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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 08-06-2024 05:36

The country needs a proper civil service

Rather than merely slimming down a pathologically obese public sector, it would be far better to concentrate on greatly improving its quality.

Like so many of the extreme leftists he loathes and takes delight in attacking, Javier Milei is far more interested in all-embracing theories than in down-to-earth practical matters. While this does not mean that Argentina runs the risk of turning into a chamber of horrors comparable to the countries run by communists who immediately set about murdering those who in their view would have no place in the societies Vladimir Lenin and the rest of them were trying to create, it is making life far harder for Milei personally and for his government.

It was thanks in large measure to his lack of organised support that Milei won office. He represented the “little man” who, for understandable reasons, wanted to boot out a notoriously corrupt and wretchedly inept political establishment that had reduced Argentina to beggary. Once in power, what until then had been his prime asset immediately started to work against him.

To govern any country, let alone one as big as Argentina, you need to be helped by a tolerably efficient public administration. Before Milei donned the presidential sash, Mauricio Macri warned him that he would have to recruit thousands of experienced men and women who, broadly speaking, share his views, in order to staff the ministries and dozens of other institutions that would continue to exist until the State had finally been abolished and his anarcho-capitalist fantasy had come into being, and that the best way to achieve this would be to enter into a coalition with PRO which could provide it with what it would need. After all, the real-world differences between Macri’s party and Milei’s La Libertad Avanza have more to do with the pace of change than with anything else.

Unfortunately not only for Macri but also for Milei, the two are drifting further apart. Whether for fear that it would look as though he was letting Macri boss him around or because he thought that having him onside would oblige him to soften the full-blooded libertarian programme he has in mind, Milei is keeping the former president at arm’s length. Encouraging him in this are his sister Karina, who takes care of the political manoeuvring he regards as beneath him, and an assortment of individuals – some true believers, others mere opportunists – who joined the party that formed itself to take advantage of his fast-growing popularity before he surprised the world by coming out on top. Naturally enough, such folk want to keep a tight grip on the political spoils they won last year, but it would appear that few of them are up to the jobs they hold, let alone proving capable of finding trustworthy people to fill the large number of slots that remain empty or, what can be even worse, are still occupied by Kirchnerite loyalists who want the government to fail and are more than willing to sabotage its efforts.

Milei feels most at home up there in the empyrean where philosophical principles do battle with one another; by all accounts, he is much appreciated by his fellow denizens who see him as one of their leaders. Though down here on earth his feats alongside the heavenly hosts he goes on about will have helped him by convincing many that he is a serious thinker, his government’s clumsy handling of day-to-day, bread-and-butter issues is having the opposite effect.

Much as Milei may dislike the idea, Argentina really does need a proper State, a public sector that is able to perform the many tasks that simply cannot be left to the market. To give her a genuine civil service, the government would have to embark on a programme of drastic reforms comparable to those that were carried out in the 19th century in the countries that would eventually become what is currently known as “the developed world.” While attitudes almost everywhere have softened since then, of late the assumption that meritocracy is preferable to any alternative has been making a comeback.

Ironically, in Argentina, most people who say they are in favour of a powerful public sector tend to despise it. Instead of demanding that all top jobs below ministerial rank go to the most talented, they want them to be reserved for political hacks, with those lower down being monopolised by their dependents. Needless to say, they are dead against anything smacking of meritocracy, let alone insisting that would-be government employees pass rigorous competitive exams, like the one in which, to his immense disappointment, in 1906 the famously brainy John Maynard Keynes only managed to come second. Similar dramas took place in many other countries, such as Japan and France, which benefited greatly from the widely supported belief that there should be nothing democratic or egalitarian about the selection process for a national bureaucracy.

As a firm believer in letting the markets have their way and the overriding importance of competition, Milei should find it fairly easy to come to the conclusion that, rather than merely slimming down a pathologically obese public sector, it would be far better to concentrate on greatly improving the quality of those who could soon occupy second-tier or third-tier posts and ambitious younger aspirants who are treading on their heels. For this to be possible, he would have to understand that doing away with the public sector is a pipe dream not only “libertarians” but also Marx himself once mused about, so that, after dealing with inflation, he should make replacing the present costly and inefficient set-up with an unabashedly elitist professional civil service a top priority.

This would take time. Meanwhile, an understaffed and often chaotic government will continue to be plagued by mishaps such as the ones involving the rail network and the unwieldy ‘Human Capital Ministry’ headed by Sandra Pettovello, which have been eating away at its reputation and therefore its support. Had it not been for the country’s truly appalling record when it comes to mismanagement by state entities, the damage done by such episodes would have been far greater, but if Milei’s government keeps on making avoidable blunders that can be blamed on the amateurish behaviour of its members, it will end up by paying a very heavy price, as will the country which cannot afford to let itself be shaken by yet another political upheaval.

James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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