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The Roots of Chile’s Malaise

SANTIAGO – Margaret Thatcher famously once said that “there is no such thing as society.” Today, the people of Chile are showing just how wrong she was.

For more than a year, young Chileans have been taking to the streets to protest. Many foreign observers have declared themselves surprised. Why would the citizens of a successful emerging country be so upset? What could they be upset about?

Chile’s student-led protest movement has generated much re-thinking within the country.  Intellectuals of the old left, pointing to persistently high income inequality, have argued that the economic gains made in the 22 years since the return of democracy were more illusory than real. In this view, Chile’s economic model has failed its citizens and is in the process of “collapsing.”

Defenders of Chile’s current rightist government, pointing to ongoing economic growth and unemployment under 7%, have argued that there is no deep reason for discontent. In this view, if the government stays the course and the economy keeps growing, the malaise will pass.

Recent survey data and a detailed study by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) suggest that both of these oversimplified views are mistaken.

In public-opinion polls, Chileans declare themselves to be quite happy, and say that they live much better now than they did a decade or a generation ago. They also overwhelmingly claim that education and hard work are the ways to get ahead in life. And many poorer citizens report growing satisfaction with the health care and pensions to which they have access. This is hardly the stuff of a country whose development model is on the verge of “collapse.”

But, while Chileans are quite happy with their own lives, they are upset with the society in which they live. Respondents report that they are increasingly resentful of economic inequality and social segregation. They do not trust politicians and political parties, judges, captains of industry, or even members of the clergy.

Many Chilean parents send their children to private schools, but polls report a growing demand for better public schools, which they value as a place where common values are forged among children of different backgrounds. Many are happy about growing home ownership, but are unhappy about the scarcity of public spaces – safe streets, parks, arts facilities, and community centers – where they can come into contact with their fellow citizens.

This is where Thatcher’s famous statement has proven to be so wrong: there is such a thing as society, and the quality of interactions within it matter profoundly for people’s satisfaction with their lives.

Uncertainty and fear are two reasons why many middle-class Chileans report being unhappy about their society. Making it into the middle class requires decades of hard work, but it can all come to naught as a result of an accident, an illness in the family, or the loss of a job. Chile’s social insurance system, these citizens are saying, is insufficiently social and does not provide enough insurance.

The other key source of malaise, the UNDP study reports, is the persistence of discrimination and mistreatment. Too many people report being mistreated on account of their gender, race, socioeconomic status, and even physical appearance. Discrimination in the labor market is widespread. Plum jobs, middle-class citizens report, seem to be set aside for people with certain last names, from certain neighborhoods, or from certain schools.

So the issue is not that people are turning against a system that promises a better life for those willing to work hard and get a better education. Far from it. People are upset that – because of prejudice and abuse – the system is failing to deliver what it promises, even to people with many years of schooling who exert themselves day in and day out.

This much is clear to those of us who are listening to what the citizens of Chile are saying. Traditional Chilean politicians, however, do not seem to be doing much listening. Their infighting continues to upset people, while most of their policy proposals have little to do with the problems that ordinary citizens face. For the sake of Chile’s future, that will have to change.