Commentary

Democratic Disillusions

The recent bilingual publication (in English and Spanish) of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States , by my colleagues at the Cato Institute, prompted me to read again those extraordinary documents that remain as relevant today as they were when written a couple of centuries ago.

In no small part, the success of the United States is based on the spirit of individual freedom and the formidable wisdom of the Founding Fathers distilled into those documents, which display a deep distrust for the accumulation of power in the hands of politicians, judges and bureaucrats.

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States, expressed best the fear and vigilance that citizens should keep alive against the intrusion of governments in their lives and property. Let’s rejoice in some of his famous quotes:

A free people [claim] their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate…

It is to secure our rights that we resort to government at all…

Liberty is the great parent of science and of virtue; and a nation will be great in both always in proportion as it is free…

History, in general, only informs us what bad government is…

The majority, oppressing an individual, is guilty of a crime, abuses its strength, and by acting on the law of the strongest breaks up the foundations of society…

It is a misfortune that [our countrymen] do not sufficiently know the value of their constitutions, and how much happier they are rendered by them, than any other people on earth by the governments under which they live…

It is not by the consolidation, or concentration of powers, but by their distribution, that good government is effected…

Is uniformity of opinion desirable? No more than of face and stature…

The opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction…

I hope, therefore, a bill of rights will be formed to guard the people against the federal government…

An elective despotism was not the government we fought for…

The greatest [calamity] which could befall [us would be] submission to a government of unlimited powers…

I think we have more machinery of government than is necessary, too many…

A couple of decades ago, Ronald Reagan expressed similar concerns, but I have never heard a Latin American president speak or write like that. The region’s democratic governments have little concern for the people’s inalienable natural rights and, thus, Latin democracy has turned into a game of increasingly questionable deals to obtain votes: offering privileges to such pressure groups as labor unions, big business, members of some profession, the unemployed, the elderly, etc. Then, the opposition, after losing an election, starts promising even bigger deals to those that missed the piñata. No wonder the support for that kind of democracy is dropping fast throughout the hemisphere.

In the mid-20th Century, most Latin Americans lived under military dictatorships and dreamed of a democracy, like the American democracy, to pull us out of economic underdevelopment. Unfortunately, the model used by our politicians was not Jeffersonian at all, but rather it was based on the “success” of the Mexican PRI Party, which managed to remain in power for 72 uninterrupted years. That was the model for Venezuela’s Acción Democrática and Peru’s APRA, while the Christian Democrats in Chile and the Peronists of Argentina also strived to become the only political party.

All of them despised capitalism and free markets, and implemented such horrendous policies as import substitution (protectionism), bigger taxes (pushed by the State Department and all multilateral organizations), nationalization of the main industries (oil, mining, fishing, electricity, transportation, communications, etc.), while begging for foreign aid and loans (which further enfeebled the private sector), inflating the currency (which really meant robbing the middle class), and teaching socialism in the public schools and universities. The obvious outcome, the spread of poverty and backwardness in the region, was then blamed on American imperialism and foreign capitalist corporations—such as Standard Oil and Chiquita Banana—just as it is now-a-days blamed on globalization.

Today, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez and Argentina’s President Néstor Kirchner represent the culmination of such leftist populism and demagoguery, fostering ethnic and class hatred, destroying what little remains of the rule of law, and using their countries’ considerable wealth for the advancement of a socialist agenda. Brazil, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador are not too far behind. Only Chile (where General Pinochet’s Chicago Boys set the basis for sustainable economic growth), Mexico (thanks to NAFTA and the defeat of the PRI), and tiny El Salvador are more prosperous today than ever before. Another surprising ray of light is Colombia, where courageous President Alvaro Uribe is doing miracles, despite decades of guerrillas and the war on drugs imposed by Washington, which has turned Marxist terrorists and lowly gangsters into powerful billionaires.

The war on drugs is one instance where the U.S. government has turned its back on the Constitution and this country’s classical liberal tradition. The government does not exist to put me in jail if I hurt myself, only if I hurt others or trample on their rights. Obviously, drug addicts need medical attention, not imprisonment. Jefferson wrote (Notes from Virginia, 1782): “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.” The despicable and huge profits of drug dealers are only made possible by bad laws.

Latin Americans must face up to the fact that government is the problem. The politicians we have been electing for decades only manage to sink us into deeper despair. The U.N. summits and the IMF bureaucrats will never point the way out. But there is really no hidden secret; anyone can recognize what has to be done by reading and understanding the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

Carlos Ball, editor of AIPE, a Spanish-language news organization based in Florida, is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute.