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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 17-12-2022 03:00

A short spell in an alternative universe

Whatever else Argentina may be, unlike her football team, she is not a meritocracy.

When most people are fairly pleased with the way things are going, governments can add shine to their image by making out that they are somehow responsible for their compatriots’ sporting triumphs; they do this by indirectly attributing them to their wise management of affairs or, if they are so inclined, to the stimulus provided by the ideology they have espoused.

Dictatorships do this in a singularly blatant manner but democratic governments have to take a more subtle approach, especially when the country they are running is in a shambles and much of the population feels desperately unhappy. Then, the contrast between the achievements on the playing field of a handful of individuals and what is happening elsewhere is liable to have a negative effect. This could be the case today. As many are pointing out, while Argentina is a great power, almost a superpower, in the world of football, in other respects she barely counts. Why, they ask, can’t the politicians be as successful as the nation’s footballers?

Millions rejoiced when Lionel Messi and his team-mates reached the finals of the World Cup and will do so again, with even more fervour, if tomorrow they defeat France and carry off the coveted trophy, but few will think the Kirchnerite government had anything to do with it. Even if some enthusiasts pretended to think it did make a contribution, the illusion would be short-lived. This is something the military regime learned after 1978, when jubilant flag-waving crowds thronged the streets, with many making their way towards the Casa Rosada where Jorge Rafael Videla and his friends contrived to take advantage of the footballers’ heroics by showing that they too were as excited by them as anyone else. Sadly for them, within a couple of days everything had returned to normal; as football fans are fond of telling us, the exultant mood which overcomes them when their team wins a key match rarely lasts for very long.

For many years, it has been habitual to see Argentina as a country brimming with individual talent which, to the bemusement of outsiders, has been a spectacular collective failure, with what might have been having long lost all contact with what actually happened. They know the country has always counted with plenty of world-class footballers, writers, instrumentalists and others, as well as scientists who, after finding themselves thwarted at home, have done great things abroad, and it may be assumed that the same is true in most other fields, but for many decades it has proved incapable of making proper use of its considerable human capital.

Towards the middle of the 20th century, many people came to the conclusion that, since many high-achievers came from relatively wealthy families, as has always been true almost everywhere, distinguishing oneself was bad so, instead of encouraging the gifted, those wielding most political power, especially trade union bosses and populist demagogues, made it their business to pull them down a peg or two. For such people, achieving more than what the average man can hope to do is a social sin, not something which helps the community. 

It is true that, taken to an extreme, “meritocracy” can be harmful by leading to the creation of self-satisfied elites whose members are convinced of their intellectual and moral superiority over lesser beings and, as is happening in the United States, treat the rest of humanity with open contempt, but in today’s world no society can expect to thrive unless it exploits to the utmost its available brainpower. This is something the Kirchnerites have always been reluctant to do. On one well-remembered occasion, President Alberto Fernández took it upon himself to inform us that individual “merit” was pretty well useless because some people were better off than others and therefore had more opportunities to get on, a statement which was plausibly interpreted as a defence of mediocrity and idleness. Whatever it was that Alberto had in mind, his words did much to persuade ambitious young folk that they would be prevented from getting ahead in Argentina and should try their luck elsewhere. One result of populist distrust of people who strive to make the most of what nature has endowed them with is that in recent years the country has seen a rapidly swelling “brain drain” which threatens its future.

Egalitarianism comes to a halt when it crashes into something most people take seriously. Were a populist government foolish enough to force Lionel Scaloni to field a team of ordinary players who had never achieved anything much because it thought it would be grossly unfair, and undemocratic, to let him discard them in favour of others who were far better at what they did, it would be out of office within a couple of days. As far as virtually everyone is concerned, ruining football, and while about it depriving the country’s squad of a chance to win the World Cup, by subjecting it to that kind of nonsense would be utter lunacy.

Unfortunately, the same principle is not applied when it comes to other activities which are almost as important as football. Politics, economic management, bureaucratic departments, education at all levels and so on and so forth are happily left in the hands of men and women chosen not for their ability but for their “loyalty” to someone who has clawed his or her way to the top or because of their family connections. Whatever else Argentina may be, unlike her football team, she is not a meritocracy.

We are frequently warned by seers that from now on a country’s performance will depend on its success in mobilising its intellectual resources by educating its inhabitants so they can take full advantage of the opportunities that are being created by headlong technological progress. This may be an exaggeration because only a minority can be expected to master the higher calculus and other challenging disciplines, but there can be no doubt that for a society to function well everyone should be encouraged to do their best to cultivate as fully as possible the abilities they have instead of getting told they are entitled to rely on handouts paid for by the remnants of the once relatively prosperous middle class.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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