by Leonard E. Read
Thy blessings upon our freedom associates – near and far, past and present – the perfection of our ideas and ideals, and our strict adherence to them.
The U.S.A. has been sinking into a socialistic society during the past few decades – with rampant inflation and its consequences. Is it possible for us to learn a lesson from freedom associates in a distant land? I am happy to report that there is a lesson to be learned.
Dr. Benjamin A. Rogge, Professor of Political Economy, Wabash College, and I spent a week in Buenos Aires (June 1977) – the most gratifying seven days I’ve experienced in my extensive domestic and foreign travels of the past 45 years.
I had first visited Buenos Aires in 1940. Argentina was then one of the world’s most productive nations. Its producers adhered more or less to free market principles and, as a consequence, its people experienced an unusual prosperity. The peso was worth about 33 of our pennies. Keep this in mind: just 37 years ago, a 1940 dollar and 3 pesos were of equal value.
Doubtless, the remarkable prosperity had quite a bit to do with subsequent events. As Horace, the Roman of 2,000 years ago observed: “Times of adversity have the effect of eliciting talents which in prosperous circumstances would have laid dormant.”
In any event, free-market thinking lapsed in the Argentine. Result? A Command Society! As an example, government owned the railroads and the resulting deficits were enormous. But ownership and “operation” of railroads was only one among hundreds of government takeovers. How pay for these inevitable failures? The government merely printed paper money to “make up the difference” — a fantastic dilution of the medium of exchange and an unprecedented inflation.
Argentina was one of the world’s major producers and exporters of beef. Could the beef producers sell to the highest bidders? Indeed not! Government compelled each to sell to the government at a far-below-market price and then the government sold to the highest bidders in other nations. These are but samplings of the government’s ownership and control, calling to mind our postal system or TVA.
Unto this muddle of governmental intervention stepped Peron and the terrorists! Eventually, the nation was freed of this wild dictocrat who escaped to Spain taking millions in gold coin. But the terrorists remained! What to do? A military government took over with the aim of restoring sufficient order that peaceful elections might again prevail.
My second visit to Buenos Aires was in April 1958 for a series of lectures under the sponsorship of Centro de Estudios sobre la Libertad of which the remarkable free market thinker, Alberto Benegas Lynch, became President. When I arrived, the military was still in command; General Aramburu, President and Admiral Rojas, Vice-President. I interviewed these men and found them favorably disposed to the freedom philosophy. Shortly after my departure, the military withdrew, feeling all was calm enough to leave the future to a popular election. Frondizi became the new President.
The General and the Admiral gave up their rank and retired to private life. However, the terrorists kidnapped the General, took him to their hideout and later executed this fine man. God bless his soul! The Admiral was more fortunate and escaped the maniacs.
However, Frondizi’s government was unable to maintain law and order. Finally, the “Peronistas” came back to power through elections in 1973 – first with Campora and afterward with Peron when the former resigned. For a couple of years things went from bad to worse. Inflation was rising at the rate of 900 percent annually (more than 75 percent per month). Argentina was in a chaotic situation. Terrorism was getting stronger and stronger. The only possible remedy? Another military Government – March 21, 1976 – tough and determined to restore order.
Dr. Rogge and I arrived 19 years after I had last been there. What we observed startled our imaginations. The 1977 dollar is worth about one-fourth of the 1940 dollar. Recall that 3 pesos were equal in value to one dollar then. Today, one receives 370 pesos for a 1977 dollar. Meanwhile, in 1969 Argentina had dropped two zeros, converting old pesos to new at 100 to 1. That makes the present peso worth not 1/3rd but roughly 1/50,000th of the 1940 dollar!
In spite of this inflation something fantastic is going on. Samples:
1. Never have we observed better dressed people.
2. The stores are aglitter with splendid merchandise and excellent service.
3. Rogge and I never tasted better food in this or any other country and at reasonable rates.
4. I bought a pair of the world’s best shoes for $43.00 – for less than the best shoes in the U.S.A.
True, inflation had gone down from 900 percent to 120 per cent. Is this to suggest that all is well in Argentina? Far from it! Many who were wealthy are in poverty. And millions must be suffering from this government-induced inflation. Yet, obviously, there is some kind of miracle at work. If we can find out what it is, we’ll have a guideline for our own salvation – a lesson from afar.
The answer has to do with the reason why Dr. Rogge and I were in Buenos Aires. We had not sought this engagement but, rather, the sponsoring organizations invited us: Centro de Estudios sobre la Libertad and Fundacion Bolsa de Comercio. Ever so many in Argentina are searching for help in the restoration and practice of liberty!
Neither of us has ever spent a more intensive week – busy morning, noon and night with lectures, interviews, luncheons, dinners, the latter often lasting until 11:00 P.M.
The five lectures, beginning at 6:30 P.M. in the Stock Exchange, had on each occasion from 700 to 800 in attendance. Never had either of us experienced a more enthusiastic response to the freedom philosophy. A question period followed each lecture and the questions were excellent, all in the spirit of inquiry – no confrontations. By 9:00 P.M. we began refreshments and dinner, the number present ranging from 30 to 100, with intensive discussion.
Each day there was a luncheon sponsored by interested groups and organizations. Eating was incidental; we were there primarily to answer questions for a couple of hours.
On Thursday morning of that week, I was asked to address 200 of the Army’s officers. I am confident that in general they are in full agreement with the freedom philosophy.
The next morning, Dr. Rogge was invited to address 30 officers of the Navy. Afterward, more than an hour of splendid, brilliant questions.
I delivered the final lecture of our series on Friday evening. Following the question period, there was a standing applause of greater duration than I had ever known – not for me abut for the philosophy Dr. Rogge and I had been explaining.
The reason, as I see it, that Argentina’s fantastic inflation has not yet destroyed the economy and why productivity in improving, was presented to us some years ago by Thomas Hogshead:
The idea of freedom must grow weak in the hearts of men before it can be killed at the hands of tyrants.
Weak in the hearts of men? Not in Argentina! Never, in all of my experience, have I observed the idea of freedom so strong in the hearts of men as in our recent visit to that country. It is vibrant! Not all the tyrants who ever lived – Peron, Hitler, or the rest – could any more kill this exalted belief than they – in their positions of power – could do away with ignorance. Confronted with an undaunted belief in the freedom way of life, all tyrants become impotent. This belief, and nothing less, will rid humanity of such tyranny – whether of the Argentine or the U.S.A. variety. Up with freedom and away with tyrants!
Success in the form of wealth, fame or whatever – getting ahead of others in any field – is heady stuff. When “What a great man am I!” dominates the mentality, improving talents are not elicited but lie dormant. Argentina’s earlier prosperity spawned adversity. This, in turn elicited the remarkable talents I have just reported.
The same sequence of dormancy and awakening is evident in the United States today. Many individuals in various walks of life are determined to “save free enterprise.” This determination is step number one.
It’s the second step – unorthodox and thus largely unheeded – that must be taken. Ours is not a selling but a learning problem! Never try to reach for others. Instead, strive for that perfection in understanding and exposition which will cause others to reach for your achievement. Freedom ideas and ideals can never be injected into the consciousness of another; rather, these ideas and ideals must be absorbed. Rely exclusively on the law of attraction.
I am unaware of anyone, in this or any other country, who better understands and can more clearly explain the freedom philosophy than Dr. Rogge. I said “better,” not “best.” There are others of comparable talent and their number is growing.
Bear in mind that we did not seek the Argentine engagement; they sought us. Is there proof that this unorthodox tactic is correct and effective? Rogge and others of his stature receive more invitations for lectures and interviews than they can possibly accommodate. Emulate these who are striving for personal excellence; then others – if interested in freedom – will seek your tutorship! The free market, private ownership, limited government way of life bears a far higher price than mere yearning. The price tag reads, LEARNING!
Finally, a doff of the hat to our Argentine friends. We in los Estados Unidos are grateful for your encouragement and enlightenment – lessons from afar!
Note – Frequent readers of BANK NOTES are aware of my relationship with Leonard E. Read and my admiration for his works during his lifetime. In the following issues I will be sharing his book, VISION, one chapter per month. It was written in 1978. What a privilege it was for me to know this great man! — R. Nelson Nash