Hayek and Pinochet: One more time

Thanks to Bruce Littleboy for pointing me to this complete translation of Hayek’s 1981 interview with the (pro-Pinochet Chilean) newspaper El Mercurio in which he stated

Personally I prefer a liberal dictator to democratic
government lacking liberalism.

As the interview makes clear, Hayek supports the Pinochet dictatorship, on the assumption (correct in the end) that it would eventually give way to a more liberal regime. Of course, many supporters of dictators make this assumption and all dictatorships, like all governments, pass away sooner or later.

Plenty of people have made worse political mistakes than backing Pinochet, most obviously those sections of the left who supported Stalin, Mao and their lesser accomplices. Still, the fact that both the Mont Pelerin society and leaders of the free-market right like Thatcher and Reagan gave their enthusiastic support to this mass murderer should be remembered when they, and their followers, try to claim the moral high ground as against the moderate left.

35 thoughts on “Hayek and Pinochet: One more time

  1. Andrew (post 17): In response to your statement:

    “He wasn’t even endorsing Pinochet, but using Chile as a possible case in which dictatorship may be a necessary transitional step to democracy.”

    But Chile had been a democracy for more than a century when Pinochet overthrew the democratically-elected Government in 1973. I can’t see how a dictatorship could possibly be seen by any reasonable person as a “necessary transitional step to democracy” when Chile was already a democracy, even for someone with Hayek’s personal experiences of totalitarianism.

    It is interesting that the predominant theory of democracy in political science in the 1940s and 1950s was Schumpeter’s “wise elite” model, in which the people were seen as too stupid or too prone to populist persuasion to be entrusted with decision-making; it is thus the duty of politicians to make decisions on behalf of the people, despite what the people themselves may want or say. I see the same arrogant and essentially anti-democratic views in Hayek. That he supported Pinochet is no surprise to me given his earlier polemics. Ditto Milton Friedman. Later generations will wonder how such undemocratic writers were ever published, let alone read and lauded.

  2. Peter McBurney
    sorry to break this to you but most well-functioning liberal democracies including Australia are probably not as democratic (according to your implicit definition) as you think they are and have institutions based on the premise that the majority can get it wrong. Some of the best features of a well-functioning liberal democracy are patently undemocratic – these include an independent central bank and a High Court which upholds constitutional and other constraints on the ability of the majority to oppress a minority, deprive them of property without just compensation, etc. Furthermore the notion of representative democracy (as opposed to the ‘direct democracy’ favoured by some Critical Legal Studies theorists) is based on the premise that specialist legislators have more time and opportunity to make considered decisions and therefore in a sense the voters are delegating their decision-making to them. If democracy were as you implicitly intended it, the White Australia Policy would never have been removed, Aboriginal land rights would never have been granted, capital punishment would still be around today, gays prosecuted, etc, etc. Thus for you to dimiss Hayek on the basis of a normative preference shared by the majority of liberal political theorists through the ages (and even some leftist ones) suggests your knowledge of these areas is not intimate. Incidentally on the latter point Marx, Engels and their ilk were wiser leftists than some contemporary leftists in that they recognised the same limitations I alluded to (hence their coining of terms like the ‘revolutionary vanguard’ which implicitly refers to an elite of leftist leaders who must guide the masses). The most patently unrealistic of the contemporary leftist bunch are the oxymoronic ‘left populists’. The majority of lower middle class and working class people are not leftist in anything but an economic sense (and this because it is in their rational self-interest). They are predominantly anti-cosmopolitan and socially conservative if not reactionary. Ask any blue collar union member not of the apparatchik what he thinks of poofters getting married, illegal immigrants being detained, etc. Those people marching over the Harbour Bridge for Sorry Day were disproportionately North Shore burghers and tertiary educated students. Ironically it is allegedly ‘anti-democratic’ Hayek and Friedman-influenced classical liberals like me who are more likely to share the views of the moderate Left than their ‘chosen people’, and I hate it to break it to you, comrade, but we are in the minority. Hayek’s warning of the dangers of unchecked majoritarianism will therefore, contrary to your hopes, continue to be noticed.

  3. Lots of good comments here all, food for thought for an economics gatechrasher such as myself. But can I ask this- don’t you think that many of you are a bit obsessed about identifying as left or right? If you’re reasonable people, and reasonable thinkers, don’t you think that when you attach your reasonable conclusions to these labels which seem to me caricatures of belief systems- more so in recent times- that you devalue your own statements? Is a forum like this an opportunity to see what views you share and why you differ in those you don’t, or something else? [cue sinister music]

  4. Right on, Mister Lepanto. I, too, am concerned about a drift towards what looks increasingly like a rerun of the 1930s, where politically you had to be either a communist or a fascist – in much of the Europe of those days, there was no middle ground.

  5. Jason Soon, your fluency is great and no doubt your reading in political theory is extensive, but I do not follow you is declaring an equivalence between democracy and mob violence. To do so is to distort ordinary words into the jargon of a limited academic sect. Converse with other devotees in this way if you wish, but not to a user of ordinary English.

  6. Gordon and Mr L, I’m a bit surprised that you choose to make this comment on this particular post, which after all criticised support for dictators of all kinds, left and right. The commentary has been similarly eclectic.

    The general phenomenon you refer to is certainly troubling.

  7. Dear Jason Soon —

    Your attack (post 27) is passionate and articulate, but your aim was awry. I did not say that the majority never get it wrong. What I said, and what I stand by, is that lots of political and economic theorists of the Hayek-Friedman-Schumpeter bent evidence distrust of the opinions of ordinary people. These two statements are not equivalent at all, as a moment’s reflection will show. You will need to look beyond me for a straw man!

    I specifically gave no definition of democracy in my post. You have inferred one in what I wrote, and, as it happens, your inference about my views is incorrect. There are other theories of democracy besides the wise-elite model I mentioned in my post or the various ideas you mention in yours.

  8. Well, Prof. Quiggin, I was commenting on a comment, not the first time this has occurred here. Is there a problem?

    As far as the post is concerned, I find it hard to take seriously any comments (from Hayek or anybody else) on Pinochet which don’t put him in his context of Great Power interference in the affairs of Chile. By himself, Pinochet is just a member of the class of collaborators. Any number of other people could have filled the role as well as he. This doesn’t make him innocent, but it does spread the blame.

  9. Well, Prof. Quiggin, I was commenting on a comment, not the first time this has occurred here. Is there a problem?

    As far as the post is concerned, I find it hard to take seriously any remarks (from Hayek or anybody else) on Pinochet which don’t put him in his context of Great Power interference in the affairs of Chile. By himself, Pinochet is just a member of the class of collaborators. Any number of other people could have filled the role as well as he. This doesn’t make him innocent, but it does spread the blame.

  10. reply to John Quiggin/31

    It’s possible I didn’t quite express myself adequately. It’s not good enough saying “well the right bash the left as well as the left bashing the right here”. To me it seems that references to left and right don’t add to the details and logic of an argument and do a lot to detract from them. I’m influenced by my own observation that identifying with right/left often seems to stem more from life experiences and strong emotional responses than critical reason.

    Maybe it’s unfair to raise this here as in fact the discussion is mature and considered, especially Jason Soon’s (though thanks to gordo for your endorsement, I do agree with that example), but then that means that those participating may be open to what I say. More use than raising it in a Socialist Alliance branch meeting or the Quadrant editorship office anyway.

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