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Confesiones de un liberal

escrito por Luis I. Gómez 14 abril, 2005

Mario Vargas Llosa. Lento en ocasiones, algo barroco en otras, de repente rápido y turbulento. La palabra de Vargas Llosa es como un río salvaje ante el que nadie queda indiferente. Se puede estar con él más o menos de acuerdo, pero lo que no cabe duda es su inmensa capacidad para comunicar con clarividencia lo que piensa, aquéllo en lo que cree.

No acostumbro yo a recrearme en el “copy-paste” abusivo. Pero este artículo debo guardarlo en mi bitácora. Para releerlo cuando quiera. Degustarlo, criticarlo, digerirlo, aprehenderlo. La bitácora me permite también compartirlo.

Confessions of a Liberal
By Mario Vargas Llosa

I am especially grateful to those who have awarded me this prize because, according to their “whereases,” they are honoring me not only for my literary work but also for my ideas and political views. Believe me when I tell you that this is something new. In the world in which I move most frequently, Latin America and Spain, when individuals or institutions pay tribute to my novels or literary essays, they typically add an immediate “although we disagree with him,” “although we do not always concur with him,” or “this does not mean that we accept his (my) criticisms or opinions regarding political issues.” After having grown accustomed to this bifurcation of myself, I am happy to feel reintegrated again thanks to the Irving Kristol Award, which, rather than subject me to that schizophrenic process, views me as a unified being, the man who writes and thinks. I would like to believe that both activities form part of a single, inseparable reality.

But now, to be honest with you and to try to respond to the generosity of the American Enterprise Institute and the Irving Kristol Award, I feel I should explain my political position in some detail. This is not an easy task. I fear it is not enough to claim that I am–perhaps it would be wiser to say, “believe I am”–a liberal. The term itself raises the first complication. As you well know, “liberal” has different and frequently antagonistic meanings, depending on who says it and where they say it. For example, my late beloved grandmother Carmen used to say that a man was a liberal when referring to a gentleman of dissolute habits, someone who not only did not go to Mass, but also spoke ill of the priests. For her, the prototypic incarnation of a “liberal” was a legendary ancestor of mine who, one fine day in my native city of Arequipa, told his wife that he was going to the main square to buy a newspaper and never returned. The family heard nothing of him until 30 years later, when the fugitive gentleman died in Paris. “So why did that liberal uncle flee to Paris, Grandma?” “Why else, son? To corrupt himself of course!” This story may be the remote origin of my liberalism and my passion for French culture.

Here in the United States, and in the Anglo-Saxon world in general, the term “liberal” has leftist connotations and is sometimes associated with being a socialist and a radical. On the other hand, in Latin America and Spain, where the word was coined in the 19th Century to describe the rebels who fought against the Napoleonic occupation, they call me a liberal–or, worse yet, a neo-liberal–to exorcize or discredit me, because the political perversion of our semantics has transformed the original meaning of the term–a lover of liberty, a person who rises up against oppression–to signify conservative or reactionary, that is, something which, when it comes from the mouth of a progressive, means to be an accomplice to all the exploitation and injustices befalling the world’s poor.

To complicate matters further, even liberals themselves cannot seem to fully agree on what liberal means and what it means to be a liberal. Everyone who has had the opportunity to attend a conference or congress of liberals knows that these gatherings are often very entertaining because discrepancies prevail over agreements and because, as occurred with the Trotskyists when they existed, every liberal is in and of himself potentially both a heretic and a sectarian.

Because liberalism is not an ideology, that is, a dogmatic lay religion, but rather an open, evolving doctrine that yields to reality instead of trying to force reality to do the yielding, there are diverse tendencies and profound discrepancies among liberals. With regard to religion, gay marriage, abortion and such, liberals like me, who are agnostics as well as supporters of the separation between church and state and defenders of the decriminalization of abortion and gay marriage, are sometimes harshly criticized by other liberals who have opposite views on these issues. These discrepancies are healthy and useful because they do not violate the basic precepts of liberalism, which are political democracy, the market economy and the defense of individual interests over those of the state.

For example, there are liberals who believe that economics is the field through which all problems are resolved and that the free market is the panacea for everything from poverty to unemployment, marginalization and social exclusion. These liberals, true living algorithms, have sometimes generated more damage to the cause of freedom than did the Marxists, the first champions of the absurd thesis that the economy is the driving force of the history of nations and the basis of civilization. It simply is not true. Ideas and culture are what differentiate civilization from barbarism, not the economy. The economy by itself, without the support of ideas and culture, may produce optimal results on paper, but it does not give purpose to the lives of people; it does not offer individuals reasons to resist adversity and stand united with compassion or allow them to live in an environment permeated in humanity. It is culture, a body of shared ideas, beliefs and customs–among which religion may be included of course–that gives warmth and life to democracy and permits the market economy, with its competitive, cold mathematics of awarding success and punishing failure, to avoid degenerating into a Darwinian battle in which, as Isaiah Berlin put it, “liberty for wolves is death to the lambs.” The free market is the best mechanism in existence for producing riches and, if well complemented with other institutions and uses of democratic culture, launches the material progress of a nation to the spectacular heights with which we are familiar. But it is also a relentless instrument, which, without the spiritual and intellectual component that culture represents, can reduce life to a ferocious, selfish struggle in which only the fittest survive.

Thus, the liberal I aspire to be considers freedom a core value. Thanks to this freedom, humanity has been able to journey from the primitive cave to the stars and the information revolution, to progress from forms of collectivist and despotic association to representative democracy. The foundations of liberty are private property and the rule of law; this system guarantees the fewest possible forms of injustice, produces the greatest material and cultural progress, most effectively stems violence and provides the greatest respect for human rights. According to this concept of liberalism, freedom is a single, unified concept. Political and economic liberties are as inseparable as the two sides of a medal. Because freedom has not been understood as such in Latin America, the region has had many failed attempts at democratic rule. Either because the democracies that began emerging after the dictatorships respected political freedom but rejected economic liberty, which inevitably produced more poverty, inefficiency and corruption, or because they installed authoritarian governments convinced that only a firm hand and a repressive regime could guarantee the functioning of the free market. This is a dangerous fallacy. It has never been so. This explains why all the so-called “free market” Latin American dictatorships have failed. No free economy functions without an independent, efficient justice system and no reforms are successful if they are implemented without control and the criticism that only democracy permits. Those who believed that General Pinochet was the exception to the rule because his regime enjoyed economic success have now discovered, with the revelations of murder and torture, secret accounts and millions of dollars abroad, that the Chilean dictator, like all of his Latin American counterparts, was a murderer and a thief.

Political democracy and the free market are foundations of a liberal position. But, thus formulated, these two expressions have an abstract, algebraic quality that dehumanizes and removes them from the experience of the common people. Liberalism is much, much more than that. Basically, it is tolerance and respect for others, and especially for those who think differently from ourselves, who practice other customs and worship another god or who are non-believers. By agreeing to live with those who are different, human beings took the most extraordinary step on the road to civilization. It was an attitude or willingness that preceded democracy and made it possible, contributing more than any scientific discovery or philosophical system to counter violence and calm the instinct to control and kill in human relations. It is also what awakened that natural lack of trust in power, in all powers, which is something of a second nature to us liberals.

We cannot do without power, except of course in the lovely utopias of the anarchists. But it can be held in check and counterbalanced so that it does not become excessive. It is possible to take away its unauthorized functions that quell the individual, that being who we liberals believe is the touchstone of society and whose rights we must respect and guarantee. Violating these rights inevitably unleashes a series of escalating abuses, which like concentric waves sweep away the very idea of social justice.

Defending the individual is the natural consequence of believing in freedom as an individual and social value par excellence because within a society, freedom is measured by the level of autonomy citizens enjoy to organize their lives and work toward their goals without unjust interference, that is, to strive for “negative freedom,” as Isaiah Berlin called it in his celebrated essay. Collectivism was inevitable during the dawn of history, when the individual was simply part of the tribe and depended on the entire society for survival, but began to decline as material and intellectual progress enabled man to dominate nature, overcome the fear of thunder, the beast, the unknown and the other–he who had a different color skin, another language and other customs. But collectivism has survived throughout history in those doctrines and ideologies that place the supreme value of an individual on his belonging to a specific group (a race, social class, religion or nation). All of these collectivist doctrines–Nazism, fascism, religious fanaticism and communism–are the natural enemies of freedom and the bitter adversaries of liberals. In every age, that atavistic defect, collectivism, has reared its ugly head to threaten civilization and throw us back to the age of barbarism. Yesterday it was called fascism and communism; today it is known as nationalism and religious fundamentalism.

A great liberal thinker, Ludwig von Mises, was always opposed to the existence of liberal parties because he felt that these political groups, by attempting to monopolize liberalism, ended up denaturalizing it, pigeonholing it, forcing it into the narrow molds of party power struggles. Instead, he believed that the liberal philosophy should be a general culture shared with all the political currents and movements co-existing in an open society supportive of democracy, a school of thought to nourish social Christians, radicals, social democrats, conservatives and democratic socialists alike. There is a lot of truth to this theory. Thus, in our day, we have seen cases of conservative governments, such as those of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and José María Aznar, which promoted deeply liberal reforms. At the same time, we have seen nominally socialist leaders, such as Tony Blair in the United Kingdom and Ricardo Lagos in Chile, implement economic and social policies that can only be classified as liberal.

Although the term “liberal” continues to be a dirty word that every politically correct Latin American has the obligation to detest, essentially liberal ideas and attitudes have begun to infect both the right and the left on the continent of lost illusions for some time now. This explains why, in recent years, Latin American democracies have not collapsed or been replaced by military dictatorships, despite the economic crises, corruption and failure of so many governments to realize their potential. Of course they are still there: Cuba has that authoritarian fossil Fidel Castro, who with 46 years of enslaving his country, is the longest-living dictator in Latin American history. And the ill-fated Venezuela now suffers at the hand of Commander Hugo Chavez, an inadequate contender to become a lowercase Fidel Castro. But they are two exceptions on a continent which, and this should be stressed, has never had so many civil governments engendered from relatively free elections. And there are interesting and encouraging cases such as that of Lula in Brazil who, before becoming president, espoused a populist doctrine, an economic nationalism and the traditional hostility of the left towards the market, but who is now a practitioner of fiscal discipline and a promoter of foreign investment, private business and globalization, although he wrongly opposes the Free Trade Area of the Americas. With more fiery rhetoric infused with bravado, Argentine President Kirchner is following his example, although unfortunately he seems to do so unwillingly and somewhat erringly at times. In addition, there are indications that the recently inaugurated government in Uruguay, led by Tabaré Vázquez, is willing to follow Lula’s economic policy example rather than repeat the stale state-controlled, centralist recipe that has caused so much devastation on our continent. Even the left has been reluctant to renege on the privatization of pensions–which has occurred in eleven Latin American countries to date–whereas the more backward left in the United States opposes the privatization of Social Security. These are positive signs of a certain modernization of the left, which, without recognizing it, is admitting that the road to economic progress and social justice passes through democracy and the market, which we liberals have long preached into the void. If in fact the Latin American left has accepted liberal politics, albeit cloaked in a rhetoric that denies it, all the better. It is a step forward suggesting that Latin America may finally shed the ballast of underdevelopment and dictatorships. It is an advance, as is the emergence of a civilized right that no longer believes that the solution to problems is to knock on the door of the military headquarters but rather to accept the vote and democratic institutions and to make them work.

Another positive sign in today’s Latin American scenario filled with uncertainty is that the old anti-American sentiment pervading the continent has diminished notably. The truth is that today, anti-Americanism is stronger in countries such as Spain and France than in Mexico or Peru. Certainly, the war in Iraq, for example, has mobilized vast sectors across the European political spectrum, whose only common denominator seems to be not a love for peace but the resentment and hatred of the United States. In Latin America, this mobilization has been marginal and practically confined to the hard-line sectors of the far left. There are two reasons for the change in attitude toward the United States, one pragmatic and the other one of principle. Latin Americans who have retained their common sense understand that for geographic, economic and political reasons, fluid, robust trade relations with the United States are indispensable for our development. In addition, U.S. foreign policy, rather than back dictatorships as it did in the past, now consistently supports democracies and rejects authoritarian tendencies. This has contributed to significantly reducing the distrust and hostility of Latin American democratic sectors toward the powerful neighbor to the north. This rapprochement and collaboration are crucial for Latin America to quickly advance in its fight to eliminate poverty and underdevelopment.

In recent years, this liberal who speaks before you today has frequently been entangled in controversy because he defended a real image of the United States, which passions and political prejudice have occasionally deformed to the point of caricature. The problem those of us who try to combat these stereotypes face is that no country produces as much anti-U.S. artistic and intellectual material as the United States itself–the native country, let us not forget, of Michael Moore, Oliver Stone and Noam Chomsky–to the extent that one must wonder if anti-Americanism is not one of those exquisite export products manufactured by the CIA to enable imperialism to ideologically manipulate the Third World masses. Previously, anti-Americanism was especially popular in Latin America, but now it occurs in some European countries, especially those clinging to a past that was, and that resist accepting globalization and the inter-dependence of nations in a world in which borders, once solid and inexpugnable, have become porous and increasingly faint. Of course, I certainly do not like everything that occurs in the United States. For example, I lament the fact that many states still apply the aberration that is the death penalty, as well as several other things, such as the fact that repression takes priority over persuasion in the war on drugs, despite the lessons of Prohibition. But after completing these additions and subtractions, I believe that the United States has the most open, functional democracy in the world and the one with the greatest capacity for self-criticism, which enables it to renew and update itself more quickly in response to the challenges and needs of changing historical circumstances. It is a democracy which I admire for what Professor Samuel Huntington fears: that formidable mixture of races, cultures, traditions and customs, which have succeeded in co-existing without killing each other, thanks to that equality before the law and the flexibility of the system that makes room for diversity at its core, within the common denominator of respect for the law and for others.

In my opinion, the presence in the United States of almost 40 million people of Latin American heritage does not threaten the social cohesion or integrity of the country. To the contrary, it bolsters the nation by contributing a cultural and vital current of great energy in which the family is sacred. With its desire for progress, capacity for work and aspirations for success, this Latin American influence will greatly benefit the open society. Without denouncing its origins, this community is integrating with loyalty and affection into its new country and forging strong ties between the two Americas. This is something to which I can attest almost firsthand. When my parents were no longer young, they became two of those millions of Latin Americans who immigrated to the United States in search of opportunities their countries did not offer. They lived in Los Angeles for almost 25 years, earning a living with their hands, something they never had to do in Peru. My mother was employed for many years as a factory worker in a garment factory full of Mexicans and Central Americans, with whom she made many excellent friends. When my father died, I thought my mother would return to Peru, as he had requested. But she decided to stay here, living alone and even requesting and obtaining U.S. citizenship, something my father never wanted to do. Later, when the pains of old age forced her to return to her native land, she always recalled the United States, her second country, with pride and gratitude. For her there was never anything incompatible about considering herself both Peruvian and American; there was no hint of conflicting loyalties.

Perhaps this memory is something more than a filial evocation. Perhaps we can see a glimpse of the future in this example. We dream, as novelists tend to do: a world stripped of fanatics, terrorists and dictators, a world of different cultures, races, creeds and traditions, co-existing in peace thanks to the culture of freedom, in which borders have become bridges that men and women can cross in pursuit of their goals with no other obstacle than their supreme free will.

Then it will not be necessary to talk about freedom because it will be the air that we breathe and because we will all truly be free. Ludwig von Mises’ ideal of a universal culture infused with respect for the law and human rights will have become a reality.

American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research
© 2005 Irving Kristol Award Lecture