Thursday, December 26, 2013

Is Modern Chile the Republican Utopia?

Neo-liberals and American political conservatives frequently cite the “Chilean miracle” in support of their politico-economic agenda. The South-American nation achieved tremendous economic growth under the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet who overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. In the immediate aftermath of his notorious military coup that took place on September 11th of 1973, the junta launched search and destroy missions to repress all movements of political resistance. Over 30,000 of suspected dissidents have been incarcerated, tortured or murdered in the 16 years of Pinochet’s reign. At the time, Chile was a long-standing ally of the United States and a beneficiary of the superpower's foreign aid. Because the economy of this South American nation was underdeveloped and universities were publicly owned institution, they were severely underfunded and the quality of education was poor. In an effort to grant their students access to better education, the chief executives of the Catholic University of Chile set up a student exchange program with the famous University of Chicago. As a result, Chilean students of economics traveled to the United States to study under one of the modern pioneers of free-market economics, Milton Friedman. Upon returning to Chile, these students obtained the sobriquet of "Chicago Boys".

Under Friedman's tutelage, the Chilean students were instructed that lightly regulated markets promoted economic growth much more expediently than a state-controlled economy. General Pinochet's military take-over re-established diplomatic relations between the two nations and the former students of the University of Chicago were appointed to positions in the committee of economic advisory in their home country. They wasted no time dismantling the nation’s welfare state, privatizing state-owned enterprises and opening Chile's economy to international commerce.  By 1977, the youthful technocrats revitalized their country's moribund communist economy, but their free-market radicalism engendered a severe banking crisis four years later. General Pinochet regarded their failure to impose strict regulations upon the reckless financiers as irresponsible and replaced them with pragmatists who added stability to the economy. Nonetheless, Chile remained one of the freest economies in the world is currently ranked as the seventh freest, three positions ahead of the United States.

Contemporaneously, Ronald Reagan won the presidential elections in the U.S. and commenced his program of massive deregulation, privatization and support for the transnational corporations. Since then, the Republicans stood resolutely opposed to government legislation that served the progressive causes of protecting the rights of the underprivileged demographic groups. In the mid 1980s, he disbanded a number of heavily populated shelters for battered women because they allegedly violated traditional family values. His Tax Reform Act of 1986 was the only legislation in the history of the United States where taxes for the high-income earners were lowered and the taxes for all other brackets have been raised. Throughout his tenure at the white-house, Reagan “liberalized” the economy by creating ample opportunities for the elites and to a lesser extent, the upper middle-class while offering very limited benefits to the less affluent. Similar, albeit less severe developments have taken place under the Bush Administration. One can be sure that this chapter in American history will continue if the Republicans are to reclaim control of the White House.

Despite the vast political, cultural and economic differences between Chile and the United States, there are important similarities between the contemporary American politico-economic milieu and that of modern Chile. The Obama Administration responded to the U.S 2008 financial crisis by vowing to regulate the economy in a manner that would minimize its susceptibility to economic disasters and their Republican critics alleged that such policies eroded the foundation of American liberty and prosperity. This is one of many reasons why the recent political triumphs of the Democratic Party compelled many Conservative and Libertarian activists to relocate to Chile. The most recent example is Frank Szabo, a right-wing ideologue who fled the country in the aftermath of a heavy defeat in his political campaign.  This former American gleefully boasted of how modern Chile is very reminiscent of the U.S in the early 1960s before Martin Luther King's indelible contributions to the American collective consciousness, movements for women's rights and reforms of employment law that protected the workers from discrimination and other exploitative practices.

This attitude is not exclusive to American politicians and is often shared by conservative scholars on the fringes of academia. A former South Carolina professor, Steven Yates published a story regarding his recent decision to immigrate to Chile for similar ideological reasons.  His point of view is shared by a significantly more prominent proponent of expatriation to Chile who is also a Libertarian professor from South Carolina, John Cobin: the owner and the principal operator of a popular website "Escape America Now".  In his weekly radio shows, Dr. Cobin extols the virtues of the Chilean market-driven economy, praises the nation's strong adherence to traditional values and commends the Chileans' ability to withstand "political radicalization". By that, he means resistance to feminism, gay-rights movements and agendas of environmental preservation. Recently, the message in the recruitment sector of a Santiago newspaper embodied the qualities of the culture of his adopted country that he admires the most. Therein, a recruiter from a local corporation expressed his desire for a "stunningly beautiful, blonde secretary in her early 20s", the former South Carolina professor had no regard for how such advertisements seem to sanction gender and age discrimination, let alone sexual harassment. According to his interpretation, such expressions bordering on lasciviousness were nothing more than a conveyance of disregard for the banalities of etiquette, fake politeness and most of all "political correctness". By Cobin's lights, the struggle against discrimination is profoundly undesirable because it protects the privileges of the allegedly disadvantaged demographic groups at the expense of the "ordinary hard-working citizens".

On his website, the conservative zealot concedes that Chile is "not perfect" and the winter time smog over Santiago can cause health problems for the "elderly and more sensitive" residents. The reality is that severe air pollution is a grave sustainability problem that the nation's policy makers continue to neglect. According to the findings of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Chile's air is more than twice as polluted as that of an average nation that were examined in their reports.  "In Chile, PM10 levels are 53.3 micrograms per cubic meter, by far the highest level in the OECD where the average is of 20.9".  In light of these discoveries, numerous international research agencies have concluded that if this environmental plight is not expediently ameliorated, the majority of the nation's aging population will be highly susceptible to a myriad of lethal respiratory ailments by 2040. In fact, a significant portion of the Chilean population over the age of 45 are frequently hospitalized for that reason and report a higher incidence of maladies associated with poor air quality. Consistently with these findings, the percentage of Chileans who report a high satisfaction with life is slightly below OECD average, despite that Chile's economy is more stable and faster growing than that of many other nations it is compared with."In general, Chileans are less satisfied with their lives than the OECD average, with 77% of people saying they have more positive experiences in an average day (feelings of rest, pride in accomplishment,enjoyment, etc) than negative ones (pain, worry, sadness, boredom, etc). This figure is lower than the OECD average of 80%." (OECD's Better Life Index-Chile).

The inadequacy of Chile's air quality is merely one symptom of the deficiencies of the nation's public service institutions in general. Chile's tremendous success in the international markets led to scant progress in enhancing the country's poor system of education. According to the findings of a contemporary political economist; Sebastian Edwards, the scores of Chilean students on international standardized tests placed the nation's system of education in 35th out of 38 positions (See Left Behind: Latin America and the false promise of populism). These statistics have also been corroborated by the OECD report that states the following: " the average student in Chile scored 439 in reading literacy, maths and science in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). This score is lower than the OECD average of 497." The growing dissatisfaction with the exorbitant fees of college education and inadequate quality of the learning experiences provided by Chilean universities led students to stage massive protests that have been speedily dispersed by the Carabineros, the heavily militarized police. It is also commonly assumed that quality education equips students with opportunities to build a foundation for lasting prosperity and Chile's effete system of education does not empower most students to do so. "In terms of employment, over 61% of people aged 15 to 64 in Chile have a paid job, below the OECD employment average of 66%." (OECD's Better Life Index-Chile).

Despite Chile's environmental crisis, the inadequacy of its system of education and the brutality of the nation's police force, the American Conservatives and Neo-liberals will urge us to understand that the economic benefits of market-oriented reforms in that country benefited all socioeconomic groups. While it is indisputable that the average Chilean is much better off today than he was under Allende's communism, the nation's economy leaves a lot to be desired. In testament to the growing frustration with market-oriented policies, the voters granted a landslide victory to the center-left Concertacion coalition in the 2013 presidential elections. Even more reflectively of the public's general dissatisfaction with the economic opportunities offered to the underprivileged, Chileans spend significantly more hours at work annually than the OECD average and their disposable income is less than half of the average. "People in Chile work 2,047 hours a year, more than the OECD average of 1,776 hours. In Chile, the average household net-adjusted disposable income is 11,039 USD a year."  Far from being freeloaders nostalgic for Allende's massive communist welfare state, the majority of Chileans had a respectable reason for supporting the recently re-elected President Michelle Bachelet. The fact that some Chileans desire "something for nothing" does not invalidate the fact that millions of their compatriots are justifiably aggrieved by the scarcity of economic opportunities. Notwithstanding the dismay, horror and indignation of conservative pundits such as John Cobin, one should not be surprised that President Bachelet's rallying cry of "Chile for everyone" entitled the former president to an approval rating of 84% at the end of the 2006-2010 term and to the 62% of the votes in her re-election of 2013. 

Nonetheless, the victorious Concertacion Party is not without its detractors and to brazen free-marketeers such as John Cobin, the overwhelming antagonism of the Chilean citizenry towards neo-liberal policies is inconsequential. In the view of the ex-American, the market-oriented economic policy and policies of social conservatism are intimately intertwined. In fact, in his "Primer for Expats" he even went so far as to mount the argument that the former is the cause of the latter. “The traditional roles of men and women are a market phenomenon; part of the “spontaneous order” of the ages that worked to organize societies for millennia. Radical feminism is an ideology enacted by public policy (rather than market forces) that has wrought serious damage to Western Civilization.” (Cobin, P.52). This argument is untenable for two reasons: what is expedient in the market-place is not always morally acceptable and institutions that prevent women from becoming employed often diminish the productivity of the market. Even if the economy works more efficiently when most women refrain from working, it is immoral to deny them the freedom to work.  It is evident that a significant percentage of women desire to work because by doing so, they are able to supplement the income of their families and achieve independence from coercive spouses.  "In Chile, 49% of women have jobs. This is less than the OECD average of 60% and much less than the 74% employment rate of men in Chile." Today, over five and a half million women in the age group of 16-64 reside in Chile and less than half of them are employed. By dismantling the institutions that discourage women from finding employment, the Chilean work-force can benefit from the tremendous contributions of over two million new employees. (OECD's Better Life Index-Chile).

I am not a left-wing ideologue and the older I get, the more I become disillusioned with the Liberal orthodoxy and the agenda of the Democratic Party. To be sure, the American leftists are often guilty of promoting irresponsible fiscal policies, intrusive government regulations that stultify economic growth and even diminish the liberties of the citizenry. Certainly, policies of the welfare state, "radical feminism", "gay rights" and "reckless environmentalism" can be employed over-zealously and engender unintended consequences that John Cobin described. Nonetheless, the politico-economic environment of contemporary Chile offers a distinctive example of what could go wrong if the Conservatives rather than the Liberals are to emerge triumphant in this country. Should we truly look up to a free-market economy with air pollution more than twice that of most developed nations? Next time a right-wing ideologue recites Bill Clinton's banality "it is the economy, stupid!” implying that the sole purpose of the government is to create jobs rather than fight social injustice, ask him the following. Is economic growth something to be proud of when an average citizen earns less than half of the OECD average and works over 250 more hours more per year than the OECD average? When he re-directs the focus of the discussion to the "moral collapse" of this country and the disintegration of American family values, ask him exactly how far he wants us to go in emulating Chile's social conservatism.  Are traditional values worth preserving at a place where less than half of women were employed and divorce was illegal until 2004? When he urges you to understand that the system of education must be privatized, cite the enormous success of the Chilean students on international standardized tests.

Above all, ask your right-wing conversationalists to describe his vision of utopia. It is often alleged that modern Republicans are more concerned with repealing the doctrines that their Liberal nemeses wish to enact than with championing legislations that would change this country for the better. Do the opinions of their colleagues and supporters who exhort our compatriots to immigrate to Chile represent the unspoken consensus among Conservatives? That is certainly a possibility that one cannot overlook: Chile has long been known as the most socially conservative and the most market-oriented country on the continent.   When confronted with these questions, Conservatives would be inclined to dissociate themselves from their Chilean counterparts who are accused of stymieing the progress of egalitarian causes and even chastise them for being quaint, if not archaic in their social policies. Indeed, it has been the fashion among many Republican politicians to identify themselves as “economic conservatives” who are “socially progressive." Although that is undoubtedly true for some right-wingers, such an attitude is inconsistent with the general political tendencies of the Grand Old Party.



    1. Fascinating, another steadfast Libertarian leaving the U.S for a country where he belongs.

    2. I am sure many of the reasons he gave are compelling.

      "the increasing worry over the US's economic conditions"

      The Chilean economy is heavily dependent on the U.S economy, if the U.S suffers a severe decline, Chile will be even worse off.
      "the decline of civility and the increase in the culture of violence"

      What about the massive looting and arson that occurred in the aftermath of the recent earthquake?

      "the environment that I would be raising my future children"

      The environment where the air is more than three times as polluted as it is in the U.S sounds like a fabulous one to raise children in. "In Chile, PM10 levels are 53.3 micrograms per cubic meter, by far the highest level in the OECD where the average is of 20.9". The air in the U.S contains 17.1 micrograms per cubic meter.

      "the increasing radiation threat from fukushima"

      Chile is on the Pacific coast of South America, it is not much further away from Fukushima than the Pacific coast of the U.S. Most Chileans are closer to the source of radiation than most Americans.

      " the war on the second amendment"

      Chile does not even have a second amendment or the equivalent thereof.

      " pot-bellied pedophiles, sticking their hands down our pants to allow us to travel."


      "transparent government (low corruption)"
      "positive business environment"
      Chile is only three positions ahead of the U.S on the index of economic freedom and it still has bureaucratic encumbrances to business that are completely absent in America.

      "A stable government possessing a low likelihood of upheaval"

      I am sure that the U.S economy will be collapsing very shortly without any repercussions for Chile.

      " A high level of education"

      Actually, the opposite is true. The system of education in most South American countries is poorly developed and Chile is no exception. The Chilean students performed quite poorly on international standardized tests, they were even outperformed by their American peers. " the average student in Chile scored 439 in reading literacy, maths and science in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)"

      I don't recall the last time the American students staged a nation wide protest on most colleges of the U.S that had to be dispersed by the heavily militarized police. What comes to mind here? Mario Savio's sprout Hall Free speech rallies at Berkeley in the 1960s? If Chile's system of education is so wonderful, why do the students keep on protesting relentlessly?

      "A government with a strong respect for personal wealth"

      I'd say the U.S government has more of such respect as the Americans elites are far more affluent than the Chilean ruling class. Neither government has much respect for the personal wealth of an average citizen.

      "call for me was when the earthquakes of 2010 arrived, rather than mass-looting, riots, and rapes in the street, Chileans were quite civil and orderly, helping their fellow man when needs arose."

      Are you sure about that?

      Just read this article, will you? "As of March 5, the Chilean government had confirmed 279 identified victims, although the death toll is likely to increase by the hundreds considering many have not yet been identified or are deemed missing. "