The Hispanic Tradition of Liberty

“Argentina was one of the richest countries on the planet at the start of the 20th century. In 1913, Argentina “was richer than France or Germany, almost twice as prosperous as Spain, and its per capita GDP” almost equaled Canada’s, according to Edward L. Glaeser, Rafael Di Tella, and Lucas Llach, writing in the Latin American Economic Review in 2018. The source of those unprecedented levels of wealth was Argentina’s 1853 constitution, which made private property inviolable, outlawed expropriation, encouraged immigration, and allowed the free circulation of goods across provinces. It also ended slavery, protected press freedom, and established the right to freely worship.”

“At the end of this era, Peron and his supporters attacked the foundations of Alberdi’s classical liberalism in order to impose their model of corporatist autocracy. As Alejandro Herrero, a professor at Argentina’s Universidad Nacional de Lanús, writes, Peronist theoreticians denounced the 1853 constitution’s “egotist individualism” which they claimed “harmed Argentina’s Christian tradition.” Although the constitution’s second article stated that “the federal government will sustain the Roman Catholic cult,” the Peronists decried its purported atheist element. Even worse, they argued, the constitution was imbued with the materialist economic doctrines of the Manchester school of thought, whose adherents defended free trade policies in 19th century Britain. So in 1949, when the Peronists drafted a new constitution, they restored the country’s Christian legacy by “binding the individual to society,” which meant increasing restrictions on economic and personal liberties.
It was not only in Argentina that classical liberal policies brought considerable economic success, only to be overturned by collectivists under a religious guise. In Colombia, too, mid–19th century governments eliminated the state’s tobacco industry monopoly, abolished slavery, got rid of academic requirements to practice all professions except medicine, allowed full freedom of worship and expression by striking down defamation laws, and radically decentralized the collection of taxes. As historian David Bushnell wrote in his book The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself, the country’s constitutions of 1853, 1858, and 1863 increasingly sought “to diminish the government and other corporations’ control over individuals’ decisions and activities.” As a result, “it seemed that the state itself was about to vanish,” since it was broadly accepted that “the best government is that which governs least.”
Colombia’s 1863 constitution was especially radical since it left the central government only in charge of foreign affairs, national defense, and some amount of taxation (along with a few other duties). The president had weak powers and was elected for two-year terms. In turn, the nine states that comprised the United States of Colombia were sovereign, to the extent that they each gained the right to command an army and some issued their own stamps. This hyper-federalism proved counterproductive since several states raised commercial tariffs against one another and occasionally fought the central government. Some governments took anti-clericalism too far, expelling the Jesuits in 1850 and expropriating church lands and buildings shortly thereafter.
Nonetheless, the emphasis on international trade and the tobacco industry’s liberation from state control produced the first export boom not related to precious metals, which had been extracted since colonial times. A thriving export market of cotton, quinoa, and coffee soon took hold. As economist Salomón Kalmanovitz writes, these new links to global markets led to much greater economic growth than in the previous decades. Between 1850 and 1870, Colombia increased its per capita exports by 247 percent, a growth rate that surpassed Uruguay, Cuba, and Argentina, the region’s exporting powerhouses. This bonanza led to greater development of cities, which became new centers of commerce with improved fluvial transport.
Then, in 1880, Rafael Nuñez—an up-and-comer within the Liberal Party and a critic of the 1863 constitution—won the presidency (and was elected to a second term in 1884). He raised tariffs on foreign goods and got a new constitution ratified in 1886, all part of his program of moral regeneration or an attempt to remake the country in the image of orthodox Catholicism.”

“In the modern era, some of the earliest arguments in favor of individual rights, limited government, and economic freedom arose in 16th and 17th century Spain, among the late scholastic clerics of the School of Salamanca, a group of Jesuit and Dominican scholars who turned to natural law in order to answer pressing questions that arose from the discovery of the New World and the rise of the Spanish Empire.”