The electoral campaigns are heating up in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital. Finance Colombia endeavors to speak with every serious candidate willing to offer us their time. This year, we were able to sit down first with Bogotá’s Libertarian candidate, Daniel Raisbeck. The Libertarian movement is small, but growing in Latin America, where the traditional battles have been fought (sometimes literally) between the usually devoutly religious heirs of the vestiges of Spain’s colonial system, and the liberal movement—not the classical liberals of Adam Smith, but advocates of overthrowing the old order and replacing it with something ranging from the democratic socialism of Western Europe to the Communism of Eastern Europe. Libertarians are not the same as these liberals, but are more faithful to the free markets and unintrusive governmental ideas espoused by the likes of Hayek and Mises.
While still relatively rare in most countries, Libertarians are gaining traction in parts of Latin America, especially as people look beyond the old dichotomies and ideas are more readily diffused because of the Internet, globalization, and travel allowing people to study abroad and be exposed to new ideas. Daniel Raisbeck is an example: Born and raised in Bogotá, but studying and contrasting the politics and philosophies in both Europe and North America before returning to his home town, Raisbeck brought some fresh—and to some, radical—ideas back with him.
Finance Colombia’s executive editor, Loren Moss met recently with Daniel Raisbeck to discuss his candidacy for mayor, the state of politics in Bogotá and Colombia as a whole, and prospects for libertarian philosophy in Colombia and Latin America in general.
Finance Colombia: Tell me who you are, your background and why you decided to run for mayor.
Daniel Raisbeck: I’m Daniel Raisbeck,I was born in Bogotá, raised in Bogotá but I finished high school in the States. I did my college, my BA in DC and I did also my Masters in New Orleans at Tulane and then I lived in Germany for around 5 years where I did my doctorate, then I’ve been back in Bogotá for—this is already my fourth year. I’m a historian and I work at a university, I teach. I never had a plan as a child to become a politician, it wasn’t my dream but having this education in the States and having had a chance, especially in Washington, to see how the political system works, having done a few internships also, as well, having been also in Europe and having seen the political system there, my family is Scot, we have a Scottish background so I still have relatives in the UK and in England, in Wales especially,
So being just in touch I paid attention to American politics, I paid attention to British politics, to German politics, to European politics at the EU level, and so when I came back and I saw the level of debate in Colombian politics I was quite disappointed because it was very personal at that point and still we have Uribe versus Santos, and Uribe, Santos and Pietro, and it’s all about personalities, this good guy versus this bad guy and it depends on what band you’re in, but I mean, what are the ideas behind these people? What do they represent?
And, as I said, I interned at The American Enterprise Institute in Washington which is, the very renowned think tank on the conservative side, but I got to realize that in the end politics is about ideas and whoever controls the political grounds is usually the political group or the party or the movement that controls the intellectual narrative, so I saw that lacking in Colombia, and I also saw a lack of defense of liberty and basic ideas that maybe you would take for granted in the States, free markets, free enterprise, what you also call today The Libertarian Movement, that was missing in Colombia. But, as I also mentioned before, I think a lot of Colombians are natural libertarians without being aware of it necessarily, because no one has explained it to them well, the government should be limited and maybe there’s a lot that the state shouldn’t do that could get done in public services: things like charter schools, which already work in Bogotá actually, they can function quite well, so that was the main motivation, to be a part of the debate and to present these ideas, which is pretty much the first time in Colombia, the first time in a very long time and it’s been interesting because we’ve had a lot of very positive reactions, also a lot of opposition from people who don’t like our ideas, but that what it’s all about.
…It doesn’t matter who it is as long as they have this model of a metro system that produces surpluses, that is financially sustainable and doesn’t have to be subsidized with taxpayer money or with government debt.
Finance Colombia: As far as Latin American countries go, it has a relatively free market. It’s not a free market but it’s a relatively free market compared to other Latin American countries, compared to European countries, but when we look at Bogotá, because you’re running for mayor, which is a municipal position, within the framework, because Colombia has a much stronger national government,within the constraints of the mayoral system, it’s one thing to talk about libertarian ideas, but we’re in a city that’s not always very ideological.
We have traffic problems in Bogotá, there’s talk now about building a subway or metro, but even without that it has amazing traffic, it has crime, it has insecurity, it has the Transmilenio bus system, and then we see things like strikes going on, how would a libertarian be able to find success in a system where the government is facing demands of “give me more, give me more and give me more?”
Daniel Raisbeck: It’s a good question, and you’re right in the sense that, when I ran for congress last year, under the conservative party, we’re now creating a new libertarian movement, but when I ran last year for congress it was an easier campaign in the sense of, since it’s a national campaign, or a campaign on national issues, it is easier to make the ideological or philosophical libertarian argument in favor of a small government, limited government, more free market, etc., but campaigning for mayor is a whole different animal.
But at the same time I think that there are libertarian solutions that apply to Bogotá, and that’s what we’re trying to do. You mentioned the teacher’s strike, so what’s happening is that the Teacher’s Union is striking and they’re demanding more pay, obviously, the problem is that they want more pay in return for nothing, they don’t even want to be tested for competency, so basically, the teacher’s union wants increased pay but they’re against being examined by the state, getting tested in terms of abilities, so I mean, any way you look at it it’s completely absurd what they’re asking for, on the other hand, you do have a system in Bogotá that has worked for 15 years, it’s now in its 16th year, of 21 charter schools: public schools run by private organizations and universities and they have done very well, much better, in standardized test results like ICFES, than public schools run by the government.
Finance Colombia: Explain what ICFES is.
Daniel Raisbeck: ICFES is basically that, an equivalent of the SATs (college entrance exams), I would put it that way.
Finance Colombia: OK, like a standardized test.
Daniel Raisbeck: A standardized test you take, I think, a few times, but the big one is called Saber Once and it’s—11th grade is the last grade in Colombia, we don’t have 12th grade in most schools, in the public sector definitely not, so if you look at those standardized tests, the results of these 21 chartered schools are outstanding, especially compared with government run schools in the same district, in the same neighborhoods, the parents are completely thrilled and they’re happy with the schools, they want the schools to go on, the price in these schools is also lower, considerably less, around 1.5 million pesos less than in the government run schools
Finance Colombia: That’s about 600-700 dollars.
Daniel Raisbeck: Yeah, per year.
Finance Colombia: Wow.
Daniel Raisbeck: And if you take it to around 40,000 students it’s quite a bit of money and the problem is that the Union is against these schools because it represents competition
Finance Colombia: The same as in the States.
Daniel Raisbeck: The same as in the States, the same as in England, the same as in everywhere, the same argument, they say that it’s a privatization of public education which is completely false, they simply don’t like it for ideological reasons and because they don’t want to be compared to others, because if these charter schools didn’t exist then they could blame it all on low pay, but since they have this reference then it’s very difficult for them to make that argument, so they want to sabotage these schools, they don’t want their contracts to be extended, etc., so that’s a big political issue, right now. In the last year, that’s one example of how the mayor of Bogotá has the power to implement free market or libertarian ideas, of course, as you know, school vouchers or charter schools are not 100% free market but it does mean subsidizing the consumer instead of subsidizing the producer without asking anything in return which is what traditional government education, state run education, is. And you also mentioned the metro, the subway, that’s going to be built, you also have a very free market solution to that: because most metro systems, subway systems, in the world, 99% are subsidized, New York City’s is heavily subsidized by city taxes, by city debt and Berlin, for instance, where I lived, heavily subsidized, and they’re good public systems but it means that they cost a lot and people have to pay out of their pockets to have these systems run efficiently, whereas we have the so called value capture system, that is invented and perfected in Hong Kong.
The government in Colombia, the state is present, and It’s present in an excessive fashion where it shouldn’t be like, for instance, taxes and red tape and bureaucracy, and it’s not present where it should which is, for instance, protecting people, people’s physical safety and their private property, so, in the first place, that’s a failure of government.
It’s not being applied elsewhere, where you use the real estate value of each station, which is usually in a strategic place and you build a shopping mall or you build a skyscraper. And then the company, whether it is government run or mixed or it’s in the stock market, receives utility from these stores, or apartments, or offices, and, if you have a lot of them, like the metro in Hong Kong, it produces surpluses. It had a $2 billion surplus in 2012 and that can pay for the entire metro system, it can pay for renovations, it pays to expand the line to go to places where it originally didn’t go so, I mean, that’s the solution that we’re proposing for Bogotá, whereas the discussion right now, I was at a debate today with another candidate, has been about how much it’s going to cost to build the first line, they’re talking about 15 billion to 20 billion pesos, you’ll have to convert that into dollars! But what they’re not talking about—you can find the 15 billion pesos, you can find the 20 billion pesos too, but that’s not the problem, the problem is how much it’s going to cost to run it once it’s built.
Finance Colombia: The long run, that’s the real cost.
Daniel Raisbeck: Yeah, exactly, and if it’s going to be subsidized, how is it going to be subsidized? And if we’re going to have—if the middle class in Bogotá is going to have to pay even more taxes it is going to be a problem, because the middle class in Bogotá has reached its limit with property tax and…
Finance Colombia: I’ve seen protests, you don’t want to see middle class protests, I’ve heard news that they’re complaining of the predio.
Daniel Raisbeck: Yeah, el impuesto predial, property taxes.
Finance Colombia: Well, let me ask you this, because coming to this meeting with you, even the taxi driver asked me, he said “you know, why not have a private firm, even from abroad, if necessary, come in and build the subway? Give them the concession, let them operate the subway, let them charge whatever they charge for. Why do we need to pay for it with our tax money?” Now, I can see a lot of arguments, even free market problems with doing that but, I’m not running for mayor, you answer that, why do it that way—Is that one option? Or why not?
Daniel Raisbeck: Yeah, I propose, (something like) Mass Transit Railways, which is the Hong Kong Company, it’s in the stock market but the government, Hong Kong, owns about 80% of the shares.
Finance Colombia: So it’s like ETB (Bogotá’s telephone company that trades publicly but the city owns a controlling interest) here, where it’s partly government owned and partly private.
Daniel Raisbeck: But, I mean, they’re operating subway lines, metro lines, in Stockholm, in London, in Melbourne, I think they should come here, because, they’re one of the best in the world, but if it’s not them it can be someone else, it doesn’t matter who it is as long as they have this model of a metro system that produces surpluses, that is financially sustainable and doesn’t have to be subsidized with taxpayer money or with government debt, what you mentioned, I think it’s fascinating that the taxi driver made that suggestion because, as I said, I think that there are many people in Colombia and in Bogotá that are libertarians and without realizing it.
Finance Colombia: I think that’s interesting, but now we mentioned that Bogotá, from knowing a little bit about Colombia, it’s fascinating because Bogotá—Colombia is not a leftist country, however, Bogotá has seems to be bastion of the left. You look at the universities here, they seems to be bastions of not just the left, but the extreme left.
Not that everybody who graduates from there are, but obviously there is an influence. What’s the historical context? How has that come to be? And how does that fit in the context of what you are doing, because, it probably would be easier for you in a lot of other places, but you’re here in Bogotá.
Daniel Raisbeck: Well, I think you would have to take it into perspective, the comparison would not necessarily be with Medellín, I think, because they have very special circumstances, but I’d compare it to the region, if you go to a department nearby, a department is a state in Colombia, like Tolima for instance, if you go to Tolima you’ll find that the state practically runs the economy and that in Tolima getting a job usually means working for the state.
Finance Colombia: For the government.
Daniel Raisbeck: So when there’s an election in Tolima it’s about who can control the cake and dole out the pieces, so—whereas in Bogotá, Bogotá has such a dynamic economy of almost 25% of the nation’s GDP, and most people don’t work for the government so Bogotá has been traditionally an independent city, and you have that, for instance, when Mockus won here over a decade ago, he came out of nowhere, defeated the political parties, you have the Mockus-Peñalosa phenomenon which was completely independent, you have in Bogotá what in Colombia is called voto de opinión, opinion votes which just means votes that aren’t political machinery or votes that are paid for, so on the one hand you have this scenario, on the other hand I think the big political waves of the past 12 years or so, or 13 years, the big rainmaker is Alvaro Uribe without a doubt, if you look at the approval ratings, he really splits Colombian political history in two, at least the political history of the last 30 years, so you that when Uribe came to power his approval ratings were just phenomenal, especially for Colombian politics because usually you’d have, if a president left office with 35% approval rating he did well.
Daniel Raisbeck: And suddenly you had Uribe with 60+ percent
Finance Colombia: Look at elections before Santos, I remember being here in Colombia and basically people’s campaign platform was “vote for me because I’m with Uribe,” and that was their campaign platform.
Daniel Raisbeck: Exactly. That’s how Santos won, which is a different conversation, but then you had Uribe with about 67% , after Operación Jaque, you know the—after the army rescue of Ingrid Betancourt, that had 75% of Colombians thinking that the country was headed in the right direction, today it’s down to below 30% or something.
I do think you should have some basic safety net for the poorest and most vulnerable in society, absolutely. I think at least, the problem is when that safety net becomes a form of dependency and you motivate people to not to go to work and to live off subsidies and to live off handouts, SISBEN, which is the Colombian welfare system, I think that’s a problem and it’s becoming a problem the left has exploited.
So you have that phenomenon, but at the same time you have an extreme reaction against Uribe which wasn’t huge, but it did reach the portion of 20%-22%, and If you look at Carlos Gaviria who was the candidate of Polo Democrático which is the party that formed on the left as a result of Uribe.
Finance Colombia: The anti-Uribistas, basically.
Daniel Raisbeck: Right, and it was a coalition of the leftists, leftist politicians that really didn’t have that much in common but came together just to oppose Uribe, and they got 22% in that election in 2002 which is the best presidential result of the left and then what happened was that the left was able to capitalize on that anti-Uribe, independent, basically anti-establishment feeling of Bogotá in the last 3 elections for mayor, so that’s why you’ve had 3 administrations of the left, of the more extreme left, not the violent left, but the more extreme left, I would say that the liberal democrats, the social democrats
Finance Colombia: The democratic social, European style socialists.
Daniel Raisbeck: Right, exactly, but then on the other hand you also had the huge mistake 4 years ago, where you had several center right candidates that between them won the overwhelming majority of the vote but they didn’t unite so they split the vote and they allowed Petro, the current mayor, to come in with 30% of the vote or less I think maybe 27% or something like that, so you have to take that into account, you also have to take into account that, well, something that’s quite worrying is that the last 3 leftist governments have built a client-state in Colombia, there was an article in La Silla Vacía, in the internet portal where you hake 4 million subsidized people in Bogotá, directly subsidized in some way by the city government, so that’s worrisome, but at the same time there’s a big disappointment with the last 3 governments, I mean they haven’t done—they haven’t finished—between 2000 and 2006 we had 2 phases of Transmilenio completed, each one was over 40 Kilometers, whereas from 2006 to 2015 we have barely had 1 completed and it’s less than 40—it’s 36 Kilometers, so, I mean, the inefficiency is just outstanding.
Finance Colombia: I still haven’t figured out theSiTP (Bogotá’s feeder transit system)!
Daniel Raisbeck: No, it’s just bad administration and I think that in general people are after practical solutions and a lot of people don’t want to vote for the left, they don’t want to vote for the right, but they don’t want to vote for someone just to vote against another person, so we see a very big opportunity for an independent candidate.
Finance Colombia: Ok, what I want to ask is: if this city, in Bogotá, has already had some administrations that say “this is what we’re giving you” to people, how do we say—when, look, Bogotá is an interesting city, it’s a city that has a lot of good things, a lot of nice things, but also, for very complex reasons because of moving and things like that, we have that more than half of the city is short on resources and residents are waiting to see who is going to give them something, or who is going to offer them something, and a lot of the times it’s not their own fault, it’s not that they’re lazy, but my question is, how can you apply libertarian principles to people that are saying “look, it’s not that I’m lazy but the government brought me all this stuff” or something like that, how can you tell those people—or how can you tell those people “this is society, you shouldn’t wait for us to give you something,” but what answer do you have for people in those cases?
So what do you do in a city where people who have been displaced, have come from places where they were happy, where they were self-sufficient, but now they find themselves, with through no fault of their own, depending upon the government, and now they’ve had a couple of, you know, several different administrations who were saying “vote for me because of everything I’m going to give you,” how do you apply free market solutions to somebody in that situation?” and say “look, I’m not going to promise that I’m just going to give you a bunch of handouts, but I’m going to make it better for you,” what do you say to somebody who says “look, I came here in the last government because they’re giving me this stuff,” like you said, I think 40% or more are depending upon government handouts, how do you say to somebody “that’s not the answer,” when that’s what they’re getting today?
Daniel Raisbeck: Right, well, first of all, you mentioned the displaced people problem, displaced population and I would say that in the first place you have to recognize that the problem of displacement in Colombia is a failure of government, a failure of government to fulfill its role to protect people’s lives and property. So it’s an absolute failure of government, like I said, the government in Colombia, the state is present, and It’s present in an excessive fashion where it shouldn’t be like, for instance, taxes and red tape and bureaucracy, and it’s not present where it should which is, for instance, protecting people, people’s physical safety and their private property, so, in the first place, that’s a failure of government.
It’s a failure of the state, so when you have the displaced people coming to Bogotá, and you have the state saying “well, we’re going to solve your problem,” and they’re skeptical because, I mean, if the state wasn’t able to protect them in the first place, why are they going to make the situation better afterwards, so, first of all I think you should make that clear, on the other hand, I do think you should have some basic safety net for the poorest and most vulnerable in society, absolutely. I think at least, the problem is when that safety net becomes a form of dependency and you motivate people to not to go to work and to live off subsidies and to live off handouts, SISBEN, which is the Colombian welfare system, I think that’s a problem and it’s becoming a problem the left has exploited, but I think that Bogotá is a place where you can address these issues because Bogotá is overwhelmingly a middle class city, so according—if you look at official figures from the Bogotá chamber of commerce, poverty in absolute terms in Bogotá, or the poor population, is around 10% and people in absolute or extreme poverty is less than 1 or 2% so we are talking about a minority, and you do have to address those problems but overwhelmingly you’re talking about a middle class city, and the middle class is growing more each year, so I think the libertarian message will be very appealing for that emerging middle class, the Colombian middle class, what it means to them is just being able to go to—people who come from somewhere, maybe they were also displaced but they were able to get a job, they were able to get ahead in a city like Bogotá and they’re able to take their children on a Saturday afternoon to a shopping mall and eat an ice cream.
The government and the state in Bogotá, and in Colombia, is perpetuating inequality with its bad education policies, it’s proven that the state in the majority of cases can’t run good, decent schools, so I think the government should really get out of the way. That doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be public education, but I think parents in these schools and these neighborhoods should be given the choice of what kind of school they want or maybe they should even be given the vouchers, to say, if it costs 4 million pesos a year to educate a child then look, give them the 4 million pesos and they can choose their own private school, and they—I think they can make a better choice than the government, than the state.
And that is already something that they didn’t have before and it’s already part of beginning to belong to a middle class, so our policies are designed to help that emergent middle class and to enlarge that, enlarge that emerging middle class, and I think that the message is appealing, and especially, as I said, because the conditions in Bogotá are accepting for that kind of message.
Finance Colombia: The government has programs right now, I mean, there’s a national program, Ser Pilo Paga, you know, which is part of a scholarship program.
One of the things that I’ve seen, you know, again talking as an outsider, I’ve met many people who are the first generation in their family to go to a university, or to graduate. In libertarianism, just like in any other political movement there are levels, there are those who would say that the government has no role, there are also those who say that the government has a limited role and so on, the people that have been able to graduate or to attend university as the first in their families were not able to do so because of any kind of family resources. How does that fit into a context? Is that a legitimate use of government? Is there an alternative? Is that good? Is that bad? In your opinion, not necessarily that program in specific, but let’s talk about the theme of social inclusion.
You know if we look at Medellín, they’ve done things like they’ve put public works up into their neighborhoods that are at the very low social strata and they’ve done things to try to encourage those people to feel a sense of civil participation, is that a legitimate role for a municipal government? Or where are those limits defined in your opinion?
Daniel Raisbeck: Well, I’ll talk about the education part first. I think that particular government program, I’m not a great fan of the Santos government but I think that particular scholarship program of 10.000 scholarships for needy families to go to universities is a wonderful program, again, it’s a—if it’s not purely libertarian it is a free market idea in the sense that you’re subsidizing the consumer, you’re giving the money to the student and the student can choose the university that he likes, which I think is a much more efficient way of having accessible public education than having the government itself run the national university. So you’re empowering people and I definitely think, I do believe in public education, I went to a public university in Germany, and I was a product of a public university system, I do think that—even Margaret Thatcher was—I mean, she went to Oxford, which is also a public university, so I do believe in public education, the question is how do we run a public education system?
And one of the alternatives, an alternative that I find very appealing is precisely that, subsidizing the consumer, empowering people, especially people from lower income families, and it’s fantastic that these people can go to a university, that they can be the first generation, or the first generation in their family, to go to a university, and even my mother is the first generation woman in her family to go to a university, because then it was more traditional for just the man to go. My grandmother I think would have been a fantastic professor or fantastic student but she didn’t go to a university because she was a woman, so we do have this social progress in Colombia, maybe not as fast as some would like but we do see it, so I think that’s a good policy.
Of course there are alternatives, we have, for instance, the university where I work, El Rosario—or Los Andes, they have scholarships programs or credit programs, which are also options, I don’t think public education should be the only option, like the left claims that should be done in Colombia, but in terms of education I think that that is one way of achieving social inclusion.
Finance Colombia: You know, in Colombia, for all of its progress, Colombia has a little bit of infamy for being, even though it’s a very—much an advancing country , Colombia does have very vast and very obvious areas of inequality, and while a socialist would want to have redistribution as solution, what do you say to somebody who is at that, you know, in Colombia has the stratus system, what do you say to somebody of estrato 1 or estrato 2, in Bosa or Usme, or Kennedy or Soacha?
Daniel Raisbeck: Well, I would say, the real inequality that matters in Colombia, I’m not worried about material inequality. I’m worried about inequality of opportunity, so it’s not fair that someone born here, in Rosario, or Chicó can go to a good school, because it’s—a private school, because state schools don’t even operate in this part of the city, whereas someone born in Usme or Ciudad Bolivar is doomed because the state school they’re assigned to is terrible, the teachers are on strike half of the time, like they are today, and they have absolutely no ability to compete to go to a university or in the job market, because their school is so terrible.
The government and the state in Bogotá, and in Colombia, is perpetuating inequality with its bad education policies, it’s proven that the state in the majority of cases can’t run good, decent schools, so I think the government should really get out of the way. That doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be public education, but I think parents in these schools and these neighborhoods should be given the choice of what kind of school they want or maybe they should even be given the vouchers, to say, if it costs 4 million pesos a year to educate a child then look, give them the 4 million pesos and they can choose their own private school, and they—I think they can make a better choice than the government, than the state. These 25 charter schools, colegios en concesión that I mentioned, are precisely located in these neighborhoods like Usme, Ciudad Bolivar, Kennedy, etc., and that’s why they’re making an impact, but parents, like I said, they really are enthusiastic about these schools, they want to keep the schools, and it’s not only the parents of children who are enrolled in these schools, but it’s parents of children in nearby public schools that would like to have a similar school, or would like to transfer their child to that school. So I think that the first step to creating a real equality of opportunity to the greatest extent possible, is by reforming the education system, and what we have in Bogotá, and in Colombia, is an archaic education system, where it’s top-down: the mayor chooses a Secretary of Education and the Secretary of Education chooses the education model for all 400 state schools in Bogotá, whether the parents like it or not,
The government is acting as an obstacle to an equality of opportunity and to social mobility, especially in the poorer parts of Bogotá, neighborhoods that really need these opportunities.
And so, one thing, a very good thing, that these charter schools have done is that they have introduced an element of technical education for their students, so their students can choose whether or not they want to have—they can graduate with the bachillerato:the regular high school degree, but they can also graduate with a technical degree or with 2 technical degrees, in mechanics or something else. And they can get a job immediately, or they can even open their own business, or they can go into university with several semesters already advanced, so this is a fantastic system, it works, it’s proven that it works, and I think we should expand it, but the left and the current government are opposed. They’re opposed, for ideological reasons, and I think that’s a scandal, because the government is acting as an obstacle to an equality of opportunity and to social mobility, especially in the poorer parts of Bogotá, neighborhoods that really need these opportunities.
Finance Colombia: We’ve talked about the people at the bottom, estrato 1, let’s talk about people of estrato 5, or estrato 6, for example, the gremios in Colombia—there’s no real direct translation of the gremio in English, but it’s like a trade—
Daniel Raisbeck: It’s like a guild,
Finance Colombia: It’s like a—yeah, it’s like an industry group. Yeah, but let’s look at that, because what happens is that we see policies, and it’s interesting because we see how they try to manipulate things, like they’ll say “Well, let’s make a law that no trucks can be on the road that are more than 7 years old,” well obviously the truck dealer’s gremio wants to sell new trucks to everybody, on the other hand, that would devastate a lot of people who can’t afford a new truck.
Daniel Raisbeck: Exactly, you expel them from the market.
Finance Colombia: Yeah, and it’s like “How do people come up with ideas like this?” and now—and they’ll say something like “Well, we care about the environment!”
Daniel Raisbeck: [laughs]
Finance Colombia: Well, no, bullshit! You want to sell the trucks, you know, but they’re very powerful in Colombia, and it’s interesting because on one hand they serve to balance against the unions, on the other hand, they are no more for a free market than the unions are because they’re saying “let’s do market distortion, let’s say you have to do B, you have to do C,” how do you balance them? Because there are pressure groups that are very powerful in Colombia that want to promote their interests on the backs of everyone else, you know, and generally it’s the left that says “well, we want to protect you against these big interests but they are really protecting some other entrenched interests,and you have this tug-o-war between left and right but neither one of them are really for a free market or a free choice, it’s really just rent seeking—who your ally is, you know.
Daniel Raisbeck: Yeah, and that’s a great question because in Colombia academics have written about this, for instance, James Robinson from Harvard, the Colombian economic system tends to create, and historically has tended to create monopolies. And these are monopolies, or oligopolies, that are extremely powerful and extremely powerful economically—because they’re protected by the government, by excessive regulation or, for instance, obstacles to trade, to foreign trade, so this is just a feature of Colombian politics, but what is very clear is that it is not a matter of left and right because, maybe you would think, at least that’s some mythology that the left protects the workers and the right is more free market and therefore they protect the rich guys,
Finance Colombia: The marketing and spin-doctoring of it all.
Daniel Raisbeck: Right, whereas in truth, you have very curious alliances, for instance, the pueblo democrático, which is very much to the left and opposed to free trade, and you have one of their main figures which is Jorge Enrique Rebolledo, and up to 3 years ago, he was openly allied with Alvaro Uribe, who is associated with a more right wing in Colombia, opposed to the free trade agreements that Uribe signed.
And you also have them allied, for instance, in the struggle against the free trade agreement with South Korea, and it turns out that one of Rebolledo’s and the Pueblo’s main allies is the local auto manufacturing lobby, so these people are supposed to protect the workers but they’re they’re really protecting, big local industrial interests, and this is the way the Colombian economy functions. So in Bogotá we have a very good example, and you mentioned the mobility problems, how difficult it is to get around in Bogotá,and then you had one solution, or a partial solution, which is the arrival of Uber, the American firm. In Bogotá, Uber has had a one of the most exponential growth rates, one of the largest growth rates for them in the world, because the transportation system is so bad that many people just began to use Uber, even though credit cards are not as widespread or widely used in Colombia as in the States, or in other countries.
One of the interesting things about being a libertarian in Colombia, is that you’re constantly attacked by the left and they call you a Neoliberal and say that you want to privatize education, public education, that you want to sell whole state assets and that you’re basically the devil, but, on the other hand, you’re also attacked by these gremios, because you are also a threat to them, because competition is beneficial for the consumer because the consumer can choose in terms of prices in terms of service, etc., But that’s not what these gremios want, they want to capture the market by force and force people to buy…
And then what happened? You had the yellow taxi lobby, which is politically very strong, and they put heavy pressure on the Santos government, Santos promised the taxi lobby or the taxi drivers two weeks before reelection that he was going to put Uber out of the market and then Uber is technically illegal, at this moment, but it’s still operating. So the government really, with this position, wants to keep the taxi votes, which are either hundreds of thousands of votes, especially in an election year, like 2015, but at the same time they know that if they really go after Uber, they’re going to have an uproar from the consumers—
Finance Colombia: But the taxis here are infamous, especially in Bogotá, for throwing people out or robbing people and—
Daniel Raisbeck: Right, the infamous millionaire´s ride!
Finance Colombia: Yeah, El Paseo Millonario, you know, it’s funny because, if I am in Zona T I won’t catch a taxi, I walk and I go to the eleventh and I walk down eleventh for a while.
Daniel Raisbeck: Yeah, because that’s the place where you get caught in a moment! I know so many people that have been victims of the Paseo Millonario. I think 2 years ago we had the case of a DEA agent who was killed in a taxi, and that’s the reason why people like Uber, because you know who your taxi is, you know that it’s safe, because they have a screening process,
Finance Colombia: No cash.
Daniel Raisbeck: No cash, you can pay with your credit card, so—
Finance Colombia: Like AirBnB.
Daniel Raisbeck: Exactly, the same with Air BnB, but going back to the question, this is a good example of how a gremio, in this case the taxi lobby, tries to use its political influence: they don’t try to improve their service in order to compete and get more customers, their modus operandi, their way of operating is to get the government, the state, their allies in the state, to basically forbid the competition. That’s the way that traditionally the Colombian economy has worked. Fortunately today, for instance, I think it would be very difficult, even technologically, for the government to forbid Uber, to get them out of the market, so with the rapid rise of mobile applications, digital applications, it’s going to be ever more difficult for these gremios to maintain their hold on power. But that’s a very big difficulty and one of the interesting things about being a libertarian in Colombia, is that you’re constantly attacked by the left and they call you a Neoliberal and say that you want to privatize education, public education, that you want to sell whole state assets and that you’re basically the devil, but, on the other hand, you’re also attacked by these gremios, because you are also a threat to them, because competition is beneficial for the consumer because the consumer can choose in terms of prices in terms of service, etc., But that’s not what these gremios want, they want to capture the market by force and force people to buy, I mean, even beer, we’re drinking Club Colombia, well, Bavaria controls—I don’t know that the percentage is now—but a few years ago it was 96% of the beer market, and then you saw the arrival of Peroni, an itallian beer, and I thought “Oh, interesting, Peroni,” and I looked at the back and I saw “Imported by Bavaria,”—
Finance Colombia: [laughs]
Daniel Raisbeck: So you have, basically in every major sector of the economy, you have these big groups and that’s the reason, and that’s what Robinson says: Colombia is a big market but it’s not a huge market, 40 million people, 50 million people, but you have 3 of the richest people in the world because Ardila Lülle in sodas, Sarmiento in financial services and Santo Domingo in beer. It was the creation of monopolies a few decades back, and the Colombian market is sufficiently big, whereby, if one person controls the entire market they can become one of the 100 richest people—
Finance Colombia: So it’s not—so even though it’s a free market compared to its neighbors, it’s not a free market because just—it’s a private market but not necessarily a free market, because we’re operating like the United States operated in 1910, where you have a more mercantilist than a capitalist system. People confuse mercantilism with capitalism, you know, and you see when they’re denouncing capitalism, they’re really denouncing mercantilism.
Daniel Raisbeck: Exactly. And we’re arguing in the libertarian movement is that what really benefits the consumer is a real free market where, fine, you can have Bavaria, they can have the same products but let people have a choice, like you have a choice of Peruvian beer or Mexican beer, of American beer, of German beer, and have a, basically, free trade, no import tariffs or quotas, or any of these ridiculous things, you don’t even need a free trade agreement, you can say—what Hong Kong did was you say, basically anyone can come here and trade.
Finance Colombia: The freest economy in the world.
Daniel Raisbeck: Exactly, and you can see Hong Kong was just about as poor as Colombia was in the 1950s and now there’s a huge difference and these are the types of policies that we’re promoting because we think that economic policies should be geared towards the consumer. It should be the consumer who’s benefitted, the consumer who can choose, based on the price, based on the quality, based on whatever he wants, and he shouldn’t have these special interest groups enriching themselves by being the only product available to consumers.
Finance Colombia: What do you tell people in Bogotá, that will say “look, the Tapahueco (a device that the current mayor purchased from Great Britain to fill potholes but has not lived up to its hype, and been mired in a malfeasance scandal) has not come to my neighborhood, I don’t care about a Tapahueco, I just want these damn holes filled?” You know, I stay up here above the Circunvalar,and if you take Calle 53, you try to go north, or you try to go up the hill and you fall into the holes!
Daniel Raisbeck: Right.
Finance Colombia: You know, I feel bad because I’m sometime in a taxi and the taxi driver is—doesn’t know the neighborhood and he doesn’t know there is going to be a big hole and boom, it’s like ¡se rompió el eje! (you broke an axle!)
Daniel Raisbeck: [laughs] yeah.
Finance Colombia: Ok, so mayors are not usually a very ideological position like congress, or even a president can be, but people who want their garbage taken out, the people that want their water, the people who want to be safe when they walk down the street, the people who want to be able to ride the Transmilenio, whether it’s a good idea or not that we have a Transmilenio, it’s there.
Daniel Raisbeck: Right.
Finance Colombia: What the people want—they don’t want to have holes in their neighborhood, you know, the people who want to deal with the insecurity so they don’t get robbed, what message do you have for them? This is not ideological, like what you’re running for as mayor is an administrative position. What do you have to say for them?
Daniel Raisbeck: Well, first of all, I would say “you’re absolutely right, it’s not about ideology, when—if you are mayor,” but, again, I do think that libertarian ideas, free market ideas, can bring solutions to these problems which you mention, and I’ll just mention, I’m not saying that this is necessarily going to be our policy, but, you know, I’ve read in the States, if I’m not mistaken, a neighboring state to Ohio, Kentucky, so what they did was that they allowed, I think it was KFC or something, if KFC gets rid of the pothole they have the ability to, or they have right to advertise over the previously existing pothole.
So we get Exito or whoever, you know—
Finance Colombia: Este hueco fue patrocinado por Exito [This hole was sponsored by Éxito] [laughs]
Daniel Raisbeck: Exactly, and I mean, that’s a practical solution, you would have to examine.
Finance Colombia: Wow. Este hueco fue tapado por KFC [This hole was filled by KFC] [laughs]
Daniel Raisbeck: But whoever it is, I mean, it doesn’t matter, and on the other hand since we do believe in initiative, we do believe in a greater participation of the citizens in decision making, we believe in digital technology, we have the ability to create applications whereby the citizen can inform whoever is in charge, whether it’s the mayor or it’s someone in the administration of getting rid of that pothole, paving the street, you can do it per application and the citizen can rate the efficiency of the Secretaría de Movilidad (transportation department), or whoever, and you just create the system where you have greater ability to communicate and it’s all faster and it gets done, and it doesn’t really matter how it gets done.
Out of every ten thieves that are caught after stealing a mobile phone, nine go free after a few hours, so, I mean this is proven also from New York during the Giuliani years, if you tolerate relatively small crimes, like graffiti, like stealing cell phones, like small muggings, you would think that it’s not such a large problem, but when you tolerate that, you create a sense of insecurity and that sense of insecurity empowers criminals and really empowers the bad guys.
I mean, these are just some examples. When you talk about security, again, I do think that it’s pretty much the main responsibility of the state. I do believe that it’s the main responsibility of the state to uphold security in the neighborhoods, on the Transmilenio; like I said, I think we only have 18,000 police officers in Bogotá. We have over eight million people, that’s far too little because, internationally, what is usually said is that you need 1 police officer per 250 people and if you take into account those 18,000 they’re not all working at the same time, they’re working in shifts, so you really have around 6,000 police officers working at the same time, so that’s far too little. I do think that we need to increase the amount of police officers in the streets. Now, how are you going to finance that? You can look at reducing the bureaucracy in other parts of the city administration, so you can transfer the resources from where they’re being wasted in bureaucracy and in creating this client-patronage system to where they’re really needed, which is providing security on the streets and in the buses.
Finance Colombia: How do you fix the culture?I go to Bucaramanga and I don’t see graffiti on the walls. I go to Medellín and nobody hops on to the metro for free.
Daniel Raisbeck: Well, I think there are 2 things, first of all, there’s a phrase I like that’s—that was used a few years ago by the current mayor of London, Boris Johnson, he might be the next leader of the British Conservative Party, in London they had to criminalize crime, and I like that phrase because we had that problem in Bogotá where the theft of cellphones, for instance, of mobile phones, basically goes with impunity. Out of every ten thieves that are caught after stealing a mobile phone, nine go free after a few hours, so, I mean this is proven also from New York during the Giuliani years, if you tolerate relatively small crimes, like graffiti, like stealing cell phones, like small muggings, you would think that it’s not such a large problem, but when you tolerate that, you create a sense of insecurity and that sense of insecurity empowers criminals and really empowers the bad guys.
So what you have to do is you have to start by having a zero-tolerance policy towards all kinds of crime, whether it’s graffiti on private or public property, or whether it’s stealing a cellphone, or whether It’s going into Transmilenio without paying your fare. When Giuliani started catching people with undercover policemen, policemen dressed as civilians, in the new metro system, they found out that the people who were going in without paying the fare were usually the same people with criminal records and it’s a relatively easy problem to deal with if you have the political will to deal with it.
Finance Colombia: But you know what? If I may, even looking at it from a libertarian standpoint, as you see in the United States, we have a problem with that going too far, we have a problem right now in the United States where people without probable cause are being harassed and the police are overstepping all kinds of 4th Amendment boundaries—
Daniel Raisbeck: Right, no, no, no. I talked about the big mistake here that was to militarize the police in Bogotá, I’m not talking about militarizing the police, I’m not talking about searching people, I’m completely against what happened to you a few weeks again when you were just randomly stopped in Bogotá, I was randomly stopped in my car, also a few weeks ago, absolutely absurd.
Finance Colombia: But here that’s legal. There is no 4th Amendment (to the United States Constitution)
Daniel Raisbeck: Yeah, it is.
The challenge for the libertarians in Colombia, or for groups like Students for Liberty, which is a group that’s growing across the world, Europe also, the US also, is to take these arguments from the strictly think-tank academic level where only very few people are going to be able to understand it, and really evangelize and become a citizens movement or a mass movement if need be, and I use the word evangelize on purpose, because if you look even at the rise of the conservative movement in the United States they really did use these evangelists techniques.
Finance Colombia: But at least it’s legal here, I mean, I’m not defending it but I’m saying, at least—in the States, as you know, they do it anyway and it’s even illegal.
Daniel Raisbeck: Yeah, ok, great, we agree but I’m not talking about going too far, I’m not talking about random searches on the streets, I’m talking about criminalizing crime, I’m talking about going after the people who really did it, and it’s evident that they did it, and I will admit that a big part of the problem which a mayor can’t control is the justice system, because if the justice system is broken, if the justice system is corrupt and if the police do their job and they take the people, the criminals down to the station and then nothing happens to them—
Finance Colombia: You’re right.
Daniel Raisbeck: Well, it goes beyond the mayor, it goes beyond the police, you also have to tackle corruption within the police, and it’s very common in Bogotá, when you get stopped for, for instance, pico y placa, when you drive when you’re not supposed to, given the limits and people usually get out, or many times get out, of the fine by paying—by bribing the police officer, that’s commonly known, we have to get rid of those kinds of police officers because it’s all a matter of rule of law, and that brings me to the second point which is what you mentioned about the culture in Bogotá: If you had been here under Mockus, 10 or 15 years ago, you would have found a different kind of city, where people did respect norms and people did stop where they were supposed to, in their cars, because Mockus called it Cultura Ciudadana and he made an effort for the city and the authorities to educate people, even paying mimes to be on the street—
Finance Colombia: I heard about that, he’s famous for those tactics.
Daniel Raisbeck: Publicly shaming people if they would stand on the white lines, for instance, on the street, I think that’s a good idea that should be reenacted, but I think in the end Cultura Ciudadana, if you would translate it into English, the real sense is rule of law.
Finance Colombia: How big is the Libertarian movement in Colombia?
Daniel Raisbeck: It’s very small, I wouldn’t exaggerate, as I said, the libertarian movement is growing in Colombia and in Latin America as a whole, I think this is also a result of very left wing populous governments like Hugo Chavez, like Correa in Ecuador or Evo Morales in Bolivia, you really have students, especially young people who realize that these populist policies aren’t working, they’re making their countries poor. They’re taking away opportunities for people and they’re looking for an alternative, and that’s when these free market ideas that are based on very solid academic work by lots of scholars during many generations, that’s when they really can start gaining adepts. The challenge for the libertarians in Colombia, or for groups like Students for Liberty, which is a group that’s growing across the world, Europe also, the US also, is to take these arguments from the strictly think-tank academic level where only very few people are going to be able to understand it, and really evangelize and become a citizens movement or a mass movement if need be, and I use the word evangelize on purpose, because if you look even at the rise of the conservative movement in the United States they really did use these evangelists techniques.
You really have to be a big fanatic in the sense of going, getting up on a Saturday morning and knocking on people’s doors and delivering the leaflets, saying this is what we believe and you’re going to get rejected thousands of times but you’re also going to reach people, and well that’s—
Finance Colombia: And we see in Miami, the best capitalists are those people who escaped from communism and understand what it’s really like.
Daniel Raisbeck: Right. You don’t have to be a PhD economist to realize that the kind of economic policies that lead to a lack of basic goods in Venezuela and, I don’t know, like sugar and toilet paper in Venezuelan supermarkets and, well there’s probably something wrong with that. Then they start to see “well, what’s the alternative?” or “why don’t we have those problems here?” and—
Finance Colombia: The best capitalists are former, you know, people who come from Venezuela, people who come from Cuba, people—Colombians, they look at what Chavez has done to Venezuela, what the Kirchners have done in Argentina, and they look at the FARC and ELN, Sendero Luminoso, and they think: “screw that!”