Is Javier Milei’s Movement in Argentina a Cult of Personality in the Name of Liberty?

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Javier Milei—the Argentine presidential candidate who rose to fame with a shock win in August’s primary election—is popular among libertarians, who join him in wanting to eliminate the central bank, lower taxes, and privatize some state-owned industries. Yet as we near Sunday’s elections, an in-depth look at his rhetoric and policy proposals raises questions about Milei’s commitment to libertarian principles.

Milei’s personal style is reminiscent of populist authoritarians such as Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Viktor Orbán of Hungary. Populists, whether from the left or the right, capitalize on social discontent, and Milei is no different. In his case, the economic turmoil in Argentina has created a political opportunity. 

The economist and TV pundit claims to fight against Argentina’s “political caste,” a group he defines as “those who are in politics but are immoral” because they implement policies that harm people while safeguarding their personal privileges. Yet a closer look at his own policies suggests he might be part of the same “caste” he opposes. 

Consider, for instance, his new alliance with one of Argentina’s most powerful union leaders, Luis Barrionuevo. The collaboration reveals Milei’s plan to entrust his new unemployment insurance program to the same unions that have overseen the country’s mandatory health insurance since the mid-’60s. Even the current Minister of Economy and left-wing political candidate, Sergio Massa, has placed his own candidates on Milei’s list of congressional candidates.

Milei is famous for talking about the importance of private property, a fundamental libertarian principle. Yet he is being accused of plagiarizing his books, copy-pasting passages from renowned authors such as Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt, Friedrich Hayek, and Murray Rothbard. 

Milei offers a unique combination of national-Catholic populism and anarcho-capitalism. “God is a libertarian, and His model is the free market,” he claims. But his rhetorical style makes it hard to tell whether he would preserve a key principle of liberalism: the separation of power of the state from religion. Instead, Milei and his running mate, Victoria Villarruel, advocate for their union. Earlier this year, for example, Milei posted a tweet saying that he and former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, whom news outlets have dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics,” would “fight based on the values of ‘God, homeland, and family.'” 

Milei has claimed that God, along with his deceased dogs, personally asked him to be president and carry out the divine mission to “fight the forces of evil on Earth.” Milei interprets this mission as “reducing public spending” and leading a culture war. His campaign is embodied by the slogan “The Forces of Heaven,” which is prominently featured on hats worn by his supporters. 

Milei and Villarruel oppose abortion and LGBTQ rights, which they call “cultural Marxism.” During a recent interview with journalist Luis Novaresio, Villarruel stated: “Milei and I are against abortion because there are no human rights without life.” Milei has similarly critiqued sectors that promote women’s right to terminate their pregnancies, referring to them as “individuals with brainwashed minds in murderous policy.” 

When asked whether he believes that a woman who becomes pregnant through rape is committing aggravated homicide if she chooses to end her pregnancy, Milei responded, “I defend life. Biology states that life begins at conception. At that moment, a new being with a completely different DNA is created.” In Argentina, however, abortion is legal nationwide. Milei is proposing to either repeal the abortion law or hold a referendum.

When asked about her opinion on same-sex marriage, Villarruel deemed it “unnecessary” because it was “already guaranteed through civil union.” She even questioned the use of the term “marriage,” suggesting it is related to religious institutions, instead of being a civil institution that has been secular throughout history. Ricardo Bussi, Milei’s top candidate for Congress, recently stated that “homosexuals deserve our full respect, like people who can’t walk, blind people, deaf people or just like people with other disabilities.” 

Villarruel also recently took to X (formerly Twitter), lamenting the end of military service in Argentina. She argued that this change “deprived the country of having its citizens trained in defense and made subsequent generations of men [and women] crybabies,” adding that “compulsory military service prepares our citizens for the defense of our extensive and rich territory, nothing more.” Yet, it is important to acknowledge that compulsory military service infringes upon the right to self-ownership, limiting the freedom to make decisions about one’s own life.

Milei and Villaruel oppose the legalization of drugs, even marijuana in medicinal contexts. In September 2021, in response to a video shared by a journalist on X addressing the drug situation in Philadelphia and other U.S. cities, Villarruel commented: “That is our future if we approve drug legalization proposals.” Later, in May 2022, Villarruel tweeted: “They’re voting in two minutes on the law for ‘medicinal cannabis,’ where, without scientific evidence, they want to quasi-legalize marijuana. A millionaire business that thrives on consumption…It’s encouraging addiction.” A social media follower responded to her comments, arguing that cannabis can help alleviate pains from certain illnesses. Villarruel replied by saying that such a claim only “applies to refractory epilepsy” and that “the rest is pro-drug lobbying.”

Milei has said that “consuming drugs is committing suicide slowly.” When asked about the topic, he claims to be “against the public spending that could come with the legalization of drugs” and never says he would legalize. In fact, Villarruel has proposed a law to seize all drugs—and thereby, continue the war on drugs. 

Other politicians, such as Mariela Weimer, Milei’s candidate for vice mayor of Ramírez, shout Milei’s slogan “Long live freedom, damn it” while simultaneously asserting that “if the military forces were in charge, there wouldn’t be as much insecurity, drug issues, inflation, and social assistance programs,” and that “with 40 years of military rule, we’d be better off.” Milei has refrained from condemning Argentina’s most recent military dictatorship: He characterizes it as a “war” and questions the official death toll figures. Villaruel goes a step further, claiming to support the military forces.

Milei’s stance on several policy issues has changed over time. Consider his stance on dollarization. Despite having rejected the idea in the past, he has now made it a main pillar of his platform. But dollarization would require dollars to pay off the Central Bank’s liabilities, and the dollars are simply not there. 

Contrary to previous statements, Milei said in an interview with Radio Perfil, “If I become president in 2023, I will maintain social assistance programs.” Similarly, after calling for fewer ministries and public employees to reduce public spending, he now claims that he would only eliminate managerial positions.

Milei argues that the core problem plaguing his country “is essentially moral” because “Argentina has strayed from the moral values of the West.” The argument resembles those put forth by Jordan Peterson, an influential figure among these politicians, who claims that “culture is losing, and a cultural war is necessary” and that “the Russians have the highest moral duty to oppose the degenerate ideas of the West.” But as Tom Palmer claims in “Jordan Peterson: Putin’s Useless Idiot“: It turns out that there are people who believe that Putin was forced to invade Ukraine because Russia is a part of the West and, therefore, has a stake in its culture war whose Ground Zero is somehow Ukraine.”

Villarruel insists on “national sovereignty,” a slogan used by Hugo Chávez, Fidel Castro, and the left they claim to be battling. As his national profile gains popularity, Milei reveals himself to have all the characteristics of a traditional populist who claims the cult of his personality. Milei is not the “crazy libertarian” people make him out to be, instead he could pose a threat to the very liberalism he claims to protect.

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