The Chilean Way: A Look at Social Democracy in the 21st Century

By Lagos, Ricardo | Harvard International Review, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

The Chilean Way: A Look at Social Democracy in the 21st Century


Lagos, Ricardo, Harvard International Review


Over the past 20 years, Chile has established a successful social democracy in which public policies complement and temper market forces. Economic growth and targeted social policies have led to a major reduction in poverty, while other reforms have improved the judicial system and expanded cultural liberties.

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This article offers a reflection on the construction of Chilean social democracy and the country's accomplishments over the past two decades. A contrast is drawn between social democracy--in which public policies are designed in accordance with citizens' aspirations to both complement and temper market forces--and neoliberal democracy--in which die market is prioritized above all and citizens arc viewed primarily as consumers. Social democracy in Chile has entailed the implementation of well-targeted social policies in the areas of income support, education, housing, pensions, and health care, along with economic growth, which have led to an important reduction in poverty. Advances have also been made toward improving the judicial system and expanding cultural liberties.

Social Democracy

The first critical aspect of social democracy is the construction of a democratic political system. In Chile, the 17 years of dictatorship under Augustin Pinochet represented an interruption of a democratic system with origins in the 19th century. Democracy in the 19th century of course placed strong restrictions on the concept of citizenship due to literacy requirements and the exclusion of women. However, Chile's prior democratic roots facilitated the construction of a well-functioning, modern democratic regime after the end of the Pinochet dictatorship. Chile's transition back to democracy arose out of a civilized and pacifist opposition to the dictatorship, organized around the "NO" campaign in the 1988 plebiscite that decided whether or not Pinochet would continue in power Given the success of the "NO" campaign and the fact that the citizenry had organized to place trained observers in every polling booth, the dictator was left with no other option but to acknowledge his electoral defeat.

The policies that were enacted in Chile after the reinstatement of democracy rested on four essential pillars: political reform, economic growth, well-focused social policies, and the expansion of cultural liberties. The implementation of successful policies in these four areas required that citizens properly define the type of society in which they aspired to live.

Accordingly, die defining characteristic of social democracy in the 21th century is that the citizenry, not the market, defines the basic characteristics of society. In neoliberal democracies, society is defined in terms of the market, on the basis of consumers' acquisitive power. This type of society reproduces the inequities of the market, since consumers with greater acquisitive power wield more influence. However, when a society is defined by citizenship, everyone is equal; a vote does not depend on capacity for consumption. Ever>'one has equal rights and obligations. It is the will of the majority, not the interests of those with the most resources, that defines public policies. Social democracy of the 21th century, in which the citizen plays a fundamental role, requires clear rules through which conflicts or different visions among the citizenry can be resolved. These rules, embedded in the constitution, allow society to adjudicate among a diversity of opinions and to ascertain the views of the majority, which is the essence of democracy.

The modern world is characterized by tensions between the market and the state. In neoliberal democracies, society is structured by market values. Public policies are viewed as unnecessary or treated as secondary in importance, because it is believed that die spontaneous, unregulated behavior of the market should determine the type of society that will emerge. …

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The Chilean Way: A Look at Social Democracy in the 21st Century
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