04 June, 2009

Comparing Argentina and the US

The Financial Times has a fun little piece on the relative successes and failures of the United States and Argentina in the first wave of globalization, and how they still resonate. Here's a taste:

Both countries opened up the west, the US to the Pacific and the Argentines to the Andes, but not in the same way. America favoured squatters: Argentina backed landlords. Short of cash, Buenos Aires found the best way to encourage settlers was to sell in advance large plots in areas yet to be seized from the native Americans. But once the battles were won the victors were exhausted, good farm labourers in short supply and the distances from the eastern seaboard to the frontier vast. Most of the new landowners simply encircled wide tracts of grassland with barbed-wire fences and turned them over to pasture.

Thus was privilege reinforced. European emigrants to Argentina had escaped a landowning aristocracy, only to recreate it in the New World. The similarities were more than superficial. In the 1860s and 1870s, the landowners regarded rural life and the actual practice of agriculture with disdain. Many lived refined, deracinated lives in the cities, spending their time immersed in European literature and music. The closest they came to celebrating country life was elevating polo, an aristocratised version of a rural pursuit, to a symbol of Argentine athletic elegance. Even then it took an elite form: the famous Jockey Club of Buenos Aires. By the end of the 19th century some were sending their sons to Eton.

America’s move westwards was more democratic. The government encouraged a system of smaller family holdings. Even when it did sell off large tracts of land, the potential for a powerful landowning class to emerge was limited. Squatters who seized family-sized patches of soil had their claims acknowledged. US cattle ranchers did not spend much time boning up on the entrance requirements of elite English schools. And as well as raising cattle, the western settlers grew wheat and corn. By the 1850s, the US was importing a quarter of a million immigrants a year.

Immigrants came to Argentina as well, but they came later and with fewer skills – largely low-skilled Italians and Irish. In 1914, a third of Argentina’s population was still illiterate. America imported the special forces of British agriculture, and in addition a large number of literate, skilled workers in cloth and other manufactures. Meanwhile, Argentina had more land than it could efficiently work. But it was well into the 20th century before the rot in the foundations was apparent.

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