The Reading Room
Why Read Borges?
At first glance, the idea that classical liberals throughout the world should learn about the writings of an Argentine man who is well-known for his fiction may seem odd. The works of Jorge Luis Borges, though, are something else.
Borges’ production combines poems, short stories, and essays on various topics. Let’s focus on the last two. In terms of essays, when it comes to politics, Borges discusses themes like individualism, anarchism, colonization, and nationalism. Today, those who wish to find effective arguments against a toxic understanding of rising nationalism will find them in ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition.’ In this essay, published in 1953, Borges rejected narrow notions of nationalism in literature that led some Argentine writers to far-right ideologies and argued in favor of building national identities in a more encompassing way.
More generally, in an era where collectivism is growing on both left and right across the globe, Borges’ warnings about communism and Nazism in ‘Our Poor Individualism’ may not be as anachronistic as they seem. Indeed, the ‘gradual interference of the state in the acts of the individual’ that he denounced not only has not shown signs of stopping in the 21st century, but appears to be ever more relevant as both identity politics and reactionary movements rise.
As Professor Alejandra Salinas has argued, ‘the political philosophy latent in Borges's works rests on the belief in a self-sufficient individual, the preeminence of liberty, a distrust of government, and nostalgia for anarchy understood as a self-organized order.’ In fact, just a few years before passing away, he wrote that his utopia was still that of world ‘without a state, or with a minimum of state, though I understand —not without sadness— that this Utopia is premature and that we still have a few centuries to go.’ In this regard, A Weary Man’s Utopia is an autobiographical short-story where this wariness of politics can also be seen.
Indeed, Borges’ fiction also reflects his concern with government intervention and his support for liberty. In her book Liberty, Individuality, and Democracy in Jorge Luis Borges, Professor Salinas analyzes short stories by Borges like ‘The Congress’ and ‘Avelino Arredondo’ and identifies strong critiques of government interference in them. While the former questions the idea that political representatives can exist, since that belittles the concept of individuality, the latter shows the potentially devastating effects of concentrating political power by curtailing civil liberties.
Last but not least, Borges’ fiction is also useful in teaching economics. Professor Martín Krause, a well-known promoter of classical liberal economics in Argentina, wrote an entire book called Borges and the Economy where he connects Borges to authors like Ludwig von Mises and links his stories to basic economic concepts, like ‘The Library of Babel’ and the idea of scarcity. (Of books, in this case.) Borges was not concerned with the economy per se and he avoided the topic directly, but Krause found a way to make his work useful for anyone who wants to learn economics.
Although he passed away in 1986, Jorge Luis Borges nevertheless appears as a relevant figure for contemporary classical liberals across the world. His warnings against the primacy of politics in daily life are still warranted: For example, attempts at firing civil servants because of their political leanings, which Borges himself suffered in 1946 as he was demoted from librarian to poultry inspector by an authoritarian regime, are today relatively common even in Western nations. More dangerously, though, the idea that individual liberty is irrelevant or inconducive to progress is also still here. To counter the danger of totalitarism, then, it is good to keep Borges’ books on our bedside tables.