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No, Hayek Didn't Support the Pinochet Regime

Tags World HistoryHistory of the Austrian School of EconomicsPolitical Theory

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Historical misconceptions remain historical misconceptions, no matter how often they are repeated. After all, mythological ideas have a way of captivating the ideologically motivated in a way that actual history couldn’t hope to achieve. One such misconception often espoused by progressive critics of the free market is the supposed relationship between Pinochet’s regime and famed Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek. A legitimate historical analysis of Hayek’s own words falsifies the claim that he was a friend of Pinochet as soon as one separates casual observation from actual academic research.

Corey Robin and the Hayek/Pinochet Myth

Although many scholars have debated the Chicago and Austrian schools’ role in shaping Pinochet’s economy, the most influential academic in perpetuating the myth that Hayek enthusiastically supported the Pinochet regime is Corey Robin, a political science professor at Brooklyn College. Robin’s claim can best be summarized in a quote from his article “The Hayek-Pinochet Connection”—a blog post that was inspired by libertarians’ reactions to Hayek’s infamous praise for Pinochet over Allende. In it, Robin states:

Hayek first visited Pinochet’s Chile in 1977, when he was 78….He met with Pinochet and other government officials, who he described as “educated, reasonable, and insightful men”….He had his secretary send a draft of what eventually became chapter 17—“A Model Constitution”—of the third volume of Law, Legislation and Liberty [to Pinochet]. That chapter includes a section on “Emergency Powers,” which defends temporary dictatorships when “the long-run preservation” of a free society is threatened.

Let’s take a moment to unravel this. First, it’s important to note that although Robin litters his blog post with numerous hyperlinks and citations, he fails to provide any evidence of Hayek’s praise for Chilean government officials. This might be due to the fact that the original report from 1977 is difficult to find. However, there’s greater evidence to suggest that the quote was intentionally taken out of context by Robin and that he simply wanted to avoid being ousted by his own audience. The quote in its entirety states that Hayek met with “educated, reasonable, and insightful men—men who honestly hope that the country can be returned to a democratic order soon.” The proper context reveals a very different story than what is implied by critics. Why would the same men who control a violent regime also hope for a functioning democracy in the near future? It seems that, according to Robin’s story, either Pinochet is prodemocracy or, as the full quote reveals, Hayek was not praising a regime but rather a body of men in Pinochet’s political cabinet who felt conflicted about their cause. Another possibility could have been that the men with whom Hayek conversed simply lied about their democratic intentions, in which case Hayek would not be the one at fault.

The next part of Robin’s claim describes Hayek’s willingness to send a draft of his book Law, Legislation, and Liberty to Pinochet. Robin also attempts to paint Hayek’s views on emergency powers in a bad light. The problem here lies in a misunderstanding of the correspondence that took place between Hayek and Pinochet. As noted by Duke University economist Bruce Caldwell in his coauthored paper “​Friedrich Hayek and His Visits to Chile,” there was a significant language barrier between Pinochet and Hayek—not to mention the fact that Pinochet was relatively unaware of Hayek’s existence prior to their brief interaction. As for addressing the notorious “Emergency Powers” chapter of Hayek’s book, once again context proves to be of utmost importance. Hayek explains that temporary transfers of power must have a reasonable cause, such as when “An external enemy threatens, when rebellion or lawless violence has broken out, or a natural catastrophe requires quick action by whatever means can be secured.” He goes on to explain that the best way to prevent usurpation of emergency powers is to separate the entities that declare emergencies from the ones granted permission to use absolute authority. Hayek states:

It is by no means necessary, however, that one and the same agency should possess the power to declare an emergency and to assume emergency powers. The best precaution against the abuse of emergency powers would seem to be that the authority that can declare a state of emergency is made thereby to renounce the powers it normally possesses and to retain only the right of revoking at any time the emergency powers it has conferred on another body.

According to Hayek, emergency powers do not permit violent tyranny. Rather, he believed they ought to be designed to prevent such atrocities from happening. And yet the myth that Hayek helped organize Pinochet’s regime by offering political advice continues to circulate. Although Corey Robin has had the greatest influence in circulating this misconception, other academics have also muddied the waters on Hayek’s relationship with the Chilean government.

Karin Fischer and the “True Reports”

Also made popular in less mainstream circles were Karin Fischer’s findings on Hayek’s supposedly apologetic behavior toward the Pinochet regime—more commonly known as the “True Reports on Chile.” Fischer, a professor at Johannes Kepler University Linz in Austria, was the main voice in advancing the myth that Hayek defended the horrifying social policies of Pinochet in a booklet entitled “True Reports of Chile,” which, according to Fischer, were so devastatingly controversial that the editors at Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a free market magazine in Germany, were too afraid to publish it.

This claim was responded to by several academics, including Andrew Farrant, Edward McPhail, and Sebastian Berger in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology. The authors state in their publication on the issue that Hayek “did not provide a defense of the specific policies adopted by the Pinochet regime and [that the letter] was not titled ‘True Reports on Chile.’”

The Times Interviews Hayek on Chile

However, even in the well-crafted paper by Farrant, McPhail, and Berger, Hayek’s views on Chile are still condemned as being apologetic. The paper goes on to say that according to a 1978 interview in The Times Hayek supported some of Pinochet’s work and believed that tyrannical governments could be superior to democratic ones based on the circumstance. However, further inspection of the cited article proves that this claim is misleading. Hayek specifically prefaces his so-called support for Pinochet with the following:

I have certainly never contended that generally authoritarian governments are more likely to secure individual liberty than democratic ones, but rather the contrary. This does not mean, however, that in some historical circumstances, personal liberty may not have been better protected under an authoritarian than under a democratic government. This has occasionally been true since the beginning of democracy in ancient Athens, where the liberty of the subjects was undoubtedly safer under the “30 tyrants” than under the democracy which killed Socrates and sent dozens of its best men into exile by arbitrary decrees.

Perhaps most notable is Hayek’s willingness to equate despotic democracy and despotic authoritarianism by the fact that both often result in death and exile. Hayek’s condemnation of absolute democracy should not be thought of as a blind eye turned away from tyrants, but rather an attempt to illustrate just how violent and evil some democracies can actually be. This helps clarify his later quote on Pinochet in the same article:

More recently I have not been able to find a single person even in much maligned Chile who did not agree that personal freedom was much greater under Pinochet than it had been under Allende.

We’ve now come full circle. This is the statement that prompted Corey Robin to write his “Hayek-Pinochet Connection” blog post in the first place. The context, however, makes this statement far more tolerable, as Hayek clearly condemns political systems that perpetuate death and suffering only sentences earlier. To Hayek, Salvador Allende was clearly worse, because, as noted by the Federation of American Scientists, the socialist president’s policies resulted in mass food shortages and the decision to negotiate with violent totalitarian states such as the Soviet Union and North Korea. In this context, the debate over whether Allende or Pinochet is more evenhanded. Perhaps Hayek’s biggest mistake in all of this was deciding to choose a side instead of acknowledging that both regimes were comparably evil.

The Verdict: Was Hayek a Pinochet Apologist?

At the end of the day, the evidence to support the claim that Friedrich Hayek praised, corresponded with, or apologized for the Pinochet regime is miniscule. At best, one could make the argument that Hayek should not have picked sides between Pinochet and Allende in the first place. However, if there is any intellectual dishonesty occurring in the Hayek-Pinochet debate, it’s certainly on the part of academics such as Karin Fischer and Corey Robin, who mislabeled and exaggerated Hayek’s own words to fit their narratives.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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