George Santayana famously observed: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We’re seeing that wisdom play out, again, in Argentina.
Argentina is an economic basket case. Under the government of its leader, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina has spent lavishly on social programs and nationalized some industries. Argentina doesn’t have access to global credit markets since it defaulted on its debt obligations in 2001 and 2002. So the government is spending its dwindling reserves and seeking to devalue its currency — and in the meantime the Argentine peso is plummeting in value against the dollar and inflation is raging. The peso lost 19 percent of its value in January alone and inflation is somewhere above 25 percent.
Rather than learning the obvious lesson and ending the policies that are preventing free markets from operating, Argentina has gone in the opposite direction. The government blames supermarkets and oil companies for the inflation, and it placed caps on the prices of certain common goods sold at stores. Not surprisingly, those stores promptly began reporting shortages of the price-controlled items, because manufacturers and other suppliers obviously aren’t going to be pumping out goods that they can’t sell at a profit. Why would any business ship its goods to be sold in a price-controlled hyperinflation zone when it could just as easily send those goods to be sold in countries with rational economic policies? In Argentina, however, the government responded by fining the retailers and blaming their executives for raising prices.
We’ve seen this story again and again, in Latin America, in the Soviet Union, and in every other country that has adopted economic policies that interfere with the law of supply and demand and hinder the operation of free markets. Argentina will eventually experience a crash, as inflation spirals out of control and shortages become even more acute. But will it actually learn and take to heart the lesson it should have learned before?