The ideas people believe play a key role in their actions and decisions — not only those affecting the individual, but also those that have consequences for others around them. Consider last week’s terrorist attack in Kenya as an example of how a society can be the victim of atrocious violence because of the ideas of some Islamic militiamen.
Latin America has been fertile soil for the spread and perpetuation of bad ideas that have deeply impacted its historical trajectory. To find an expression of these ideas, one need look no further than the speech delivered last week by the Uruguayan President, Pepe Mujica, before the UN General Assembly. All the clichés, contradictions, and simplifications were there.
Here, I shall highlight three overarching dimensions (or assumptions) that reflect both the way people in Latin America interpret the world and some of the reasons for the region’s relatively limited development.
The first dimension is the tendency to believe that it is others who are to blame for our woes and our decisions — never ourselves. The Uruguayan President mentioned the British Empire, the terms of trade, the embargo against Cuba, the power of rich countries in international institutions. According to Mujica, it is their fault and a consequence of squandering that poor countries cannot get rid of extreme poverty.
That raises the second dimension: a disdain for capitalism and, therefore, of freedom. In his speech, he criticized consumerism and wealth accumulation, and he even denounced the existence of an alleged market god — as though the market were a mystical entity, or that freedom advocates saw it as anything other than shorthand for voluntary exchange and mutually beneficial relationships between individuals.
But the misconception is not restricted to the market. Mujica also stated that work takes freedom away from individuals by limiting their free time. He did not stop to think that free time must be funded and that countries with a higher degree of capitalism have the most recreational options and the most leisure in the hands of individuals.
Further, Mujica criticized the typical progress and consequences of capitalism: the cities, the technological development that makes life easier, the financial system, economic growth, commerce . . . even the light bulb, apparently, is an example of the trash that exists merely to make us buy more and more! That is to say, the market forces us to buy. It does not satisfy our needs, but rather it creates them.
Mujica’s conclusion is that the existing resources should be used solely to end poverty and extreme poverty, and not to allow activities that the Latin American leader considers mere squandering and greed.
Thus we reach the third dimension of his speech: an affinity for social engineering. Although Mujica is pessimistic about the likelihood of successful implementation of social engineering measures, he believes that such engineering is still the only possible solution. In his opinion, science should be a tool for ending poverty, and scientists should be the ones to rule the world.
The answer is to establish global rules that collectivize decisions, that impose limits on the human being, that manage globalization, that grant more entitlements to the weak, that eliminate individualism, and that drive, in a centralized way, the revolutions of our time.
In other words, decisions made freely in a market are a nuisance to his fantasies. Supposed experts, the owners of truth, should make our decisions for us, and this imposition on the rest of us is neither problematic nor upsetting to the poorest president in the world.
After he delivered it, the speech spread like wildfire in social media, as an example of what a good leader should say. It has made an impact because, unfortunately, it represents the ideas believed to be true by a majority of people in the region. Many Latin Americans think that power is a precondition for development, without stopping to consider the clear evidence that a nation’s power is not a precondition for wealth creation. In fact, the opposite is true.
The speech was well received because many Latin Americans believe we need a great men, such as Pepe Mujica, to solve the world’s problems. They have a negative vision of the world and do not see the immense benefits brought about by capitalism to the societies that, at relatively speaking, have adopted it — not as a metaphysical entity, but as an institutional reality.
Mujica is actually right on some matters: the futility and bureaucratization of international organizations, the divisiveness of protectionism, and his rejection of imposed hierarchies among men. But, for whatever reason, these are not the ideas that resonate and remain.
Latin America will have no real chance for development until the people acknowledge that all of the evils of extreme poverty cannot be banished by limiting capitalism or creating global governments, but only with greater freedom. Until the idea of freedom takes root, we will continue to delude ourselves that captivating speeches are stronger than individual actions. However well written or poetic, they are certainly not.