Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Pinochet Paradox

Augusto Pinochet is dead. Perhaps precisely because of his rule, so too is the prospect of further militarist rule in his country. Lionized by some, demonized by others, the truth about his legacy lies somewhere in the middle.

There can be no honest evaluation of the Pinochet era without some understanding of how things were when he came to power. His predecessor, the democratically but not majority-elected Salvador Allende, was in the process of turning his country into an economic Dresden and a totalitarian dungeon. By the time of the coup in 1973, the Chilean Supreme Court and one house of the Chilean parliament had essentially asked the military to take over, because Allende was in the process of implementing a food-rationing system that could be used against his political opponents and of taking over the educational system, in other words of the minds of children. A good summary of the economic chaos and embryonic dictatorship that preceded the coup can be found at a page called The Allende Myth, which is currently unavailable at its original source but which lives on in Google cache.

The gist of this history is that the general probably saved his country from catastrophe. The counterfactual to pose is what Chile would have been like had he not taken over. At best, it would have been a corruption-plagued, periodically macroeconomically chaotic Latin state like Argentina or Bolivia. At worst, it would have been Cuba. We know that Pinochet killed roughly 3000 of his citizens and tortured thousands of others, but we also know, thanks to the invaluable resource of Robert Rummel's page on democide, that Castro directly killed about 75,000 people, and roughly another 50,000 perished as boat people who didn't make it. (As I have said before, that Cuba is the sort of society where people would risk their children's lives in order to flee is about as damning a moral statement, as can be imagined. Pinochet himself never imposed exit restrictions. The freedom to leave is one of the most important of all. When it is revoked, grim times loom.) Democides and other totalitarian communist societies were far worse. And if this had prompted other communist takeovers elsewhere in South America, the death toll could have been far higher.

And that the economic policies followed under Pinochet made Chileans so much wealthier means that they are now far freer than they could have been under any socialist conception of the word. Freedom has to mean the ability to direct your own life, and that Chile is now a society with the enforcement of property rights, with much greater wealth, and with the rule of law means that its residents are in control of their own destiny far more than those of their neighbors whose governments claim to do so much to protect the "rights" of the poor by impoverishing the entire country. Indeed, much of the press coverage of the demonstrations, both pro-and anti-Pinochet, that have occurred since his death have focused on whether or not the country can be "united" now that he is gone. No one bothers to point out that the ways in which they are disunited now are entirely peaceful – funneled through check-and-balance politics rather than through angry street protests and appeals to the power of the people. This is a luxury that only rich, well-governed states have. Do not kid yourself; Chile is the only country in South America that works, as the huge numbers of illegal immigrants on the streets of Santiago from the surrounding dysfunctional countries demonstrate vividly. The general had a lot to do with that.

And yet it was substantially accidental. Milton Friedman once noted in a lecture that in the early days after the coup Pinochet tried to rule in the traditional manner of a military officer – by giving orders to economic actors on the assumption that they would obey. Within a few months inflation had risen to even higher levels than those it had reached under Allende. Given that many Chilean economists with experience in government sympathized with Allende and/or objected to the coup, he had to reach out to the University of Chicago-trained economists who populated Chilean universities. They imposed radical reform, and after fits and starts made Chile into by far the wealthiest country in Latin America. Thus, Pinochet was at the time interested mostly in preventing a totalitarian takeover (no small thing, that) rather than implementing militantly free-market policies per se.

But ultimately he knew success when he saw it, and these policies paid off. And when he left office, he recognized the natural tendencies toward statism that might undo the miracle. The Chilean constitution initially had provisions that made major changes in economic policy difficult, although they have become easier since.

In addition to giving Chileans the means to own their own lives, perhaps his most noble act was to lose an election that he expected to win, and then to obey the verdict. He held a plebiscite in 1988 on whether he should stay in power, but Chileans voted no. He could have stayed on in a way that other dictators have, but, after engineering legal changes that would protect the military from human-rights prosecutions, leave he did. This perhaps was his greatest gift, in that it set the precedent that no leader is indispensable.

And yet, and yet... Ultimately, the general is a deeply flawed figure, far from heroic. While Chile under his rule never approached the sort of totalitarian control that exists even today in Cuba (and is under construction in Venezuela), his seizure of power was characterized by the sort of sadism that the most bitter sorts of social conflict promote (what we are seeing in Iraq now, for example). So much torture, so much cruelty, so unnecessary. And in later years it emerged that he was personally corrupt, having stolen roughly $20 million while in office. (But the country he bequeathed is notable in Latin America for its absence of corruption.) And a man motivated by patriotism should arguably be willing to face the music of the rule of law once order is restored. That the Chilean government pursued him in violation of the agreement that led him to step down was a breach of faith, but so too was his attempt to escape responsibility for what he had done when he left office. Having significantly restored the rule of law to his country, he would have done best by it to have accepted whatever consequences the new Chile decided to mete out to him.


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