Chile and the Perils of Technocracy

Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera delivers a speech in Santiago, Chile, January 29, 2020. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)
In the midst of a pandemic, the possibility of a government led by ‘experts’ looks more attractive than ever. But the Chilean experience should make us wary of technocratic promises.

On paper, Chile is Latin America’s most developed economy and most stable democracy. In less than 40 years, the country went from being one of the poorest nations in the region to having the highest GDP per capita on the continent. Unlike many of its South American counterparts, the Chilean government has embraced free markets and implemented business-friendly tax and labor-market reforms. While these policies have exacerbated inequalities, the proportion of the population living below the poverty line has decreased from 52 percent in 1987 to less than 5 percent in 2019. In short, until recently at least, Chile was a shiny example of successful modernization, efficient neoliberalism, and competent governance.

This state of affairs might be due to the composition of Chile’s government. After the fall of military dictator Augusto Pinochet, the country moved away from totalitarianism and adopted broadly liberal norms. When Chilean President Sebastián Piñera began his second term in 2018, he made sure to assemble a cabinet that would look just like him. Piñera, a Harvard-educated economist and billionaire, gathered a team of foreign-educated technocrats ready to address the country’s most pressing challenges with tact and data. Welcoming the influence of renowned academics, Piñera even partnered with American political theorist John Tomasi, a brilliant professor at Brown University whose research focuses on the intersection between social justice and free markets. In his work Free Market Fairness, Tomasi draws on moral insights from defenders of economic liberty such as F. A. Hayek and advocates of social justice such as John Rawls. Synthesising the two antagonistic traditions, Tomasi presents a new theory of justice. This theory, free-market fairness, is committed to both limited government and the material betterment of the poor. For Piñera, Tomasi’s innovative conception of bleeding-heart libertarianism represented an ideal to be attained.

And Piñera did manage to reconcile efficiency and equity in the first few years of his presidency. Consider the example of the Chilean education system, which Pinochet had decentralized and largely privatized. In 2011, Piñera upheld the country’s reliance on school choice and per-student subsidies (vouchers) to promote competition among schools. Wary of growing inequalities, however, the Chilean president founded a $4 billion fund to increase the availability of university scholarships and ease interest rates on government-backed student loans. The results were clear: Test scores improved for students from all socio-economic groups, even if privileged students benefited the most. Yet the government failed to defend its reforms before the Chilean people. Despite Piñera’s empirical success, the country was torn apart by a series of riots and demonstrations demanding radical changes in education policy.

This failure marked the beginning of a pattern. One after the other, Piñera’s reforms proved efficient but disproportionally beneficial to the wealthy. Naturally, inequality need not matter as long as the rising tide lifts all boats; to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, only the most ardent socialists would rather have the poor poorer provided the rich were less rich. But this growing sense of disparity required a strong response on the part of the Chilean government. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher and President Reagan managed to handle concerns surrounding growing inequalities because they were fine rhetoricians who defended the workings of the invisible hand with fire and tact. Unfortunately, Piñera and his cabinet were no firebrand statesmen; they were a pack of academics, experts, and technocrats who thought that numbers would eventually speak for themselves.

But they did not. At the end of 2019, to the great astonishment of virtually every foreign commentator, Chile descended into a state of chaos. As had happened many times elsewhere in South America, an increase in public-transportation fees provoked a wave of public outrage, one that quickly degenerated into a series of protests and riots. But this particular reaction was remarkable insofar as its causes did not seem to warrant the violence. The 3.75 percent fee increase was only marginally higher than inflation, and wages had been going up consistently for 10 years. Further, while transportation did represent up to 20 percent of yearly expenses for the poorest Chileans, this percentage had been going down for more than a decade. As for the general state of the economy, the government had kept inflation under control, stimulated job creation, and maintained a GDP growth of about 3 percent.

Once more, the only tangible cause of the unrest was the Chilean government’s total inability to move beyond spreadsheets and talk to its people. Not only did the transportation minister take more than a week to respond, but her eventual intervention was filled with technical details about macroeconomics and long-run cost-benefit analyses. By the end of the week, the Chilean people realized what their government was really made of — namely, a panoply of English-speaking upper-middle-class intellectuals and business leaders who had no fraternal ties to the populace.

Why would a people choose to revolt against a government that has made their nation better off than at any time in its history? Perhaps because politics is not what John Stuart Mill called a “marketplace of ideas,” that is, an antechamber of objectivity where perfectly rational human beings engage in Enlightenment-style discourse. Despite Mill’s best efforts, man is not a rational animal. In fact, we could draw parallels between the failures of the Chilean government and Edmund Burke’s astringent portrayal of the French National Assembly after the 1789 Revolution. For Burke, the French parliament was filled with lawyers and technocrats “devoid of practical experience” who would turn politics into a set of “theoretical abstractions.” The 18th-century statesman and philosopher reiterated this point in his “Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs”:

Nothing universal can be rationally affirmed on any moral or any political subject. Pure metaphysical abstraction does not belong to these matters. The lines of morality are not like the ideal lines of mathematics. They are broad and deep as well as long. They admit of exceptions; they demand modifications. These exceptions and modifications are not made by the process of logic, but by the rules of prudence.

Burke understood that politics is a world filled with indignation and uproar, a universe of shouting, growling, and protesting. Perceived inequalities matter at least as much as actual inequalities, and the fundamental role of the statesman is to master popular perceptions, control their excesses, and temper the disenchantment of the populace with care and “prudence.” No matter how brilliant and needed technocrats may be, they will never fulfil the demands of Burkean prudence. Experts such as Piñera and his neoliberal companions suffer from years of isolation within the well-insulated walls of academia and airport business lounges. And to say as much need not make one an avid admirer of populists. Real statesmanship lies between demagoguery and detached rationalism, between hyperbolic injunctions and jargon-heavy analyses, between personality-based politics and non-existent leadership.

Chile’s response to the coronavirus further illustrates the statesman–technocrat distinction. Four months ago, the world lauded Chile for its surgical approach to the pandemic. Leaving the matter in the hands of experts, Piñera’s government implemented wide-ranging testing programs and strict neighborhood lockdowns. In appearance, Piñera’s calculations were impeccable; strong measures would rapidly vanquish the virus, and the economy would re-start in peace. But the Chilean government rapidly encountered a simple problem: Trapped in overpopulated neighborhoods, Chile’s poor could not afford to stay in their houses. In the end, poverty, overcrowding, and a massive off-the-books workforce overcame the government’s response. Today, Chile has one of the world’s highest rates of per-capita infections, and its once-praised health minister has been forced to resign.

But what is most interesting about the Chilean situation is that Piñera’s government, despite conducting a myriad of data-driven studies, did not have the common sense required to realize that its response to the pandemic was incompatible with the day-to-day life of most Chileans. Responding to Bloomberg’s reporters, Diego Pardow, executive president of the Espacio Público think tank, declared: “If the government is going to make decisions about a world it doesn’t know, then it should include people from that world in the decision-making process. The problem with this government is that it just surrounds itself with its own people.”

Naturally, this type of criticism could apply to any kind of disconnected elite. But there is a world of difference between Piñera’s government and, say, the 18th-century landed aristocracy that Burke praises in his Reflections. While traditional elites were grounded in local traditions and community-specific bonds, Piñera embodies a new kind of technocratic establishment that is neither culturally nor socio-economically close to the people it governs. While the pandemic should certainly make us reflect upon the importance of scientific leadership, Chile’s dreadful state of affairs acts as a handy reminder that behind the veil of graphs and spreadsheets, governance remains a deeply political matter that requires statesmanship, not abstract competence.

In the Republic, Plato proposes to raise the sons and daughters of the city’s “guardians” along with everybody else’s children; this way, Plato argues, subjects and rulers will share common cultural references and life experiences. While we need not agree with what Karl Popper called Plato’s “totalitarian blueprint,” the Greek philosopher’s aspiration to form generations of leaders rooted in the traditions of their community should inspire us to do away with all kinds of technocratic dreams.