The Calculus of Their Consent: Gary Becker, Pinochet, and the Chicago Boys

The economist Gary Becker has died. Kieran Healy has a great write-up on Foucault’s engagement with Becker; Kathy Geier has a very smart treatment of, among other things, feminist critiques of Becker’s theory of the family. And some more personal reminiscences of taking a class with Becker.

Kathy mentions this article that Becker wrote in 1997 about the Chicago Boys who worked with the Pinochet regime. Becker’s conclusion about that episode?

In retrospect, their willingness to work for a cruel dictator and start a different economic approach was one of the best things that happened to Chile.

No real surprise there. Many free-marketeers, including Hayek, either defended the Pinochet regime or defended those who worked with it.

But the Becker piece reminded me of that infamous Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) conference in Viña del Mar in 1981, about which I wrote at length two summers ago. The MPS is an organization of economists, philosophers, and assorted action intellectuals and businessmen dedicated to spreading the free market gospel across the globe. In the late 1970s, at the height of Pinochet’s repression, Hayek and a few grandees from Chile began discussions  about holding the MPS’s annual conference in the seaside city where the coup against Allende had been planned. The purpose in meeting there would prove avowedly propagandist. As the organization’s own newsletter later acknowledged, the conference provided participants with an opportunity

for becoming better acquainted with the land which has had such consistently bad and misrepresenting press coverage (and, perhaps for that reason, it was appropriate to have Reed Irvine, head of Accuracy in Media as one of the first speakers in the first session).

Becker was originally targeted or slated to speak on a conference panel titled “Education, Government or Individual Responsibility?” His name appears on an early agenda with a “T” next to it. For “tentative.” But Becker either never confirmed or pulled out. No matter: Milton and Rose Friedman, along with James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, were there to show the flag—and the calculus of their consent.


  1. Richard Beck May 5, 2014 at 6:58 am | #

    I am saddened to hear Gary Becker has died. He was a gentleman and a scholar. He and I exchanged emails a few years back. I wanted to use his coefficient of discrimination to calculate the difference in wins and loses (the cost) to the Milwaukee Braves due to discriminating against their Black and Latino players from 1953-1965. The title of the work was The Antonelli Event. The Braves traded Johnny Antonelli for Bobby Thomson, a white hero who the organization felt they needed in order to promote the new franchise that was moving from Boston; hence, not promoting and contemplating trading a Black second baseman from Mobile, Alabama who was frustrated playing in the minor leagues and thinking about quitting in spite of stellar scouting reports. I first had to determine the factors of discrimination in MLB. Based upon those factors I then determined with the help of some ‘math friends’ that the difference would be 1 game x 7 (the number of teams in the league – 1); that is, the outcome of 7 games per season would be different for the Braves; 49 game outcomes would be different for the entire league. The data was there because of the wealth of baseball statistics. Oh, by the way, the name of that Black second baseman was Henry Aaron. Conclusion: discrimination hurts everybody; the minority players (employees) unpromoted from the minor leagues or undeveloped (e.g. Elrod Hendricks, Eddie Charles, Felix Mantilla, Juan Pizarro, Johnnie Wyatt, Orlando Pena, Jose Azcue, Manny Jimenez, Leo Posada) and the fans of Milwaukee (consumers) who were denied a dynasty equal to that of the NY Yankees during the golden years of baseball; and of course, the organization (employer).

  2. s. wallerstein May 5, 2014 at 10:47 am | #

    I share your criticism of the Mont Pelerin Society and your condenation of their complicity in the Pinochet dictatorship.

    However, just for the record, there is nothing particularly sinister in Viña del Mar and the meeting may have been held there for other reasons that that plotting the 1973 coup began there.

    Many of the first coup conspirators came from the Navy and were headed by Admiral Merino, latter to be a junta member. Navy headquarters are in Valparaiso and Viña del Mar is next to Valparaiso, with a more chic and upmarket image and with generally wealthier residents. One would imagine that Merino and other top Navy figures lived in
    Viña and commuted to Valparaiso. Pinochet joined the coup very late in the game: in fact, only a week before it according to some sources. Pinochet was trusted by Allende (and by his predecessor, Carlos Prats, whom he had assassinated a year after the coup). It seems that Pinochet made sure that the coup would triumph before supporting it.

    Anyway, Viña has a better climate than Santiago, less hot in summer and less cold in winter, so it’s a resort city with beaches (unlike inland Santiago), with nice hotels, a good place for an international meeting. Another point in favor of Viña (from the point of view of the Mont Pelerin Society) is that there is less apparent poverty than in Valparaiso (you can’t miss the poverty there) or in Santiago and so those who attended the meeting could close their eyes to the downside and human costs in terms of poverty
    of the neoliberal Chilean miracle.

  3. Roquentin May 5, 2014 at 4:25 pm | #

    It is of the utmost importance in neoliberal ideology that the absolute dependence of their economic system on the repressive apparatuses of the state are disavowed. As if American capitalism could function for so much as a single day without the military, the police, and the system of prisons which now eclipses any other nation in the world. There’s something almost Hegelian in the way the grandstanding about liberty hit its peak precisely at the time when mass incarceration became the order of the day. It is similar to the rise of individualism, when globalization had all but ensured that the vast majority of products one uses come from nations the consumer will never visit and produced by people they will never meet almost without exception.

    I believe these contradictions were what piqued my interest in Hobbes as opposed to Locke and Rousseau. Royalist though he was, at least here was someone willing to own up to dependence on the Leviathan, something you were hard pressed to find on either the right or left in contemporary thought. The same goes for Max Weber.

  4. 21st Century Poet May 5, 2014 at 6:32 pm | #

    Reblogged this on 21st Century Theater.

  5. NathanH May 6, 2014 at 5:22 am | #

    At least Prof. Robin knows that Becker wasn’t a “Nobel Prize winning economist”–printing that phrase should be a felony.

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