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OP-ED | 13-04-2024 05:54

The medium as the message

Milei is the leader of a pack which competes to be the most outrageous but this week he seems to have been trumped by an underling: Alberto ‘Bertie’ Benegas Lynch.

All too often Argentina’s new libertarian government in general and its leader President Javier Milei in particular seem to confuse the catchphrase: “Nothing succeeds like success” with “Nothing exceeds like excess.” As it happens, the publishing house that owns the Times has been one of the most recent recipients of a cataract of presidential insults sparing almost nobody but we have no intention of singling ourselves out for any special victim status since our newspaper should never be all about us – suffice it to deplore an allegedly libertarian president revelling in the allegedly imminent closure of a company belonging to the private sector which he has pledged to boost with job losses, in the process displaying a most illiberal inability to stomach criticism.

Milei is the leader of a pack which competes to be the most outrageous with perhaps more attention to social network splashes than any impact in real life but this week he seems to have been trumped by an underling. The prime responsibility will always fall on the man at the top because placing his personal self-indulgence ahead of public interest invariably carries much deeper political and international consequences but pride of place for extremism so far this month must surely go to La Libertad Avanza deputy Alberto ‘Bertie’ Benegas Lynch for affirming that liberty in the fullest sense includes ending compulsory education with children often more useful at the workshop than in school.

Ignorance is bliss, it has been said, but also lends itself to slavery far more than liberation. Argentina consolidated its transformation from a feudal backwater to its best years according to Milei precisely on the back of the famous Ley 1420 of 1884 imposing free compulsory education, only one of the various initiatives of the pro-active state of the Julio Argentino Roca generation which proved far more of a game-changer than any market forces, contrary to the libertarian creed. Benegas Lynch talks blithely about children being more useful in the workshop than in the classroom, thus unabashedly vindicating child labour, but the alternative to school for all too many kids is the streets and paco.  

It would be easy to downplay the importance of Benegas Lynch’s utterances as a marginal opinion finding little echo even within the inner core of La Libertad Avanza – Human Capital Minister Sandra Pettovello and former cultural officials of the 2015-2019 centre-right Mauricio Macri administration have been hardly less strident in their rejection than Peronism or the left. Yet this extreme outburst is logically consistent with a dogmatic understanding of a philosophy where the word “compulsory” has little place in the libertarian vocabulary. But of more practical importance is the potential of this proposal to be the thin end of a wedge to justify massive spending cuts far beyond the scale of the promised educational vouchers for a government avid to slash its budget.

Even before the eruption of Milei’s movement turned Argentine politics upside down, Argentina’s educational system has been open to often valid objections at every level. Once the runaway leader in Latin America, Argentina has slipped into the lower half of the regional educational tables. Public schools are spurned by the parents of every class with the means to send their children elsewhere – indoctrination during the Kirchnerite years by teachers who prefer to define themselves as educational worker rather than pedagogues is a frequent target of criticism but perhaps the real damage has been done by static curricula with insufficient evolution since 1884, failing to take education into the 21st century (difficult to reverse if the pupils are in a generation technically ahead of those supposedly instructing them).

Free university education has also long been questioned (especially if students from abroad also benefit at tax-payer’s expense). Quite apart from the multiplication of universities in this century, the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) has the impossibly large number of 320,000 students. This system favours middle-class mediocrity since poorer families at the university level cannot afford not to follow Benegas Lynch’s advice of using their offspring at the workshop (where one exists), even without paying fees. Universities on the scale of UBA or La Plata have massive budgets of a size covering a multitude of sins which the libertarian government is sure to ferret out and use to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Yet the last thing that education needs now is cuts – the system is hardly at its finest hour.

Actions speak louder than words, it has long been said, but perhaps we should not rule out the ability of President Milei and his minions to be louder still.

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