Milton and Augusto: Can We Have an Efficient Economy AND Civil Liberties?

by Jonathan Peterson*


Jonathan Peterson.

On September 16, I had the opportunity to see Robert Reich’s play Milton and Augusto, which gives one account of the mysterious meeting between Milton Friedman and August Pinochet right after the fall of the government of Salvador Allende in 1973. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the military takeover, making its timing impeccable.

The play begins with video of the overthrow, reminding us of how it looked for people who were in the capital that day. To see military jets flying overhead launching missiles at La Moneda, the presidential palace, must have been one of the most shocking sights imaginable, regardless of your feelings towards Allende. The play then begins in the recently rebuilt, albeit structurally unsound, office buildings of the presidential palace.

As soon as the play begins, we feel the awkwardness of this potential interaction. Friedman’s unquestioned punctuality juxtaposed with Pinochet’s self-centered conception of time. Why worry about being late for your next lecture when you are with the leader of Chile? While the contrasting character traits of Pinochet and Friedman are what give this play levity, it is their shared sense of liberalism that provides the moral dilemma presented by the play. Friedman is the long-standing icon of economic liberalism, encouraging a laissez-faire economy that leaves everything in control of an “invisible hand.” Reich’s play encourages us to think of Pinochet in the same way. He wanted to be the not-so-invisible hand paternalistically ruling over the Chilean state and people. He wanted to be so in control that his role was unquestioned. The play presents Pinochet as the babbling supporter of Friedman’s economic liberalism because of what it provides him, control over the political liberties of the Chilean people. Pinochet asks Friedman whether it is possible to have economic liberalism without strong control over political rights. Or, are the two concepts of liberalism mutually exclusive?

Promotional image from the reading.

I certainly do not want to prevent the reader from enjoying the playwright’s take on how this meeting concluded, but suffice it is to say that a suitable response to this question of economic liberties versus political liberties was never truly answered by either character. We are left with the unsatisfying feeling of considering our own relationships with the current economic system and infringement on our political rights.

We leave this play to return to the ongoing debate over slow economic recovery and NSA surveillance. While Milton and Augusto uses the more extreme example of Chile under Pinochet, I do not see the message as being foreign to 21st century United States reality. We are living in a world of sky-rocketing stock market prices and stagnant real incomes. We are living in a world where political rights in the U.S. and abroad are infringed upon on a regular basis. Can we have the economic system that is most efficient and a political system that protects basic liberties and rights? These are questions that Reich’s play provokes. They are also questions that no one person can answer alone. They will be the questions that will define the direction that governments and economies will take, and how the general population will be taken along for the ride.

Jonathan Peterson is a first-year public policy student at the Goldman School of Public Policy. 

*Reposted with the permission of the PolicyMatters Online Journal

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