One hundred years ago Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world. For fifty years it rode a wave of favorable market opportunities and experienced one of the most successful periods of extractive growth in world history (sharing these honors with the Soviet Union and contemporary China or Sinagpore).
But extractive growth can’t last and in Argentina it didn’t. When you have a combination of extractive political institutions but somewhat inclusive economic institutions as Argentina did (and China does now) there are two ways to go, but only one leads to sustained economic growth. You can open the political system and try to move towards an inclusive society, or you can go in reverse and clamp down on the inclusivity in economic institutions giving up prosperity for power.
Argentina did the latter. Around the time of the First World War the traditional elites in Argentina made hesitant steps towards opening the political system, but they quickly decided they did not want to run the risk of losing power. In 1930 came the first military coup. Opening the political system was off the table. Then came a series of coups, and the one in 1943 brought a military officer named Juan Domingo Perón to power as Minister of Labor. Perón used this position to build an extraordinary political machine which has dominated Argentina politics more or less ever since. There is only one effective political party today in Argentina, the Peronists (official name: Partido Justicialista). The Peronists were not the traditional elites. Quite the contrary. But they seized control of the society and its economic institutions, and have been every bit as extractive as the traditional elites.
This is a pattern we called, following the sociologist Robert Michels, the Iron Law of Oligarchy. Extractive economic institutions always create struggles for control, and they tend to attract would-be elites bent on extraction, and whoever comes to power takes over a system without checks on their power. The outcome is to re-creation of extractive institutions under a different guise.
In Argentina in the 1940s, the Peronists won the struggle for power and are still on top. And the extraction still continues (even if it often takes the form of distorting economic institutions to hold on to power rather than just for personal enrichment).
Latest evidence: this week the Peronist government under Cristina Fernández de Kirchner seized a 51% share in the oil company YPF, previously majority owned by the Spanish energy company, Repsol YPF. The government immediately ousted the Chairman Sebastián Eskenazi and replaced him with the Peronist Minister of Planning. A tribunal will be formed to decide on the level of compensation!
“I’m a head of state and not a hoodlum.”
Insecure property rights are actually a well known phenomenon in Argentina. Grabbing the oil company is actually small potatoes compared to “El Corralito” in 2001 when the government effectively expropriated 75% of people’s savings in banks (as we discuss in Chapter 13 of Why Nations Fail).
The failure to make the transition towards inclusive economic institutions condemned Argentina to a century of economic stagnation.
Will the same thing happen in China? Singapore?