Should social scientists read a book on classical liberalism written by a great novelist? Many would be skeptical, assuming that a novelist, no matter how great, can hardly bring an original perspective to matters related to economic and political ideas. Yet in the case of Mario Vargas Llosa they would be wrong, as proven Javier Fernandez-Lasquetty in a nice review for our sister site, Law & Freedom.
Lasquetty is the former Vice President and Dean of the School of Political Studies at Francisco Marroquin University and now the Regional Minister of Economy and Finance for the Madrid region. The book by Vargas Llosa he is reviewing is The call of the tribe, which has just been translated into English. It is a gallery of portraits of giants of classical liberalism, selected by Vargas Llosa because they influenced him and shaped his own political thought.
It is not the first time that Vargas Llosa has traveled such waters: in 1990, Vargas Llosa ran for the presidency of his native Peru (after what seemed to be a triumphant electoral march, he was beaten in the second round by Alberto Fujimori, then unknown). His political adventure began when he opposed the nationalization of banks in the country: a cause that is not very popular, especially nowadays, but which triggered a libertarian political movement in Peru at the end of the 1980s.
Vargas Llosa’s Peruvian agenda centers on securing property rights and market freedom for the poor, whom he saw as the real losers in a corporatist economy. He is the author of a long Introduction to Hernando de Soto The Other Sendero. The title referred to the then powerful left-wing terrorists in the country; the book was an analysis of the vibrant informal economy and the failure of ‘formal’ institutions to allow people to take advantage of it.
Vargas Llosa is certainly the most authoritative voice of classical liberalism in the Spanish-speaking world, and the only one among the literati. He has been very generous with his time with classical liberals around the world and chairs the Fundacion Internacional Para la Libertad, an umbrella organization of free market think tanks in the Spanish-speaking world. The speech he gave when he received the Irving Kristol Award is still a wonderful introduction to his political thought. But his ideas also emerge from several articles, essays, as well as some of his novels. Just think of “The War of the End of the World”, perhaps his masterpiece and the best book for understanding Latin American populism.
The call of the tribe is a declaration of love for classical liberalism. The only drawback I can find in it is that it makes the historian of ideas envious, for rarely has the history of ideas been so well written. As Daniel J. Mahoney explains in another thoughtful review for Law & Freedomthe book is modeled on “To Finland station, published in 1940 by literary critic Edmund Wilson. This book provided an astute (if one-sided) account of the development of European socialism from the 19th century French historian Jules Michelet to Lenin’s terribly consequential arrival at Finland Station in St. Petersburg in April 1917″ .
Vargas Llosa also tells us about the enemies of classical liberalism. The most important is constructivism. It is in his chapter on Hayek that he most categorically denounces “the fatal desire to organize the life of the community from any center of power”. No less categorically, he rejects that other, far more devious enemy of classical liberalism: mercantilism. Citing Hayek and Adam Smith, he contrasts capitalism with the mercantilist schemes of some businessmen and politicians who act to shield themselves from competition through protectionist regulations and policies.
Mario Vargas Llosa’s book is full of joy and optimism. Freedom does not lead to chaos, rather it generates this spontaneous Hayekian order based on free choice and individual responsibility. It is individualism that leads Vargas Llosa to optimism, unlike the pessimism that Ortega’s mass-man produces and which merges into a collective being where he renounces his individuality. For Vargas Llosa, freedom does not exist if it is not global: there cannot be freedom without political freedom, economic freedom, freedom of creation and of thought.
When the book came out in Spanish, I saw it again, along with Jesse Norman’s book on Adam Smith, in Economic Affairs. This was my take:
By bringing together the authors he has chosen and emphasizing a common thread that unites them all, Vargas Llosa points to a certain vision of liberalism: a liberalism whose lack of faith in interventionism is based on skepticism towards of the superior wisdom of which rulers can boast; a liberalism concerned with the rules of the game which “always favors the consumer over the producer, the producer over the bureaucrat, the individual against the State and the living and the real here and now against this abstraction by which totalitarian thinkers justify all their violence: future humanity” (p. 111).
This liberalism looks like a philosophy for the common man in commercial societies. He emphasizes the long-term benefits of “market-proven improvement” (to use McCloskey’s phrase), believes in progress when it comes to practical matters, i.e. say inventions of human ingenuity, but weary of it when it comes to big political projects. diets; it supports “spontaneous orders” because it maintains that history is an endless quest. It is a liberalism strongly concerned with spreading prosperity, especially since the working classes are those who, in the long term, will benefit the most.
Such liberalism sees history as a product of evolution, human actions, and unintended consequences, indeed as Smith did. It is therefore not surprising, however pleasing to Smith’s student, that Vargas Llosa’s book was conceived as an essay which, “beginning in the small Scottish village of Kirkcaldy with the birth of Adam Smith in 1723, will describe the evolution of liberal ideas”. by their most relevant representatives” (p. 11).