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40 Years Later: Milton Friedman’s Legacy in Chile

By: José Niño - @JoseAlNino - Apr 22, 2015, 10:03 am
Milton Friedman
Milton Friedman’s legacy in Chile proves the power of free-market reforms. (Adam Smith Institute)

EspañolThe power of ideas to help shape political movements has been grossly underestimated over the years. In truth, some of the largest political transformations in human history have come from ideas that were developed in the secluded confines of an intellectual’s home or in obscure academic institutes. Regardless of the origins, ideas can snowball into powerful vehicles of social change.

As Friedrich Hayek noted in one of his most powerful works, Intellectuals and Socialism, the triumph of socialist ideas can largely be attributed to the ideas first put forward by various intellectuals. They began with relatively well-off intellectuals and then made their way to “second-hand dealers” — journalists, scientists, doctors, teachers, ministers, lecturers, radio commentators, fiction writers, cartoonists, and artists — who then spread those ideas to the masses.

Intellectuals like Milton Friedman took it upon themselves to reverse this trend and create an environment that was more favorable to free markets. Steadfast in his beliefs in the power of ideas, Friedman knew that big changes usually start out in small venues.

It was in Chile where Friedman’s vision was first implemented on a large scale. The results were nothing short of spectacular, as Chile was able to escape a veritable economic collapse and experience an unprecedented boom.

Chile’s economic success was no mere coincidence; it was the product of ideas that Milton Friedman put forward in the 1950s. To understand how such a radical change was brought about, one must first look at the origins of the Chicago Boys, the group of Chilean economists that played a pivotal role in the transformation of Chile’s economy during the 1970s and 1980s.

The Chicago Boys

Under the tutelage of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the University of Chicago signed a modest agreement with the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in the 1950s to provide a group of Chilean students training in economics.

In exchange, the University of Chicago would send four faculty members to help the Catholic University build up their economics department. Of these four faculty members, Arnold Harberger would serve as the Chicago Boys’ principal mentor.

What at first looked liked just another exchange program between universities would play a substantial role in Chile’s economic rise.

A Country Mired By Statism

At the start of this program, Chile’s economy was in the doldrums. Another victim of Raúl Prebisch’s Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI) policy, Chile had a very loose central banking policy, featured 15 different exchange rates, heavy tariffs, and a number of import and export controls. Subsequent governments maintained the same neo-mercantilist structure up until the 1970s.

During this era of economic malaise, the Chicago Boys constructed El Ladrillo (The Brick), a text primarily shaped by economist Sergio de Castro which advocated for economic liberalization in all sectors of the Chilean economy. Sadly, this text was largely ignored at that time.

It wasn’t until the presidency of Salvador Allende that the Chicago Boys’ talents would be desperately needed.

On the Road to Cuba 2.0

Though democratically elected by a narrow margin in 1970, Salvador Allende was determined to turn Chile into the next Cuba by undermining all of its democratic institutions. Through price controls, arbitrary expropriations, and lax monetary policy, Allende put the Chilean economy on the verge of collapse. By 1973, inflation reached 606 percent and per capita GDP dropped 7.14 percent.

Under the command of General Augusto Pinochet, the military deposed Allende’s government. Despite this tumultuous change, the military ruler did not have a clear economic vision for Chile.

Enter Milton Friedman

Milton Friedman’s visit to Chile in March 1975 proved to be quite fateful. Friedman was on a week-long lecture tour for various think thanks. Eventually, Friedman sat down with the general himself for 45 minutes. Right off the bat, Friedman recognized that Pinochet had very little knowledge of economics. After their meeting, Friedman sent Pinochet a letter with a list of policy recommendations.

Friedman was blunt is his diagnosis of Chile’s economy: for the country to recover, it had to truly embrace free-market measures.

Ideas Put in Action

Cooler heads prevailed and Pinochet let the Chicago School disciples occupy various posts in the military government. In April 1975, El Plan de Recuperación Económica (The Economic Recovery Plan) was implemented. Soon Chile curbed its inflation, opened up its markets, privatized state-owned industries, and cut government spending. By the 1990s, Chile was experiencing the largest economic boom in its history.

The numbers don’t lie:

chile-poverty-reduction
Chile’s economic takeoff is nothing short of miraculous. (JosePinera.com)

A Freedom Fighter

A principled libertarian, Friedman criticized Pinochet’s repressive political measures. Friedman understood that economic and political freedoms are not mutually exclusive. The principles laid in Friedman’s book Capitalism and Freedom inspired José Piñera, a notable Chilean reformer, to become a part of Chile’s classical liberal revolution.

Like Friedman, Piñera understood the link between economic and political freedom. This motivated him to help ratify the Chilean Constitution of 1980. The most classically liberal constitution in Latin America’s history, it established the transition towards free elections and Chile’s return to democracy.

Additionally, Piñera was the architect of Chile’s private social security system that empowered millions of workers and has fostered the growth of an ownership society. This model has been exported to dozens of countries abroad and has served as a market-based alternative to government-run pension systems.

The “Chilean Miracle” represented the first major triumph against communism during the Cold War. Chile’s classical-liberal revolution subsequently inspired the Thatcher Revolution of 1979 and the Reagan Revolution of 1980. These ideas had resounding effects all over the globe and marked the beginning of the end for Soviet-style models of economic organization.

There is still much work to do, as the illegitimate children of Marxist and Keynesian thought still run loose these days throughout Latin America. But one thing is absolutely certain: an idea whose time has come is unstoppable.

RIP Milton Friedman.

José Niño José Niño

José Niño is based in Dallas, Texas. A citizen of the world, he has lived in Venezuela, Chile, and the United States and is a former member of Students For Liberty’s Executive Board. Follow @JoseAlNino.