The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, by Naomi Klein, New York: Metropolitan Books, 576 pages, $28.
In the future, if you tell a student or a journalist that you favor free markets and limited government, there is a risk that they will ask you why you support dictatorships, torture, and corporate welfare. The reason for the confusion will be Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.
In a very short time, the book has become a 21st-century bible for anticapitalists. It has also drawn praise from mainstream reviewers: "There are very few books that really help us understand the present," gushed The Guardian. "The Shock Doctrine is one of those books." Writing in The New York Times, the Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz called it "a rich description of the political machinations required to force unsavory economic policies on resisting countries."
Klein's basic argument is that economic liberalization is so unpopular that it can only win through deception or coercion. In particular, it relies on crises. During a natural disaster, a war, or a military coup, people are disoriented, confused, and preoccupied with their own immediate survival, allowing regimes to liberalize trade, to privatize, and to reduce public spending with little opposition. According to Klein, "neoliberal" economists have welcomed Hurricane Katrina, the Southeast Asian tsunami, the Iraq war, and the South American military coups of the 1970s as opportunities to introduce radical free market policies. The chief villain in her story is Milton Friedman, the economist who did more than anyone in the 20th century to popularize free market ideas.
To make her case, Klein exaggerates the market reforms in question, often ignoring central events and rewriting chronologies. She confuses libertarianism with the quite different concepts of corporatism and neoconservatism. And she subjects Milton Friedman to one of the most malevolent distortions of a thinker's ideas in recent history.
Exhibit A against Friedman is a quote from what Klein calls "one of his most influential essays": "Only a crisis-actual or perceived-produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable." This, says Klein, is "the shock doctrine." In a not-very-subtle short film based on the book, the quote appears over images of prisoners being tortured.
|Click above to watch Johan Norberg discuss the The Shock Doctrine and the defaming of Milton Friedman.|
The quote is not, in fact, from one of Friedman's most influential essays; it's from a very brief introduction to a reprint of his book Capitalism and Freedom. And it is not a rationale for welcoming disasters; it's about the uncontroversial fact that people change their minds when the old ways seem to fail. Friedman provides a telling example, which Klein neglects to quote: Young Americans joined him in opposing the military draft after the Vietnam War forced them to risk their lives on another continent.
She also distorts other Friedman quotes to support her case. She pretends that Friedman's concept of "the tyranny of the status quo" refers the tyranny of voters, and that he believed crises were needed to bypass the democratic process. But for Friedman, the tyranny was something entirely different: an iron triangle of politicians, bureaucrats, and specialinterest groups (businesses, for example) that deceive voters.
Discussing Friedman's proposal to reduce inflation through sweeping market reforms, Klein writes, "Friedman predicted that the speed, suddenness and scope of the economic shifts would provoke psychological reactions in the public that ‘facilitate the adjustment.' " This gives the impression that Friedman wanted to disorient people through pain in order to push through his reforms. But the quote in its entirety shows that Friedman had something very different in mind. If a government chooses to attack inflation in this way, he wrote, "it should be announced publicly in great detail....The more fully the public is informed, the more will its reactions facilitate the adjustment." In other words, if voters are not ignorant and not disoriented, but fully informed of the reform steps, they will facilitate the adjustment by changing their saving, consuming, and bargaining behavior. Friedman's view was the opposite of what Klein claims.
Not content to misrepresent Friedman's opinions, Klein blames him for various crimes committed around the world. Most notably, she links him to Augusto Pinochet's brutal military dictatorship in Chile in the 1970s, writing that Friedman acted as "adviser to the Chilean dictator."
In fact, Friedman never worked as an adviser to, and never accepted a penny from, the Chilean regime. He even turned down two honorary degrees from Chilean universities that received government funding, because he did not want to be seen as endorsing a dictatorship he considered "terrible" and "despicable." He did spend six days in Chile in March 1975 to give public lectures, at the invitation of a private foundation. When he was there he met with Pinochet for about 45 minutes and wrote him a letter afterward, arguing for a plan to end hyperinflation and liberalize the economy. He gave the same kind of advice to communist dictatorships as well, including the Soviet Union, China, and Yugoslavia.
Klein twists this relationship beyond recognition, claiming Pinochet's 1973 coup was executed to allow free market economists ("the Chicago Boys," as the economists from Friedman's University of Chicago were called) to enact their reforms. This false link is crucial for giving the impression that the Friedmanites have blood on their hands, since the most violent period of the regime came right after the coup. But Friedman's visit, which Klein claims started the real transformation, came two years later. Klein insists on having it both ways.
The reality was that Chile's military officials were initially in charge of the economy. They were corporatist and paternalist, and they opposed the Chicago Boys' ideas. The air force controlled social policy, for example, and it blocked market reforms until 1979. It wasn't until this approach led to runaway inflation that Pinochet belatedly threw his weight behind liberalization and gave civilians ministerial positions. Their success in fighting inflation impressed Pinochet, so they were given a larger role.
Klein could have used the real chronology to attack Friedman for visiting a dictatorship that tortured its opponents-a commonly heard criticism of the economist-but that's not enough for her. To find support for her central thesis that economic liberalism requires violence, she has to make it look like torture and violence were the direct outcome of Friedman's ideas.