Acton Institute Powerblog

Rule of law crumbles — again — in Latin America

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It’s no secret that most of Latin America has struggled for a long time with the idea, habits, and practices of rule of law. When one consults rankings such as the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom (which measures for rule of law), it’s a depressing picture, despite notable exceptions like Chile.

There are many reasons for this. Among others, they include a deep long-standing distrust of formal institutions which pervades many Latin American societies as well as the fact that Latin American populists have always regarded rule of law as obstructing their political and economic agendas—agendas that have produced even more dysfunctionality in their wake. Hence, Latin American caudillos of all stripes, ranging from Argentina’s Juan Perón in the past to Bolivia’s Evo Morales in the present, have consistently derided rule of law as a “bourgeois” institution.

Then there is the prevalence of widespread indifference on the part of many ordinary Latin Americans to rule of law. When I have spoken about rule of law while lecturing in countries ranging from Mexico to Argentina, I have witnessed a great deal of shrugging of the shoulders in response from well-educated audiences.

Perhaps that’s because establishing rule of law—let alone preserving it—just isn’t very easy. For rule of law goes beyond adherence to formal procedures. It also requires a widespread and consistent embrace of very specific norms and principles on the part of the population and those who make and administer law.

An excellent summary of these norms and principles was delineated by the twentieth century legal scholar, Lon Fuller, in his important 1964 book The Morality of Law. Part of his argument was that rule of law itself depends upon acceptance of a type of inner morality concerning basic fairness—something that Latin American populists and their enablers have never shown much interest in, especially if it conflicts with the Marxist sentiments that are just beneath the surface of a good deal of political and intellectual life throughout the region.

A recent egregious example of the type of problems encountered by rule of law in Latin America was highlighted by Mary Anastasia O’Grady in a recent Wall Street Journal article. Entitled “The President of Peru Stages a Coup,” O’Grady illustrates how Peru’s President, Martín Vizcarra, has just dissolved the Congress and set new elections for January 2020. He did so in clear violation of Peru’s Constitution. This states that the government may only dissolve Congress after two no-confidence votes. There has been only one vote of no-confidence during this government’s term, and that dates back to 2017.

O’Grady’s article provides an excellent overview of the particularities of the dispute. But she also demonstrates how the president’s clearly unconstitutional act is now fueling demands on the part of leading members of Peru’s hard left for the same type of process that lead to Venezuela’s left-populists consolidating their power and now dictatorship over that very troubled nation.

What makes this situation even sadder is that Peru has made, as O’Grady underscores, considerable economic progress since the late 1990s, including with regard to important institutional prerequisites for sustained economic development such as respect for private property. The problem is that violations of a presumably just constitution can’t help but reinforce skepticism among the political class and citizenry more generally about rule of law.

In the long-term, the rich and powerful can always take themselves in a situation of degenerating rule of law. The middle class and poor, however, cannot. They are the real losers in a situation of degenerating rule of law. We can hope that Peru doesn’t have to find this out the hard way. I wish that I was optimistic, but I’m not.

Image: Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores [CC BY-SA 2.0]

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Samuel Gregg is director of research at the Acton Institute. He has written and spoken extensively on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory. He has an MA in political philosophy from the University of Melbourne, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in moral philosophy and political economy from the University of Oxford.