Friday, December 15, 2006

Beyond Platitudes

Augusto Pinochet, who co-directed a military coup in 1973 (on 9/11, actually) and ended up dictator of Chile for 16 years, died Sunday at age 91 and in poor health. Reaction from the usual suspects has been surprisingly muted - which is a testament, really, to the fact that the truth and common sense win out over propaganda, eventually.

Pinochet is a favorite leftist punching bag for all the reasons you'd suspect. First, he replaced a democratically elected marxist, and as such has the virtue of being one of the few actual cases in reality that dedicated leftists can point to of the "will of the people" being "crushed" when it was on their side. Second, he was a dedicated anti-Communist, so they get to trot out all their usual straw mans and pretend that politics is really about jackboots and pinkos. Finally, let's not forget, there is evidence that the US was involved in the coup. (Kissinger says no - and I believe him as far as the actual coup is concerned - but the US definitely was involved in trying to sabotage Allende's government even before it was officially elected.) You know, the same good ol' "American Imperialism" that has patently failed to produce a real empire, but never mind.

I really expected a lot more fanfare when the old man croaked. But I guess this dead horse has been beaten long enough - even for THEM. The most we got from the chattering classes were a couple of half-heated mentions of the prison camps with some caption about how free markets aren't worth due process. Really, it could've been a lot worse.

Despite being a Pinochet sympathizer, I wasn't going to post anything on his death (admittedly, partly due to a crushing end-of-semester workload - the old man picked the worst possible time to die!) - and because it is a dead horse. I believe "we" have pretty much won this battle in the court of public opinion - some pockets of entrenched lefty resistance (and irritating celebrities) notwithstanding. Most people, asked about Pinochet, would (if they even knew the name at all) probably say that the dictatorship was regretable, but that it's complicated and Chile is on the whole better for it. And I think that's basically right.

But then I read Noah's entry on it - which I will come right out and say I did not like - and I remembered why it's still important to talk about this.

Noah's angle is probably pretty typical these days. The Washington Post (!!!) published a mildly favorable editorial - which aroused the dutiful ire of some bloggers who are, of course, all opposed to dictatorship across the board. You know, because it's bad and stuff. Having heard somewhere that Pinochet was advised by Milton Friedman, Noah muses in the comments section that the dictatorship might have been worth it for the free-market reforms it left behind. And then he was, predictably, roundly trounced, after which he beats a hasty retreat, admits he doesn't know much about it (which leads one to wonder why he was posting about it in the first place - just bored, one assumes), and reaffirms his belief that repressive dictatorship and free-market capitalism do not and cannot got hand-in-hand - conclusion: he will adopt the standard line about Pinochet.

Well, duh! Free market capitalism and repressive dictatorship are antithetical, yes. But reading comments like this:

It should have been obvious to me on Tuesday that imprisoning, torturing, and murdering political opponents is 100% antithetical to these values. It is as clear as day (today anyway) that Pinochet's political oppression of Chileans represents an utter lack of respect for private property, a crucial underpinning of any truly free market. After all, if a person's self is not owned by that person, then what is?

I am reminded of the first rule of history: context is everything.

Nothing in this opinion is wrong. It's right on its face, of course. Torture and imprisonment are violations of personal integrity - and bodily integrity is the foundation of any free society. Ergo - Pinochet is a bad guy.

So far so good. Pinochet was a bad guy. He's not evil exactly ... by which I mean, he probably knew he was a criminal (he did, after all, lift some $26million from government coffers to pad his retirement), but on the whole he believed he was doing the right thing - much like his hero Francisco Franco before him. Still, "the right thing" can never involve the wrongful imprisonment of thousands, so it's worth a few words to this effect, sure.

I don't think it's worth losing sight of the bigger picture, though. Those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them - and the Chilean coup and aftermath are one of the more interesting historical studies from a philosophical perspective that the 20th century has to offer. Leftists wouldn't get so hot and bothered about it if the situation were really so simple as saying "wrongful imprisonment is bad." We already know that, thanks. The question is whether there was any sense to it - and if so how we avoid it in the future.

Let's consider the context of Chile in 1973. We can begin by destroying the myth that Salvador Allende was a democrat. Certainly he won a legal election - but then, so did Hitler. In fact, Allende polled lower in the 1970 election, which he won, than he had in 1964 (and 1958 and 1952), when he lost. The critical factor was a split in the Christian Democratic vote. In any case, the 1970 election was so close that it was decided by the Chamber of Deputies, which was in the habit of awarding the presidency to the person with the largest number of popular votes regardless of who he happened to be. It did not break tradition and went with Allende - but forced him to sign a list of promises that he would not violate the constitution. Of course, once elected, Allende turned around and did just that. Some claim that he ordered as many as 7,000 direct violations of laws and Supreme Court rulings. Probably that is an exaggeration, but in any case his rule suffered from nothing like a healthy respect for the law. He was finally served with papers demanding that he either resign, renew his pledge to uphold the constitution - or else that the military should intervene. That's right folks, Pinochet's little "coup" was, in fact, every bit as legal as Allende's presidency. And that's just the official version. Unofficially, Allende was very much active behind the scenes in organizing bands of thugs to go around enforcing the "popular will." Whatever he might have said on TV about how unfortunate that it was that the rule of law was breaking down, the man was hoping for a revolution. What of the economy? See, if it were just a matter of Pinochet having made property rights somewhat more sacrosanct, then 3000 or so dead in the coup might be a high price to pay. But we're not talking about comfort levels. We're talking about a country that suffered from an average of 120% inflation under Allende - with inflation running at about 500% on the day of the coup. Any guesses as to what might have caused this? If you said "price controls," you got it in one! Yes, it wasn't those nasty Arabs and their oil embargo as the leftists like to say (please! Chile is a resource economy - it isn't affected by fuel prices in the same way as the US. And even in the US we never had anything close to 120% inflation in the 70s! We cried when it was at 10% or so!). GDP dropped by an average of 5.6% a year from 1970-73 in Chile. In other words, they were losing almost twice as much money as we were making. Not Allende's fault? Give me a goddamn break. This is the president who spent millions on installing the world's first national computer economy-monitoring network so that he could track factory progress and regulate the economy in real time. You would have to be a blathering moron to believe that Allende's government bears anything less than the lion's share of the blame for Chile's economic collapse. But it doesn't stop there. When the bastard finally died, it was because he'd shot himself with a present (a gold-plated machinegun) from his dear friend Fidel Castro rather than allow himself to be arrested. Yes - dear friend Fidel Castro - who spent a month in Chile early in Allende's reign not just visiting, but organizing prottests and publicly (as in, on TV) giving Allende policy advice. Please be honest with yourself about this. If Fidel Castro had come to the US in 1977, organized some trade union rallies, and then gone on TV telling Jimmy Carter how to run the government, do you really think that would be the kind of thing you're likely to just brush aside?

Now, Pinochet has claimed for years that Allende was plotting a coup of his own (called "Plan Z") after it became apparent that he wasn't going to be able to hold on to power for the full term. This has never been verified, and the CIA has its doubts. Nonetheless, please put yourself in the shoes of the average Chilean in 1973. You have the devil you know and the one you don't. That Allende was a bastard should not be in dispute. The only reason it is is because marxists like to pretend they give a fig about the will of the people, and Allende is one of the few marxists in history to have ever won an election. They can't just let this one go. Reality, though, is that in 1973, any free-thinking person would have supported the coup. That's what you do when the government is running your economy into the ground and trampling roughshod all over the rule of law - you overthrow it. The American Revolution happened for much, much less.

Yes, but was it worth it? Originally the coup was supposed to be an oligarchy, not a dictatorship - and it was only supposed to stay in power for 4 years or so, after which a new Constitution would be drafted and civilian rule restored. So Pinochet was no better, right? And anyway, Allende didn't order 3,000 executions!

All this is true, of course - so let me just repeat now in case this wasn't clear before: Pinochet was a bad guy. I'm not trying to defend him, just to put him in context. The junta degenerated into a dictatorship, right. The Constitution was replaced, and the public was allowed to vote on it (in 1980 - supposedly the election was rigged, but I have never seen any documentation to this effect, just heard assertions) - but they weren't really allowed any input on drafting it. Pinochet's first "term" was for 8 years - four longer than originally promised. After that he allowed himself a second "term," also for 8 years - at which time he promised to actually stand for election. To his credit, he did, was voted down, and he peacefully stepped aside and allowed a general election.

Most readers will see what I am getting at. There is a certain other Latin American dictator, also on his death bed, who fits this description - all except for the part about actually standing for election or helping the economy in any way. Now generally when you bring up Castro in the context of Pinochet you're met with eye-rolling and exasperated sighs of "Oh please, Cuba isn't Chile!" Well, sorry folks, but this stuff just so happens to be relevant here given Allende's admiration for Castro and acceptance of Soviet aid. If your choices are Castro, Pinochet, and Thomas Jefferson, then of course you choose Jefferson. But what if he's not on the ballot? In that case, clearly, you choose the guy who actually did stand for and obey the results of a fair public election. You go with the guy who killed 3,000 during the first year of the revolution and almost no one afterward - not the guy who's been doing it with immunity for 50 years. You go with the guy who took control of one of the worst economies in an economically troubled region and made it one of the best - not the guy who took the unambiguously best economy in the region and systematically destroyed it.

The truth is, Salvador Allende was indeed Fidel Castro waiting to happen. You can well say that Pinochet was bad, and I can't disagree with you. But you can't pretend to care about what happens to Chile and neglect to mention, as the Glenn Greenwald blogpost that Noah links does, that the crisis in Chile in 1973 was real. We're not talking about economic indicators in the US sense where percentage points here and there make it more or less likely that you can retire at 65!!! And we're not talking about "protests" in the sense of just making annoying movies.

Talking about Pinochet without mentioning Allende is like talking about US Cold War policy without mentioning the Soviet Union. Self defense is a right, both legal and moral. If you can get away without killing the nice drug addict who breaks into your house in the middle of the night with a gun, bully for you. If you can't, though, are you really a bad person? People do what they have to do, and Pinochet did what he thought was right. It's true that wrongful imprisonment for political belief isn't exactly a sterling defense of property rights, but do let's remember that we're talking about a country where the rule of law was breaking down anyway. Pinochet might not have been the best choice for the job, and a junta might not have been the best method, but I'm not hearing a whole lot of useful suggestions from all the people who want a pat on the head for being brave enough to hate dictatorship while the old man's still-warm corpse settles into its grave.

Earlier in the post I repeated the aphorism that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Well - have a look at Bolivia and tell me I'm wrong. Have a look at Nicaragua and tell me I'm wrong. Have a look at Venezuela and tell me I'm wrong. Kissenger put it nicely - characteristically more blunt than most people will be comforatble with, but here goes:

I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people.



At 2:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did not "muse in the comments section [of Greenwald's blog] that the dictatorship might have been worth it for the free-market reforms it left behind."

I pointed out that I thought the Post editorial was better (or less bad, anyway) than Greenwald thought it was, and that Pinochet's economics and political crimes were separate issues. My own blog post about it a few days later is a revision of this position, nothing more, nothing less.

I commented on Greenwald's post because I like what he typically writes, but I thought he was wrong about the Post editorial (and, yes, I was bored and avoiding real work). I didn't need much historical knowledge about Chile to find Greenwald's post lacking, nor to argue, then retract, the position that Pinochet's free-market economics were separate from his dictatorial politics.

I can't figure out what you dislike about my post (or my comments on Greenwald's blog) so much. You agree with my main point, which both of us point out is a very obvious one, then do nothing to contradict it with your historical review.

Your historical review is, by the way, quite interesting. Having read it, I know a good bit more about Chile's history. It confirms my suspicion that, as you (roughly) put it, the whole ordeal is an interesting historical case study in politics and philosophy. But, again, nothing I wrote is in conflict with anything you wrote.

At 6:36 AM, Blogger Joshua said...

In thinking back on this, it seems that what I'm really taking you to task for is not having said what I would have said - which isn't fair, especially since I wasn't in the debate on Greenwald's blog.

You're right that you don't say anything that I really disagree with. I get frustrated with the Pinochet issue because he's a convenient punching bag for leftists who otherwise admire (or at least don't complain about) Castro, Chavez, Ortega, etc. So whether or not his economic policies can be separated from his political policies (I guess I think they can to a greater extent than you do, esp. when seen in historical context), I guess I see it as a "retreat" when you let people off the hook for indulging in cheap moral self-congratulation by denouncing the Pinochet dictatorship but not bothering to put it in context or mention any of the other parallel dictatorships and semi-dictatorships in Latin America that are worse. I realize that isn't exactly the angle you were taking, so apologies. But to me, that's the substance of the issue.

At 7:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree (since reading your post) that the substance of the issue resides in the historical context in which the Pinochet coup took place (which is an implicit admission - this patenthetical being the explicit admission - that my response to Greenwald's post was low on substance, at least with regard to the more important and interesting issues at hand).

I hadn't realized how bad Allende was, both economically and politically, when I participated in that comment thread. It would have been fun if you had been in on it from the get go. Some of the posts aimed at me were pretty silly, but I didn't have the background knowledge (or the time to acquire the background knowledge) to rebut them appropriately (among other things, I took my daughter out for her birthday celebration that afternoon). Hence, I stopped posting in the comments.


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