Milton Friedman died more than three years ago, but his spirit was surely hovering protectively over Chile in the early morning hours of February 27. Thanks largely to him, the country endured a tragedy that elsewhere would have been an apocalypse.
Earthquake magnitudes are measured on a logarithmic scale. The earthquake that hit Northridge in 1994 measured 6.7 on the Richter scale. But its seismic-energy yield was only half that of the 7.0 quake that hit Haiti in January, which was the equivalent of two thousand Hiroshima-sized bombs exploding at once.
By contrast, Chile’s earthquake measured 8.8. That was nearly five hundred times more powerful than Haiti’s, or about a million Hiroshimas. Yet Chile’s reported death toll was a tiny fraction of the 230,000 or so believed to have perished in Haiti.
Not by chance were Chileans living in houses of brick—and Haitians in houses of straw—when the wolf arrived to try to blow them down. In 1973, the year the proto-Chavista government of Salvador Allende was overthrown by General Augusto Pinochet, Chile was an economic shambles. Inflation topped out at an annual rate of 1,000 percent, foreign-currency reserves were totally depleted, and per capita GDP was roughly that of Peru and well below Argentina’s.
What Chile did have was intellectual capital, thanks to an exchange program between its Catholic University and the economics department of the University of Chicago, then Friedman’s academic home. Even before the 1973 coup, several of Chile’s “Chicago boys” had drafted a set of policy proposals that amounted to an off-the-shelf recipe for economic liberalization: sharp reductions to government spending and the money supply; privatization of state-owned companies; the elimination of obstacles to free enterprise and foreign investment, and so on.
In left-wing mythology—notably Naomi Klein’s tedious 2007 screed The Shock Doctrine—the Chicago boys weren’t just strange bedfellows to Pinochet’s dictatorship. They were complicit in its crimes. “If the pure Chicago economic theory can be carried out in Chile only at the price of repression, should its authors feel some responsibility?” wrote New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis in October 1975. In fact, Pinochet had been mostly indifferent to the Chicago boys’ advice until the continuing economic crisis forced him to look for some policy alternatives. In March 1975, he had a forty-five-minute meeting with Friedman and asked him to write a letter proposing some remedies. Friedman responded a month later with an eight-point proposal that largely mirrored the themes of the Chicago boys.
For his trouble, Friedman would spend the rest of his life being defamed as an accomplice to evil: at his Nobel Prize ceremony the following year, he was met by protests and hecklers. Friedman himself couldn’t decide whether to be amused or annoyed by the obloquies; he later wryly noted that he had given communist dictatorships the same advice he gave Pinochet, without raising leftist hackles.
As for Chile, Pinochet appointed a succession of Chicago boys to senior economic posts. By 1990, the year he ceded power, per capita GDP had risen by 40 percent (in 2005 dollars) even as Peru and Argentina stagnated. Pinochet’s democratic successors—all of them nominally left-of-center—only deepened the liberalization drive. The result is that Chileans have become South America’s richest people. They have the continent’s lowest level of corruption, the lowest infant-mortality rate, and the lowest number of people living below the poverty line.
Chile also has some of the world’s strictest building codes, a sensible precaution for a country that straddles two tectonic plates. But having codes is one thing and enforcing them is another. The quality and consistency of enforcement is typically correlated to the wealth of nations. The poorer the country, the likelier people are to scrimp on rebar, or use poor-quality concrete, or lie about compliance. In the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, thousands of children were buried under schools also built according to code.
In The Shock Doctrine, Klein titles one of her sub-chapters “The Myth of the Chilean Miracle.” In her reading, the only thing Friedman and the Chicago boys accomplished was to “hoover wealth up to the top and shock much of the middle class out of existence.” Actual Chileans of all classes—living in the aftermath of an actual shock—may take a different view of Friedman, who helped give them the wherewithal first to survive the quake, and now to build their lives anew.