Why are Latin American politicians so bad?

A loyal MR reader asks:

[Please discuss] Latin American politics. Why do our politicians ****?

A few points:

1. I’m not convinced they are worse than average, once you adjust for per capita income.  If East Asia looks better, perhaps the quality of the bureaucracy is more important than the relative quality of the elites.

2. Combining parliamentary, proportional, and presidential systems, as much of Latin America has done, is a recipe for disaster.  Read Ljiphart and others on this topic.  It is too easy to block reforms, there is too little accountability, and there is no coherent ruling coalition.  If you are going to have a strong presidential role, try to restrict the number of major parties to two.  Or if you want many parties, make the president directly accountable to a coalition. 

3. The charismatic traditions in these cultures do not make for responsible politicians.  Visit Eva Peron’s grave in Buenos Aires if you need to be convinced.

4. It is difficult to rule a country with significant ethnic divisions.  This covers many Latin countries, though not Argentina or Chile or Uruguay.

5. Latin tax systems are underdeveloped, so distortionary policies are needed to collect sufficient revenue.  Citizens then become cynical about government, and consider it illegitimate.  Tax evasion is rampant.  The spiral worsens and again no one can govern well.

The bottom line: If they put me in charge of a Latin country, I don’t think I could deliver superior growth performance.  At best I would avoid some of the really stupid mistakes, but I couldn’t turn the country around.

This post is #02 in a series of 50 (?).

Addendum: Bryan Caplan adds comment, but I think he is just proving my point.


What happened to reason #3?

Re #1.

Without attempting to distinguish between politicians and the bureaucracy, it is very clear that East Asian countries had vastly better government when they were poor.

Simple example, compare literacy in Mexico today to each East Asian country when its per-capita GDP was at the current Mexican level. The East Asians were approach full literacy at remarkably low levels of per-capita GDP.

It's all relative. Compare Latin American politics to African or (especially) Middle Eastern politics, and Latin America is a shining beacon of perfection.

Practically every country in Latin America has been ruled by a military dictatorship at some point in the last 40 years. (Venezuela, surprisingly, is a rare exception.) It's easy to see how this would stunt the development of a political class -- many potential politicians are sullied by a link to the old regime, while others were sent into exile, killed, or never reached their potential due to an evisceration of the institutions which build politicians.

I think one reason is that there is little conservatism, in the Anglo-American sense of the word, in Latin America. It seems to me that conservatives in Latin America tend to promise their constituents that they'll make government work better rather than promising that they'll reduce the size and scope of government. The principal exception being during economic crises when they are forced into austerity measures. Individualism doesn't carry a lot of currency south of the border.

You find this quote from Alexander Pope alot in the debates and writings of the framers:

For Forms of Government let fools contest; whatever is best administered is best.

You can blame the presidential, caudillo system, or tax system, or whatever, but to what degree the culture is public spirited matters. That may not have any explanatory value (countries with poor government have poor government), but at least it doesn't invent a specious answer.

Uruguay probably comes closest to being a well governed South American country--
but that is just by comparison to the others.

I think it is a mistake to overlook the influence of outside nations throughout history. I suspect interference by the US has gone a long way toward reinforcing caudillismo among other negative traditions.

In response to mike's link to the article on Cudahy (from Sailer), how about this:


There are two variables in the Cudahy story - it's a Latino town and drugs that are illegal. Makes one wonder which is the bigger cause of the problems there.

And how is it any different than Capone era Chicago?

And how is it any different than Capone era Chicago?

It isn't, but then it is no different from modern Laredo or Juarez in Mexico either. That is the problem. I wouldn't want to live in either Prohibition-era Cicero or one of those two modern Mexican towns.

The larger point doesn't center upon the drugs, but the style of politics in Cudahy. What we are seeing here is machine politics of the worst kind. Chicago remained a very corrupt city long after Prohibition was ended and it wasn't because of illicit drugs. In fact, as I'm sure you are aware, the machine persists in a milder form to this very day. A similar style of politics dominates much of Latin America, irrespective of whether a particular locale is a significant transit point for narcotics.

The reason why machine politics in Chicago isn't as strong as it was in the past has as much to do with the assimilation of the Italians, Irishmen, Poles, and Jews, who made up the machine's primary constituents, into the middle classes, as it does the end of Prohibition. So, a big part of the question is whether Mexicans can be expected to similarly assimilate. Will Cudahy be merely a transient phenomenon? Judging by the educational data I referred to in a previous comment, the answer appears to be 'no.'

Let me offer an additional hypothesis. It has to do with religion. Perhaps influenced by Catholicism, it seems to me that, in general terms, the electorate tends to think that it (the electorate) does not have the ability to change or alter their immediate reality and that elected politicians provide the best way (or perhaps the only way) to do so rapidly and positively. Feeding on that, politicians promise heaven on earth (only if they are elected!) and, once in office, attempt to do so with grandiose ideas and programs. I have never heard a politician (at least here in Mexico) say that it is up to the people to change their own individual reality.

Another thing. In Mexico is much more complicated because there is no immediate reelection for any public office: President, Congress (Deputies and Senators), Governors, and Mayors†¦

And finally, I have lived in the US and the UK and I can say that Latin America does not have a monopoly on bad politicians...

"Chicago remained a very corrupt city long after Prohibition was ended and it wasn't because of illicit drugs"

So now we're bootin' out the Irish?


"I have never heard a politician (at least here in Mexico) say that it is up to the people to change their own individual reality."

Good call. This is at the core of Huntington's concept of Anglo-Protestant values in the United States. A useful note is that American Catholics are more like American Protestants in their values, than Catholics in other countries.

Of course, that was pre-mass immigration.

"'4. It is difficult to rule a country with significant ethnic divisions.'

"The irony of this coming from an open borders advocate is overwhelming."

Of course, America has succeeded in absorbing generation after generation of immigrants, while ethnic divisions elsewhere have persisted for hundreds of years without being dissolved. It's pretty obvious that America is different in this respect. To avoid ethnic divisions through being ethnically uniform has never been an option for America. We have to resolve this by creating an American identity that transcends ethnicity, and we have done so, with great success, for generations. That is an essential part of the American tradition, and to try to reinvent Americanness as an *ethnic* form of identity, capable of being threatened by the admission of ethnically different foreigners, is to try to reverse one of the key moral advances that make us who we are and proud to be who we are, and is rightly anathematized by the patriotic mainstream of American culture. But that's not the main point I want to make.

What needs to be understood is that advocating open borders is quite consistent with a recognition that ethnic divisions can be problematic, because open borders-- *generalized* open borders-- encourage assimilation. Mexican immigrants do not assimilate less than their immigrant predecessors in the 19th century; but non-Mexican immigrants assimilate *more* quickly, because American culture and English are so widespread today that assimilation is easier than it once was, for a very large group of people worldwide. The perversity of our current immigration restrictions is that it makes immigration easiest for countries that enjoy the accident of physical contiguity with the United States, and who thus can immigrate without the official sanction which is so tightly rationed relative to the supply of would-be immigrants. Under open borders, the median immigrant would be more prepared for assimilation than at present.

Early 19th century anti-immigrant racism found its fullest expression in the platform of the American or Know-Nothing Party, which rose and fell almost entirely within a two-year span, from 1854 to 1856. The Know-Nothings formed in response to the continued immigration of Germans and the sudden rise of Irish immigration after the potato famine in the late 1840s. About 2.3 million immigrants arrived in the United States between 1830 and 1850, the largest group coming from Ireland. The Know-Nothings promised to stop what they called as a cultural and racial invasion by the Catholic Irish, who, because of their religion, supposedly owed first allegiance to the Pope. In addition to seeing them as disloyal citizens, Know-Nothings saw the Irish as promiscuous drunks, a potent charge at a time when the Prohibition movement emerged as a political force.

Know-Nothings accused the Irish of lowering wages for “American† workers and accepting filthy living conditions. The Know-Nothing and the broader anti-immigrant movements in the 1840s and 1850s sought to end legal immigration, ban Catholics from holding elective office, diminish the voting strength of new Americans by extending the period of naturalization from five to 21 years, and supported the use of the Protestant King James Bible in the public schools.

In defense of Latin American politicians, their venality prevented Latin America from suffering the kind of ideology-driven catastrophes that overtook 20th Century Germany, Russia, China, and Cambodia.

There haven't been that many mass slaughters in Latin American history. Perhaps the worst was the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, which might have killed 2 million, and Paraguay twice crucified itself in wars with its bigger neighbors.

Inflation tended to be the Catholic economic disease of the 20th Century. Catholic countries often had governments that wanted to make everybody happy.

"The workers want higher wages? The employers don't want profits to drop? How do we make everybody happy? Hmmmhmmm ... Let's print lots more money!"


Does that make the argument false today? No. Does it raise my suspicion that people are still attratced to that argument for ugly reasons that they may even hide from themselves? Yep.

How about taking into account racial differences in IQ for a change?

BTW, Inductivist had a post a few weeks ago in which he argued that the nativists were right in their primary concern about later waves of immigrants from Europe: they really were less moral than "old Americans."

I wonder if we would even be having to put up with the open borders crowd today if not for those previous waves of European immigrants and their descendants who get all teary over Ellis Island and cannot see the substantial differences between previous European immigrants and today's Hispanics. All those people who would prefer to ignore the evidence that Hispanics are not repeating the pattern of assimilation of those European immigrants. Certainly many of the more prominent Jewish pundits who favor more Hispanic immigration cite their own ancestors' experiences as a motive for their position. I say this as someone who's own ancestry is predominantly later German Catholic immigrants.

"How about taking into account racial differences in IQ for a change?"

Sure, as long as you take into account the fact that the IQ argument has historically been made against a wide variety of immigrant groups, and has turned out to be wrong on a consistent basis.

You mgiht be right THIS TIME, but let's remember that the same arguments you make today have been trotted out before, and turned out to be consistently wrong.

The other factor that has changed since 1840 is the cost of communication. Immigrants who moved than knew that they would lose most of their contact with home. Few if any went back and forth between Europe and the US. Letters were the only means of communication with the family. There was no family visiting constantly from the old country, no cheap calling cards, no internet, no the parents taking the children back and forth, no Irish or Polish language television and radio.

First of all those who came to the US faced a huge cost if they, and most importantly their children, did not assimilative as soon as possible. Secondly only those who were willing to assimilate and give up their old culture moved in the first place.

None of this is even remotely true today. Mexican immigrants take pride in defining themselves as Mexican or Hispanic, rather than American. Today this holds true for a majority of the S E C O N D generation Mexicans, who have stronger cultural tied with Mexico than the US
“When asked which terms they would use first to describe themselves, a little more than half (54%) indicate that they primarily identify themselves in terms of their or their parents' country of origin; about one in four (24%) chooses "Latino" or "Hispanic," and about one in five (21%) chooses "American."

It is the height of stupidity to rely on the argument “immigration to the US has always worked† when you essentially have one or two periods of immigration to rely on, that differ in cruicial aspects from today’s immigration:

†¢ Previous immigration almost entirely from Europe

†¢ Previous immigrants were screened out due to self selection, when the cost of travel was 3-4 years salary

†¢ Previous immigrants faces strong centripetal forces to assimilate to American norms. Today the opposite is true, as ‘diversity’ is the main religious of parts of the elite.

†¢ Previous immigrants did not come have a welfare state to depend on.

It is not some sort of iron law that immigration always works. It doesn’t. It is silly to think that the fact that some Americans opposed Irish immigration proves that any argument against any immigration episode is automatically invalid.

“the IQ argument has historically been made against a wide variety of immigrant groups, and has turned out to be wrong on a consistent basis.†

Any evidence to back this up? And I hope it is not the old “jews had low IQ scores† myth. They didn't, even 100 year ago.

“Let's kick out all the descendants of Germans; clearly people who belong to the ethnic group that voted for Hitler can't share our values.†

I am sure you think you are being very clever. But in fact German Americans faced perhaps one the harshest periods of cultural clash and forceful assimilation in the history of the United States, during world war one. If I remember correctly the Roosevolt quote above refers to German dual loyalty, and the American majority not standing for it.

Even before this German bilingualism ended largely through outside pressure.

Do you see the same forces operating in America today?

"Do you see the same forces operating in America today? "

So you'd favor immigration if Americans were more bioted?

See, I'm sure that if all your fellow Americans were dumping on Mexicans, then you'd favor immigration because then we'd have the social pressure for assimilation. But I'm not sure everyone else has the same level of faith in you that I do.

And hasn't anyone else seen all the commercials on Spanish televison for programs to help you learn English? There's good economic incentives to learn English.

'i've always subscribed to the notion that language shapes thought.'

And English had Shakespeare, who was nonpareil.

I had this demonstrated to me several years ago by a Frenchwoman living in Seattle. I went to have dinner at the restaurant she and her partners--all wives of French aerospace engineers working at Boeing--had opened in Seattle. It was obvious that this woman was being treated very coldly that night by the others.

Asking her what was wrong, it transpired that they'd been having a dispute about hours and responsibilities. She, not being confident in her verbal skills, had opted to set out her position in a letter to them.

A letter she wrote in English.

When she saw my jaw drop at hearing that, she quickly added; 'English is a softer language.'

Julian wrote:

"There are no ethnic divisions is latin america, there are class divisions"

You are kidding, right? Anybody in Latin America knows that rich people are predominantly (and almost exclusively) white, while the poor are predominantly indian and mestizo.

The opposition to Irish immigration to America in the 1840s was based on behavior, not religion. In the Philadelphia riots of 1844, Irish Catholic churches were burned while German Catholic churches were left standing just a blocks away.

In time, Irish immigrants did assimilate into American society. To do so, they had to change their own behavior to make them acceptable to mainstream Americans. Fortunately, they had leaders who condemned the failings of Irish American life, putting pressure on Irish Americans to change their ways. See Time to rethink immigration? (the decline of the Americanization of immigrants). A useful quote

“Slowly, over generations, America changed the Irish--and they changed themselves. Today, in terms of measures like income, education, and political affiliation, Irish-Americans are more or less indistinguishable from the mainstream, with which they have extensively intermarried. (Well . . . alcoholism is a little higher. But so are incomes.) In his book The Economics and Politics of Race: An International Perspective, the Hoover Institution economist Thomas Sowell describes this as "historically . . . one of the great social transformations of a people." Irish-Americans have earned the hard way their right to opinions about who and how many their country can absorb.†

Indeed, Ireland outlawed birthright citizenship by referendum (80% against).

However, seven points should never be missed.

First, there was no welfare state or multiculturalist thinking to aid and abet separatist or oppositional ideologies. Sadly, that is exactly not the case today. Indeed, “diversity† is the official ideology of much of America. This is formula for national ruin from immigration, not success.

Second, America was (as stated above) fiercely Protestant, coercively assimilationist, and utterly self-confident. Clearly none of those statements apply today. These days such thinking is called “bioted† (presumably bigoted). A nation that rejects assimilationist pressures as “bigotry† should have zero immigrants.

Third, large scale Irish immigration stopped (with the end of the Potato Famine) almost as quickly as it started. Subsequent Irish immigrants to America arrived into a community already well on its way to embracing American norms. As history shows, it is the end of mass immigration that makes possible assimilation.

Fourth, 19th century America needed vast quantities of unskilled labor. Out nation does not. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the wages paid to unskilled labor in the United States. They have been declining for decades. Either that is evidence of oversupply or you don’t believe in Economics (probably the latter in most cases).

Fifth, they already spoke English so no language barrier block assimilation. Nor once their behavior improved was their any other barrier (ethnic/racial) to full participation in American life.

Sixth, as mentioned above, Irish immigrants had leaders who condemned the failings of the Irish. Today’s immigrants don’t. Recently, Herman Badillo wrote a book, One Nation, One Standard: An Ex-Liberal on How Hispanics Can Succeed Just Like Other Immigrant Groups about the poor performance of Hispanics in American schools. He has either been ignored or rejected by the Hispanic community. Check the reviews over at Amazon. Some are revealing, perhaps unintentionally.

Seventh, even with all of the advantages Irish immigrants enjoyed, it took a long time for full assimilation to occur. Americanization was said to be complete by around 1900, almost sixty years after the Potato Famine.

It should be obvious, that many of these points apply to all immigrant groups. Sadly, they demonstrate why immigration is so problematic of late.

There is a widespread mythology that immigration always works and assimilation always occurs. Not so. Take a look at Europe’s experience since WWII. Mostly a disaster. These days the question “Is Paris Burning?†, is not about the German army. This, in spite of the fact that France has (had is more like it) a notably successful record of assimilating immigrants (Sarko is the son of an immigrant).

Wow, here we have a classic example of why the public has so little regard for the economics profession. Yes, I could have written "as a consequence of increasing supply driven by mass migration, unskilled labor markets have reached price equilibrium at progressively lower wage levels".

However, any normal person would recognize these statements as equivalent. Moreover, the public has no illusions about the impact of Open Borders on wage levels in the U.S. Splitting terminology hairs won’t repeal the laws of supply and demand.

And no, increasing supply is not always associated with higher levels of producer welfare, if you happen to be a producer. Sadly, lower wages/incomes from uncontrolled immigration are a fact. Check out California incomes since 1967.

Of course, this graph is badly biased towards the upside. The real income data was based on the national cost of living, not California’s. Adjusting for changes in California’s relative cost of living, versus the rest of the U.S., would make the graph look much worse.

Of course, when you subtract out the externalities associated with mass unskilled migration, the bottom line goes from very bad to terrible. Would you live in Cudahy? Would you send your children to Cudahy’s schools? When America becomes a larger Cudahy will you at least be willing to express remorse?


Cudahy is not one anecdote. Go read Mexifornia for the end of the American Dream in California. Check out the actual data for education (a skills adjusted dropout rate of 75-80%), illegitimacy (48% and rising faster than any other group), crime (8x increase between the first and second generation, imprisonment rate 3.5x white rate, 9.1x Chinese-American rate), etc.

Take a look at the big picture data over at Importing Poverty: Immigration and Poverty in the United States: A Book of Charts and Importing Poverty
Immigration's Impact on the Size and Growth of the Poor Population in the United States
and Seeing Today’s Immigrants Straight and (tinyurl.com/262rj) “The Illegal-Alien Crime Wave† and (tinyurl.com/2ptsqq) “The Immigrant Gang Plague† and (tinyurl.com/2wp7lh) “Ignored In Open-Borders Debate: Rising Cost Of Second Underclass† and (tinyurl.com/3yyeyk) “Coming US challenge: a less literate workforce††¦

The plural of anecdote is not data. However, when the data tells you something loud and clear, Cudahy becomes a sample.

I will answer your “what would it take† question in a subsequent post.

“What would it take† has an easy answer. Immigration would have to be broadly beneficial to the American people as a whole, not just the exploitive elite. For that to be true the immigrants (as a group) would have to be at least as productive, capable, effective, useful, loyal, etc. as the American mainstream and make the American people richer, not poorer by their presence. A few specific tests.


1. A 1st/2nd/3rd/etc. generation illegitimacy rate less than or equal to the American mainstream (not the underclass)
2. A 1st/2nd/3rd/etc. generation educational performance better than or equal to the American mainstream (not the underclass)
3. A 1st/2nd/3rd/etc. generation level of criminality less than or equal to the American mainstream (not the underclass)
4. A 1st/2nd/3rd/etc. generation work ethic better than or equal to the American mainstream (not the underclass)


1. A net positive tax impact over their lives including all retirement costs
2. A net positive economic impact on the lives of the great majority of Americans, gains to the top 1% – 10% and/or owners of capital don’t count
3. A net positive impact on per-capita GDP

Quality of Life

1. No adverse impact on air/water quality and availability
2. No adverse impact on mobility
3. No adverse impact on the availability of public amenities

Public Life

1. No adverse impact on the quality of our democracy including cults of personality, patronage, etc.
2. No historical claims against the territory of the United States or resentment thereof
3. No claims to special status for “their† language, pressure for bilingualism, and/or rejection of English
4. No claims to special status for their culture, pressure for multiculturalism, and/or rejection of the historic Anglo Protestant values of our nation

This is actually rather simple. If immigration makes America better for the American people than it is a good thing, otherwise it isn’t.

If “Anglo-American values† mean things like racial segregation, lynching, alchool prohibition, christian fundamentalism, homophobia and (false) sex moralism, I would be happy to see these “values† dumped forever, by immigration, cultural (r)evolution or any other means†¦

"Of course, that was pre-mass immigration."

It likely still is. A lot of Hispanics in the USA converted to Protestantism.

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