What do we mean when we describe a politician or a government as populist? How is it possible to put Donald Trump and Nicolás Maduro into the same bag?
What do we mean when we describe a politician or a government as populist? How is it possible to put Donald Trump and Nicolás Maduro into the same bag? God creates them, the devils on the right and the left separate them, but populism brings them together.
Very simple: proceeding the way it's done in medicine. A “syndrome” is described as the coincidence of certain symptoms. We don't know exactly what caused the illness, but the doctor knows, roughly speaking, how it behaves.
When one or several of the symptoms are present, he declares the existence of the illness in the patient and proceeds to treat it.
What are the symptoms of the populist or neopopulist syndrome? We have identified 15. It's enough for several of them to be present to go ahead and diagnose any person or government that exhibits them as populist.
Let us put down those 15 features:
1. Demagogues. They say or promise anything. A million houses, five million jobs, reducing the day's work and doubling the salaries. No matter. They have no compunction about lying.
2. Protectionists. They blame foreign competition for many of our ills because “in those countries, workers are paid lower wages.” They propose to protect national production through import taxes. They detest international trade and never take into account the consumers' viewpoint.
3. Interventionists. They meddle into the productive processes and thwart the free play of supply and demand, issuing instructions on what to produce, how and for how much. They suffer the “fatal arrogance” that Friedrich Hayek attributed to those who thought they knew better than the market.
4. Bureaucratizers. They usually and fatally pad the payroll of public employees. This has a three-pronged pernicious effect: it raises the State's fixed costs; it complicates and slows down the creation of goods and services by unnecessarily multiplying bureaucratic red tape; it multiplies the forms of corruption. Bureaucracy solicits bribes to solve the problems that it itself has artificially created.
5. Patronizers. They generate a series of subsidies or privileges aimed at creating a legion of grateful stomachs from whom they expect a Pavlovian behavior at the polls. Many in that legion are the public employees who were unnecessarily hired.
6. Excessive public spenders. They spend disproportionate amounts of money. They do so through the inorganic issuance of paper currency, the creation of debt (almost always international) or by raising taxes and tariffs. This last factor usually leads to a declining weakness of the productive apparatus.
7. Inflationists. A massive public expenditure usually turns into inflation. Goods and services rise increasingly in cost, which means greater shortages for the population.
8. Devaluation. Excessive public spending, an incontrollable public debt, and a growing inability to compete provoke frequent devaluations. The government adjusts the economy by reducing the value of the nation's currency vis-à-vis the foreign currencies. That pauperizes the population as a whole.
9. Corruption. Among the measures most frequently adopted by populist governments are the preferential currency exchanges, the selection of privileged sectors to which subsidies are assigned, rigged bids, and sectoral banks. All these are opportunities to generate dirty businesses capable of enriching the dishonest politicians and functionaries in collusion with businessmen of the same ilk.
10. Brazen violation of the rules to retain perpetual power. Populist leaders repeatedly amend their nations' Constitutions to adapt them to their ambitions for power.
11. Collusion between businesses and corrupt politicians. Populist governments are the perfect framework for crony capitalism. Corrupt politicians enrich the businessmen-courtiers and these, in turn, return the favor, thus completing the vicious circle.
12. High taxes. They're raised to fund the unbridled public spending, the rampant corruption and the rest of the waste.
13. A weakened judicial system. Judicial power is put in the service of the executive. Prosecutors and judges do not answer to abstract and impartial laws but to the orders of the populist president.
14. Exacerbated nationalism. The official discourse turns dangerously nationalistic. There is a demagogic component in all of this. Populist leaders kidnap key personages in the nation's history (Bolívar, Martí, Duarte, Morazán) and place them at the service of the populist regime. Any criticism made by a foreigner becomes an affront to the motherland.
15. Anti-Americanism. Populists need a foreign enemy. In the past, they were the French or the British; today, they're the Americans. Carlos Rodríguez Braun, a renowned Spanish-Argentine economist, usually says that the best friend of Latin Americans is not the dog but the scapegoat -- a creature whom the populists usually blame for all the world's woes.