Once upon a time, before the First World War, Argentina comfortably stood as one of the ten richest countries in the world. But shortly after Juan Perón took power in 1943, the country embarked on a series of socialist reforms that would knee cap the economy and turn it into an economic backwater, out of which it has yet to return. The country used to be considered a “new Europe.” Now its buildings look older than their ancient European ancestors.
Libertarianism, or liberalism as it is called in Latin America, has never garnered as much attention as it has today. Javier Milei is a big reason why. Milei, a boisterous economist and television personality, has rebranded the classical liberal tradition in a way that speaks to the experience of Argentines and their lifelong struggle with economic stagnation.
“Liberalism is founded on the non-aggression principle,” he says in his victory speech to a group of supporters after a surprising sweep in Argentina’s presidential primaries this month. If Milei succeeds in the October general election, which is likely to lead to a runoff, he would be the first libertarian president in modern history.
Many political pundits projected a third-place finish for the eccentric economist, but his indefatigable campaign has galvanized many Argentines, propelling him to the top of the race. Despite his populist rhetoric, Milei is a staunch libertarian. Even his dogs are named after popular libertarian-leaning economists, including Murray Rothbard, Milton Friedman, and Robert Lucas.
“Liberalism,” says Milei, “is defending the right to life, liberty, and property. The institutions of liberalism support private property, labor mobility, the division of labor, social cooperation, and free markets with limited state intervention. It is serving your fellow neighbor by offering better goods and services. This is what we believe.”
According to the primary results, roughly a third of the country believes in or sympathizes with these tenets. With more than 40 percent of Argentines living in poverty, rising crime and corruption, and an annual inflation rate surpassing 100 percent, it’s no surprise as to why.
Many voters say they are fed up with the status quo. “We have to get rid of those who have been there for 30 years and have done nothing. We are rotten,” said one voter.
Another voter remarked, “I like Milei’s thoughts. He doesn’t lie to us and he doesn’t take our money with taxes.” In a surprising twist, the core principles of classical liberalism—free markets, limited government, and the rule of law—are resonating with millions of Argentine citizens.
What is more shocking, however, isn’t how many votes the libertarian firebrand collected, but who voted for him and his party, Liberty Advances. Since the last presidential election four years ago, Milei reversed twelve provinces that were heavily in favor of the Peronists, the country’s hard-left party. He won sixteen provinces in total and amassed over seven million votes, an unprecedented showing for a libertarian presidential candidate. The last libertarian politician to garner as much support was Ricardo López Murphy in the 2003 Argentine presidential election, but even then, he collected 16 percent of the popular vote, which is less than half the number of votes Milei attracted.
Nowhere was this support stronger than with younger voters. Milei’s keen ability to connect with young people, many of whom have lived most of their lives in economic recession, explains much of his success. “When I began making television appearances ten years ago, the word ‘liberal’ was a bad word,” Milei asserts in his speech.
What classical liberals lack in communication, Milei makes up for in style and sincerity. Milei’s pledge to dollarize the Argentine economy, for example, has become a popular slogan. “All the countries that have been dollarized ended up moving forward and stopped having inflation,” says one supporter.
Milei’s vow to defend property rights and lower the state’s fiscal burden are championed using language that connects with the average voter. He also plans to lift price controls, permit legal gun carry, and allow markets in human organs. Even Milei’s proposal to shutter the central bank is gaining traction among those who are disgruntled over the country’s decades-long debt with the International Monetary Fund.
Even if Milei falls short in the general election, his meteoric rise is a lesson not only in politics, but in illustrating the power of ideas. Classical liberalism is a rich tradition that often fails to resonate with the people who would most identify with it. In other words, the ideas of classical liberalism hold enormous potential to create real change, but they have become unfashionable.
Personalities shouldn’t carry the weight of a tradition, but finding ways to effectively communicate these ideas are often just as important as the ideas themselves. By capturing the minds and imaginations of millions of Argentines, Javier Milei demonstrates, once again, that freedom can be packaged in more ways than one.
This piece was first published on FEE.org under the title “Javier Milei: The Argentine Economist Who Could Become the First Libertarian President in Modern History“