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A Libertarian Visits South America

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Last fall, I was invited to South America by two free-market think tanks — the Instituto de Estudos Empresariais (IEE — Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies) in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and the Fundación Atlas para una Sociedad Libre (Atlas Foundation for a Free Society) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I thought the readers of Freedom Daily might find my experiences interesting.

The Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies was founded in 1984 “to encourage and prepare new leadership, based on the principles of the free-market economy, free enterprise, and the rule of law.”

I first encountered the institute in 1995, when I was invited to speak at its annual Forum of Liberty on the subject of education and the free market. During that visit, there were three of us on the stage facing 1,000 people in the audience. The speaker was the mayor of a Brazilian city who told the audience how important it was that Brazil try to copy the public-schooling system in the United States. The moderator of the panel, Roy Ashton, who was in his early 30s, was the person who had invited me to speak at the conference. Thinking that there might be some kind of misunderstanding about my position on the subject, I turned to Roy and whispered, “You do know what I’m going to say when I get up there, don’t you?” Roy responded, “Why do you think I invited you?”

When it was my turn, I proceeded to explain to the audience that the worst thing they could do was copy America’s educational system and that the best thing they could do was turn education over to the free market. The mayor appeared stricken but began to take notes! And Roy and I have been great friends ever since.

Roy Ashton and IEE’s current president, Felipe Goron, also in his 30s, are uncompromising libertarians who are advancing the principles of freedom in Brazil. They and their associates have succeeded in making IEE one of the most prestigious foundations in South America. Their annual conference features some of the world’s finest free-market speakers, such as Walter E. Williams and Nobel prize-winning economist Gary Becker.

It is not easy to become a member of IEE. Young entrepreneurs must apply for membership, pass an extensive interview process, and then pay a membership fee of more than $1,000 a year.

For years, the institute has held a weekly discussion meeting. The result is that today IEE members are very well-versed in both libertarianism and Austrian economics.

The purpose of my visit last November was to conduct a one-and-one-half-day conference on the U.S. Constitution for current IEE members, recent applicants to IEE, and a number of college students from Pontificial Catholic University, where the conference was being held.

In the morning session, I delivered two lectures: “The Meaning of a Constitution” and “The History of the American Constitution.” I explained that the U.S. Constitution called the federal government into existence but that its powers were limited to those enumerated in the document. I also explained how our ancestors, greatly fearing their own government officials, required the enactment of the Bill of Rights, which specifically restricted the powers of the government.

The essence of these two lectures was that people implement government to protect them from the violent acts of others but that the big concern is: How do we protect ourselves from the protectors? The purpose of a constitution is to ensure that the protectors do not become worse than the people they are supposed to protect us from. I also emphasized that democracy can result in terrible tyranny and that this was why our first eight amendments expressly restricted majority rule in the United States.

The afternoon sessions were devoted to “The Effects of Constitutional Law on the Wealth of Nations” and “The Constitution and the Rule of Law.” In the first session, I explained that the key to rising standards of living, especially for the poor people in a nation, was economic liberty. When government is prohibited from combating poverty by taxing its citizens to provide welfare, housing, education, and the like, standards of living rise as a result of the private accumulation of capital within the nation. And the way to prohibit government from combating poverty was through constitutional restraints on the power to do so.

The other afternoon session featured a debate with a law professor about the importance of the rule of law in a society. I emphasized the point that Friedrich Hayek made in The Constitution of Liberty — that the rule of law is essential to a free society. But I also pointed out that it is not sufficient for freedom; that is, constitutional restraints on the power of government to regulate peaceful activity were also necessary prerequisites of a free society.

The next morning, I engaged in a lively debate with a philosophy professor about the comparisons between the Brazilian and American constitutions. He was an ardent defender of the so-called rights to health care, education, housing, and other aspects of the socialistic welfare state.

I first pointed out that the root cause of Brazil’s economic problems was the fact that the government was constitutionally required to provide all of these “benefits” to the citizenry. In order to alleviate the plight of the Brazilian people, I said, it is necessary to amend its constitution to prohibit the government from “assisting” the citizenry in this way. I did observe, however, that while our constitution does not expressly grant the government the power to enact these socialistic programs, ever since the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, our government has done so anyway.

My trip to Brazil ended with a five-hour afternoon hike with Roy and Felipe down a steep subtropical trail (using ropes in one section!) to some beautiful waterfalls. It was amazing — in those five hours, we solved just about every problem facing the world today.

I then traveled to Buenos Aires to deliver the keynote speech at the launching of the Atlas Foundation for a Free Society. My invitation came from the foundation’s founder, a man in his mid 30s named Gabriel Salvia and one of South America’s most principled libertarians.

For more than five years, Gabriel has been publishing a libertarian newsletter entitled Atlas del Sud, which consists of articles, translated into Spanish, from Freedom Daily, The Freeman, and Laissez Faire Books as well as original articles written by libertarians in Argentina.

For five years, Gabriel has struggled financially, often putting his own money into his newsletter. In the process, he has attracted the voluntary participation of several young people, who, thanks to Gabriel, are well-versed in the works of Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Leonard Read, and many others, as well as with the libertarian think tanks in the United States. I had supper with many of them and it was exciting and refreshing to see the enthusiasm these young people had for libertarianism and Austrian economics.

Gabriel’s dedication and uncompromising devotion to libertarianism recently caused several people to help him found the Atlas Foundation. Among the founders are William Yeatts and Jose Esteves, who are in the petroleum business in Argentina. Yeatts earned his master’s degree in economics from New York University many years ago, where he attended the famous NYU seminar conducted by Ludwig von Mises. He has also helped found two other free-market institutions in Argentina: ESEADE, a graduate school oriented toward Austrian economics, and the Foundation for Energy Studies in Latin America. The author of a recent book entitled Subsurface Wealth: The Struggle for Privatization in Argentina (published in English by The Foundation for Economic Education and available from Laissez Faire Books), Yeatts is leading the fight for privatization of natural resources in Latin America.

Gabriel Griffa, the editor of Apertura, which collaborates with Business Week and is one of the most important business magazines in Argentina, is also helping start the foundation. Gabriel Gasque and Pablo Guido, professors who teach Austrian economics, have worked with Gabriel on a voluntary basis for several years. Luis Balcarce, a very impressive 25-year-old libertarian intellectual, who interviewed me for the current issue of Atlas del Sud, will be in charge of Atlas’s book club.

Natalia Rodriguez, who has tirelessly translated articles into Spanish, including my “Vision for a Free Society,” will continue to help with translations. Roberto Dania will be director of programs. Nicolas Maloberti will handle academic programs. Maria Laura Haag will be seminar director. And Sergio Casais, an ardent Objectivist who should have been named Francisco d’Anconia (the Argentine character in Atlas Shrugged ), will be executive secretary.

Most of these Argentine libertarians are in their 20s.

It was a big honor to be the keynote speaker at the launching of the Atlas Foundation for a Free Society. That speech resulted in an interview on Boom — Politics and Economics, one of Buenos Aires’s major television talk shows. The host is Eduardo Marty, who is director-general of Junior Achievement Argentina, which reaches 60,000 students nationwide. Eduardo studied economics with former Austrian economics professor Hans Sennholz (who received his doctorate under Ludwig von Mises).

For one hour on Buenos Aires television, Eduardo and I discussed Mises, Hayek, Rand, libertarianism, Austrian economics, and the role of the state in society. We agreed that politicians in Argentina and the United States are the same in at least one respect: they bribe the citizenry by offering them socialist programs in return for their votes.

Another highlight of the trip was a debate sponsored by La Nacion, which, with a circulation of 300,000, is one of the principal newspapers in Argentina. The debate was between a young author and professor named Enrique Valiente Noailles and me. The theme involved the role of government in society. For more than an hour, Enrique and I debated such things as public schooling, drug laws, national health care, welfare, and free trade and protectionism.

During the debate, I pointed out Argentina’s libertarian history before Peron’s presidency. Taxes were low, economic regulations were few, and the borders were open to trade and immigration. The result was that Argentina had one of the highest standards of living in the world. (See “Classical Liberalism in Argentina: A Lesson for the World” by Jacob G. Hornberger, Freedom Daily, July 1994, available on request via regular mail or e-mail.) The debate was published in La Nacion ‘s Sunday edition.

After an interview with La Razon, another Buenos Aires newspaper, my trip to Argentina ended with a tango show that Gabriel and a libertarian attorney named Mercedes de la Torre took me to see. (Only limitations of space prevent me from describing what happened when one of the tango dancers dragged me to the dance floor in front of all those people!)

Both Brazil and Argentina have suffered severe economic problems in the past. The future for both nations lies with dedicated libertarians like Roy Ashton and Felipe Goron and their associates at IEE in Brazil and like Gabriel Salvia and his associates at the Atlas Foundation in Argentina.

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.