December 17, 2006

Justifying General Augusto Pinochet: The Triumph of Ends over Means


Over the last couple of days, there have been many attacks and defences mounted of General Pinochet, the dictatorial ruler of Chile in the seventies and eighties. Pinochet has in recent times been both the object of hatred and the object of laudatory notices. In Britain of course, his defenders hark both to a national moment as well as an international one- the Political Umpire in his recent post on the subject expresses my views on the matter impecably- that any alliance with a dictator is merely an alliance of temporary fortune. To put it in Palmerstonian terms- the interests of democracies are eternal, their dictatorial allies are ephemeral.

There is though a more international defence of Pinochet and his like, amongst whom Salazar, Franco and possibly now Putin or Musharref might be included. The defence which says that though they had murdered and tortured their populations, though they were tyrants that abused and withheld freedom, the outcome of their policies was good for the countries concerned. They kept the lid on unrest by dubious practices and methods of dictatorship- Pinochet stopped Allende if the price was the abolition of democracy, the deaths of thousands of Chileans and the torture of thousands more then it was a price worth paying.

There are two ways of attacking this question. The first comes in a notable argument in the Weekly Standard, which argues that the counterfactual history of disaster is simply untrue. We don't know what Chile would have looked like without Pinochet. We also to be honest should not excuse Pinochet's crimes by saying that there were other criminals around- if I murder your mother it doesn't really deal with my guilt if I tell you that she wasn't very nice really and anyway that there is a serial killer down the road. It doesn't make it any better if I tell you that you are psychologically better off for the murder- the crime remains a crime.

What this ultimately comes down to though is a second more important distinction and that is that if we are democrats, we are democrats first and partisans second. We beleive in democracy before we beleive in our own policy prescriptions. Therefore we would not wish for a coup to bring in with torture and murder, our own preferences- indeed we would count that to be worse than a democratically elected government which we opposed. People have tried to codify this in conventions of human rights, and in fundamental laws since the very early development of constitutional government- and this adherence to a process over an outcome is what is really aimed at. The process we are describing is a process of corporate decision making- democracy is about a choice made by an electorate for or against a government (in most systems that ends up being a choice of who to throw out not who to put in) and the key part, something that Francis Fukuyama in his awful book about the End of History captured, is that it involves a recognition of the autonomy of other individuals to decide things for themselves. Democracy ultimately is about, that horrendous word, respect- respect for the right of others to make their own decisions.

If you go outside the process, like some of Pinochet or Putin's spokesmen seek to do, in search of an outcome, what you actually do is deny the autonomy and the humanity of those that oppose you. (Of course you may be forced to do so if they go outside of the process themselves: but that ultimately is a justification more often abused than rightly used). Pinochet's supporters therefore in search of short term policy goals and even medium term prosperity, undervalue the right of every human being to be respected as an agent that can make its own decisions- the forcing of a society into a particular mould is not in the view of this blogger a sensible or a right way of proceeding with politics. The death of Pinochet should be greeted by all with glee that a tyrant has fallen.

7 comments:

james higham said...

...the outcome of their policies was good for the countries concerned...

Like Hitler's initial policies were good for unemployment?

Gracchi said...

Its an argument often made about Pinochet that he introduced capitalism into Chile- whether its right or not someone with better understandings of Chile would have to say than me.

I'm not as worried by the truth of the argument- ie whether Pinochet did improve things as by the implication that if he did that would make his tyranny acceptable. I don't think it would for the reasons given above.

james higham said...

Of course your point stands - the ends don't justify the means.

Liz said...

Pretty well said. If one is a capitalist first and a democrat second it would not be any violation of principle on their part. It is just pure and utter trash when people when people claim that Pinochet reintroduced 'democracy' (not meaning democracy but really meaning something else - capitalism) as Allende was not 'democratic'. Capitalism is not similtaneous necessarily with democracy, but the right kid themselves that it is.

Funny but I have heard violations of human rights in the early Soviet Union (1918-mid 20s) defended by Trotskyists as well as Stalinists on the far left - that such measures were for the best, the end justified the means, etc, to prevent the intoroduction of capitalism and to ensure socialism. As communism eventually collapsed anyway history does not absolve this argument - but my main point is that it reads as a mirror image of the arguments used by the right to defend Pinny.

Gracchi said...

Cheers Liz- I hadn't seen your post on Pinochet when I read this but I think you've got the falseness of the counter factual argument well there too.

Political Umpire said...

23Thanks as ever G. for the kind words and for the link.

I think Liz seems to know more about the facts of Chile than others - certainly I - and so I don't want to challenge that. But the general idea about the benign, or overall beneficial, dictator is an interesting one.

A certain recently deposed chap in the Middle East had a dismal history during his years in power, yet since his fall the situation in his country has become considerably worse. One point about Saddam, however, is that his worst days were behind him by 2003; he certainly wasn't in a position to any more wars of aggression, and there was de facto Kurdish autonomy in the North. And in any event, it isn't a defence of Saddam to say that the present situation is worse; that would be like arguing that the Yorkshire Ripper was worse than the Suffolk murderer because he killed a few more people. One one crude utilitarian view he might indeed have been worse, but it's not much of an endorsement of the Suffolk killer.

In other words, Pinochet's crimes (if they were as reported) aren't mitigated either by economic or social reforms, nor by assistance of Britain in the Falklands' war. He was rightly sent to face trial, and it's a shame he never did.

The problem of never knowing what might have been is the primary obstacle in pre-emptive action. The US tried to justify the invasion of Iraq because of what might have been. Looking back we can say it would scarcely have been worse than what turned out. That's an easy case, because in my view the evidence was clear that Saddam had ceased to be a threat to the West and he kept a lid on the sort of religious fundamentalist terrorists of which the West is so concerned.

In other circumstances it can be more tricky. Suppose a large Western force had moved into Rwanda in early 1994 and ruled the place with an iron fist, leading to all kinds of problems. Who would have believed that they had saved the deaths of over a million? (Some don't believe that many died anyway). Suppose Germany had been invaded in 1936 because of breaches of VErsailles and the harassment of the Czechs, and a viscous insurgency had started followed by all manner of international problems. Would anyone have quite imagined the disaster that was averted?

Gracchi said...

Cheers Umpire- a typically acute comment. I do like you get very nervous about the counterfactual argument and its place in politics and history. Obviously to some extent its inescapable but it is ultimately unverifiable. The Hobbesian argument for tyranny- ie that it preserves a peace even if it is a peace of silence- has always seemed to me the strongest argument for tyrants- there is also the one possibly that operates in Iraq today- the lines of Byron come to mind, about the tyrant Mithradites "But then at least our tyrants were still our countrymen" (almost certainly I've misquoted but I don't have the Isles of Greece to hand). Interesting comment cheers for that- I agree with what you've said.