Milton Friedman: Not quake-proof

The economist wasn't a fan of government building codes, and the collapse of some Chilean highways may prove it

Published March 3, 2010 3:38PM (EST)

Did Milton Friedman's Chicago boys actually make Chile more vulnerable to a massive earthquake?

Writing in response to yesterday's post, "The Chicago Boys and the Chilean Earthquake," reader rfkactionfront points us to an op-ed piece in yesterday's New York Times by Sebastian Gray, a professor of architecture at Universidad Catolica de Chile.

Gray observes that "thousands of contemporary mid- to high-rises in Santiago and Concepcion" whose construction dates back to the 1950s or earlier "were able to withstand the quake with only cosmetic damage, if any." He attributes their sturdiness to "the stringent building codes and responsible building practices that have existed here since the devastating earthquakes of 1939 and 1960, which leveled many older structures."

But what about some newer architecture?

Saddened as I am by the loss of life and landmarks, I am scandalized by the few modern structures that crumbled, those spectacular exceptions you keep seeing on the TV news. The economic bonanza and development frenzy of the last decades have clearly allowed a degree of relaxation of the proud building standards of this country. That's likely why some new urban highway overpasses, built by private companies with government concessions, are now rubble. It's a sobering lesson for the neoliberalism favored for the past 35 years, and a huge economic and cultural setback for the country.

If this is true -- that building code standards and enforcement degenerated after Pinochet took power -- you can bet we are going to hear more about it from enterprising Chilean reporters in the not too distant future. If any readers run into related news, please let me know.

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman chimes in with his own thoughts about just how much credit we should give radical free market reforms for Chilean economic growth, and digs up a 1992 interview with Milton Friedman in which he makes clear his distaste for government mandated building codes, specifically calling them out as a type of state requirement that "impose costs that you might not privately want to engage in."

Interestingly, people tend to think differently about such topics after sifting through the rubble.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Chile Earthquake Economics How The World Works Latin America Natural Disasters