Mises Wire

Milei Snubs the Spanish Political Establishment

spanish and argentina flag

Argentinian president Javier Milei recently snubbed the Spanish political class by visiting Spain and refusing to meet with any government officials, attending a rally of the opposition party Vox, and insinuating that the socialist Spanish president’s wife—currently at the heart of an anticorruption case—was corrupt. In retaliation, the Spanish president recalled his country’s ambassador from Buenos Aires.

Now none of this will interest those who have realized the parasitic nature of government and the vapid nature of political theater, but it does touch upon an issue important to many social conservatives, namely culture, traditions, and behavioral norms. To whatever degree we may have dispelled the notion from our thinking that the head of state somehow represents or acts on behalf of “the people,” we still attach importance to the observation of protocols derived from time immemorial and the continuation of role-based traditions. On the other hand, many cultural conservatives today recognize that the government is responsible for the erosion of so much tradition and culture and thus turn toward libertarianism in an attempt to salvage what it is left by curbing the government’s ability to erode the basis of civilization. This raises a question: What is a consistent, socially conservative, and politically libertarian view on protocol and its violation?

Behavioral norms have always existed in both the private and the public sectors, always for the same reason: the standardization of conduct in certain situations makes easier what would otherwise be difficult. Thus, we can conceive of protocol as a kind of civilizational capital, a roundabout way of producing a social outcome (coordination) that is costly to maintain (the opportunity cost of doing what you would prefer to do absent the need to follow protocol) and loses its utility if it is not thus maintained (i.e., capital consumption). A white flag in battle signifies a momentary cessation of violence, allowing the warring parties to coordinate. A wedding band signifies that its wearer is unavailable for romantic conquest, preventing many misunderstandings and ill-fated pursuits. And the meeting of two heads of state when one visits the other’s country implies amicable relations between the respective governments.

In brief, the observation of protocol communicates the nature of a state of affairs to both insiders and outsiders. That is surely valuable for social cohesion and interpersonal coordination, and indeed, civilization arises as an unintended consequence of such protocol-building activity, as Ludwig von Mises points out in Socialism:

Men who create peace and standards of conduct are only concerned to provide for the needs of the coming hours, days, years; that they are, at the same time, working to build a great structure like human society, escapes their notice. Therefore the individual institutions, which collectively support the social organism, are created with no other view in mind than the utility of the moment. They seem individually necessary and useful to their creators; their social function remains unknown to them.

Clearly, protocol serves an important purpose, else the costs of its maintenance and furtherance would not have been borne throughout the generations. Is Milei thus guilty of thinking short-term and undermining the tools of coordination by which civilization is built? Not exactly. In “Economic Planning and the Knowledge Problem,” Israel Kirzner distinguishes between two types of knowledge problems that arise in plan coordination. Knowledge Problem A describes situations arising from undue optimism. These are self-correcting in any situation because undue optimism shows itself to be erroneous when acted upon. Examples include a buyer’s erroneous thinking that a price is lower than it is or a suitor’s attempt to woo a girl who is not interested in him. The optimism induces action that leads to frustration.

Knowledge Problem B, on the other hand, describes situations arising from undue pessimism, which crucially are not necessarily self-correcting since an actor’s pessimism can lead to his avoiding confrontation with the true state of affairs. Examples include a would-be buyer not going to a market because of his erroneous belief that a price is higher than what he is willing to pay or a would-be suitor not approaching an attractive girl because he believes her not to be interested in him. Importantly, however, Knowledge Problems B are reliably solved in markets:

Whereas Knowledge Problem A was self-correcting, Knowledge Problem B created an incentive for its solution by discovery in the activity of profit-alert entrepreneurs. Where undue pessimism caused possible Pareto-optimal moves to fail to be made, the opportunity was thereby created for the possible grasping of pure entrepreneurial profit. . . .

Thus, our understanding that in market clearing equilibrium both Knowledge Problems have been solved—ensuring that both overoptimistic and unduly pessimistic mutual errors (that might arise out of dispersed information) are not being made—rests on two distinct completed processes of market learning.

The significance of this lies in the fact that within the domain of international politics as in culture, Knowledge Problems B can remain unsolved indefinitely. It simply cannot be known whether behavioral norms currently in place generate or destroy value—that is, whether they are worth maintaining because they truly do facilitate plan coordination or are merely costly formalisms that have outlived their utility. That is not to say that traditions are not worth maintaining, but as Gustav Mahler (erroneously) paraphrased Thomas More, tradition means passing on the flame, not conserving the ashes.

For comparison, it is for their own sake that we maintain and pass on the religious and cultural traditions of our ancestors l’dor vador, and doing so is thus praxeologically an act of consumption. However, maintaining the state and its formalisms is not a luxury that provides a sense of meaning and belonging, let alone access to ancient civilizational capital and even wisdom. Rather, the state is the apparatus of coercion that ostensibly protects life, liberty, and property so that these may form the bedrock of society.

Means are valued according to the ends they serve and the degree to which they serve them. So the existence of norms unrelated to the state’s raison d’être implies a scope of activity very different from what is justified by that purpose alone, as if the government were somehow a necessary contributor to civilization or even an end in and of itself. Crucially, it is from such assumptions (that the state should do something other than safeguard life, liberty, and property) that the impetus to erode traditional norms arises, for no attempt to change the social organism’s phenotype can result on the part of an institution solely concerned with maintaining its existential basis. Therefore, the cultivation of traditions can only take place in inverse proportion to the size of the state beyond the minimum required to fulfill its protective role.

In a market with money prices, cost-cutting entrepreneurs eliminate those processes they believe to be unnecessary and reap the monetary profits accordingly (or suffer losses if they have erred and consumed capital foolishly). But in the absence of such a market, there are only subjective, psychic profits and losses that cannot serve as a basis for calculated action. Consequently, their continued existence for many generations does not prove that the protocols of international diplomacy are necessary, let alone optimal, and could not be dispensed with, or for which of these protocols that might be the case.

What Milei has done by ignoring diplomatic convention during his visit to Spain proves that Spaniards and Argentinians can continue to communicate, maintain relationships, and do business even without enjoying the expensive symbols of amicable relations between their respective governments, thus implying that the protocols in place are indeed unnecessary. Viewed in this light, Milei’s actions convey the happy message that the Argentinian state is, at last, getting back to doing its job (i.e., protecting life, liberty, and property) and thus allowing value-productive traditions to be organically (re)established on the basis of voluntary human action.

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