How free market is the Chilean miracle?

The major economic successes of Chile are commonly considered to be a free market miracle. To be sure, there is much truth to this characterization. The Pinochet regime engaged in extensive privatization and deregulation and moved to free trade. Agriculture, services, copper mining, and telecommunications all boomed. The Chilean economy has been the envy of Latin America for some time now. The country also has few problems with corruption.

The reality nonetheless is more complex than a simple market story may imply, read this thorough account. The Chilean state has grown stronger as the Chilean economy has prospered. In the 1990s, Chile has doubled corporate taxes, almost doubled its minimum wage, and more than doubled spending on health and education. Here is another account of how social spending has gone up during the 1990s. Chile also has maintained tight capital controls on foreign investment until 1999. The vaunted Chilean social security privatization in fact superimposed a system of private accounts on an already-existing governmental system, which did not disappear. Yet in the 1990s the country continued to prosper. Chile grew by an average of 5.9 percent a year.

The bottom line: The world has seen massive liberalizations over the last twenty-five years and all for the better. But with few exceptions these reforms have strengthened rather than overturned welfare states. New Zealand, for instance, also has not cut its welfare spending. Welfare states are, in part, the price we pay for public order, whether or not they always make economic sense. When it comes to economic development, the question is not state vs. market. Rather poorer countries need both stronger markets and stronger (as distinct from more tyrannical) states. Chile is generating strong institutions across the board, in both private and public realms. In contrast, look at Mexico, where government taxation takes only 12 percent of gdp. In Mexico the problem is not to cut the absolute size of government per se (although I can think of some obvious and good steps in this direction, such as introducing more electricity competition) as to reduce corruption and improve the quality of governance. Until market-oriented reformers understand this basic distinction, we will continue to give bad advice and generate only mixed results for market-oriented ideas.


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