s Book World, writes a thoughtful and moving analysis of Mario Vargas Llosa’s work that has just been awarded a Nobel Prize. She explores at some length Vargas Llosa’s political views and whether they might have prevented him from winning the prize much earlier. But there’s one word that curiously doesn’t appear in her article. Curious, because it’s a very common word, the word that describes his political philosophy, a word that he himself uses frequently. You may want to read the article and see if you can find the missing word before reading further here.

Arana writes:

When asked by an editor several years ago why the prize had eluded him, he replied with a wry smile that he was hardly the politically correct choice.…

According to the Nobel committee, he has won the award “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.”

For years, the gossip was that Stockholm would never recognize him because his politics were conservative, though many of his positions – on gay rights, for example – have been to the left of center.…

For all his bracing work decrying totalitarian strongmen, Vargas Llosa is no radical revolutionary. He has been described as an intransigent neoliberal, a man with unshakable convictions that his country and people need strict economic discipline, membership in the world market and tough austerity measures at home.

What’s the missing word? Give the article one more read.

Here’s the missing word: Mario Vargas Llosa is a liberal. This is not hard to determine. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines liberalism as the “political and economic doctrine that emphasizes the rights and freedoms of the individual and the need to limit the powers of government.” That seems to cover all the details Arana laid out.

And Vargas Llosa himself has made his liberalism clear. When he received the annual award of the American Enterprise Institute, his lecture was “Confessions of a Liberal.” He may have created some discomfort in the largely conservative audience when he said:

Because liberalism is not an ideology, that is, a dogmatic lay religion, but rather an open, evolving doctrine that yields to reality instead of trying to force reality to do the yielding, there are diverse tendencies and profound discrepancies among liberals. With regard to religion, gay marriage, abortion and such, liberals like me, who are agnostics as well as supporters of the separation between church and state and defenders of the decriminalization of abortion and gay marriage, are sometimes harshly criticized by other liberals who have opposite views on these issues.

Indeed, AEI left this part out in their own excerpting of the speech yesterday. But he got them back as he went on:

The free market is the best mechanism in existence for producing riches and, if well complemented with other institutions and uses of democratic culture, launches the material progress of a nation to the spectacular heights with which we are familiar.…

Thus, the liberal I aspire to be considers freedom a core value. Thanks to this freedom, humanity has been able to journey from the primitive cave to the stars and the information revolution, to progress from forms of collectivist and despotic association to representative democracy. The foundations of liberty are private property and the rule of law; this system guarantees the fewest possible forms of injustice, produces the greatest material and cultural progress, most effectively stems violence and provides the greatest respect for human rights. According to this concept of liberalism, freedom is a single, unified concept. Political and economic liberties are as inseparable as the two sides of a medal.…

We dream, as novelists tend to do: a world stripped of fanatics, terrorists and dictators, a world of different cultures, races, creeds and traditions, co-existing in peace thanks to the culture of freedom, in which borders have become bridges that men and women can cross in pursuit of their goals with no other obstacle than their supreme free will.

Then it will not be necessary to talk about freedom because it will be the air that we breathe and because we will all truly be free. Ludwig von Mises’ ideal of a universal culture infused with respect for the law and human rights will have become a reality.

Arana did mention that Vargas Llosa has been called a “neoliberal,” whatever that is. In his essay “Liberalism in the New Millennium,” in Global Fortune: The Stumble and Rise of World Capitalism (and reprinted in Cato’s anthology Toward Liberty), Vargas Llosa had some fun with the scare word “neoliberalism.”

Wikipedia stumbles a bit, as well, variously describing his views as liberal, neoliberal, or classical liberal. Can you be both classically and neo liberal? It does mention his break with the People’s Party of Spain over its illiberal conservative views. A story the New York Times must have missed this week in describing him as a conservative.

Of course, Vargas Llosa’s political views – against authoritarianism of any stripe, support for free markets, social tolerance, peace, the rule of law, and democratic governance – might best be described these days as libertarian. But that’s not a word that Vargas Llosa, a man of Latin America and Europe, seems to use. So for now let’s allow the great writer to describe his own views: Mario Vargas Llosa is a liberal, one of the great liberals of our age.

As for his literary standing, I’ll return to Marie Arana for the last word:

Too often, a Nobel morning has a literary critic running for cover or, at the very least, for Google, to learn exactly who, in the capricious eyes of the Swedish Academy, has merited the coveted award. Not so on Thursday. The 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature has gone to a writer whose name is well known to and widely venerated by the global literary community: the deeply intellectual, undeniably talented Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa.…

But perhaps the most winning aspect of Vargas Llosa’s career is his deep and abiding humanity. Generous in friendship, unfailingly curious about the world at large, tireless in his quest to probe the nature of the human animal, he is a model writer for our times. It is such a pleasure for me to write at last: This year, the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to an indisputable winner.