Chile Slides Toward Constitutional Suicide

After more than 10 months at work, Chile’s constitutional convention recently finished a draft of what it hopes will soon become the highest law in the land. The document removes the certainty of personal choice—including in healthcare, pensions and education—weakens property rights, increases the role of the state in the economy and moves the country away from representative democracy and toward mob rule.

To be promulgated, it must be approved by a majority of voters in a national referendum set for Sept. 4. Today that’s far from certain. Polls indicate that public sentiment for rejecting the draft constitution has climbed since late March. In a May 13 survey by the Chilean polling company Cadem, 46% of respondents said they plan to vote against the draft while 38% said they would vote in favor of it. Sixteen percent did not respond or were undecided.

This gives hope to liberty lovers and no small number of center-left moderates that Chile may still pull back from the national suicide that the document implies. If the “no” campaign fails, the high-performing Chilean economy of the past three decades could be headed to a level of mediocrity similar to that of its neighbors Bolivia and Argentina.

How Chile found itself on this ledge and about to jump can seem a head-scratcher. According to Chile’s central bank, from 1989-2019 the economy grew at an average annual rate of 4.6%. By 2017 the poverty rate had fallen to 8.6% from nearly 70% in 1990, according to government and U.N. data.

The economy performed poorly during Socialist President

Michelle Bachelet’s

second (nonconsecutive) term (2014-18). Her successor was President

Sebastián Piñera,

who took office for a second time in 2018. In October 2019 terrorists attacked civilian targets. Santiago’s subways and churches across the country were set ablaze. Street protests calling for change ensued. Mr. Piñera eventually agreed to a national plebiscite on whether the country needed a new constitution. It was held in October 2020.

Chile’s entrepreneurial class opposed a new constitution. But once the project was approved, the center-right believed it could win a blocking minority—a third plus one—of representatives to the convention and thereby restrain radicalism.

They were wrong. Many extreme, single-issue candidates running as independents came together to get on the proportional-representation ballot. Seventeen seats were set aside for indigenous people.

Social unrest was still lingering in May 2021 when the election for the convention representatives was held. The Covid-19 pandemic, with mandatory quarantines in many cities, added to youth anger against the establishment that the hard left had been cultivating for years. With a lower risk of serious illness from the virus, they voted in greater numbers than the over-30 crowd.

When the smoke cleared, Chile’s communists and various other far-left ideologues had won power inside the convention. Some transactional socialists, looking out for their own interests, agreed to collaborate. With the two-thirds majority needed to pass each article, they staked out militant positions because they could.

One red flag is the length of the document. The U.S. Constitution has been successful, in large part, because it constrains government power. Conversely, turning a constitution into a laundry list that mistakes entitlements for rights, and promises to guarantee those rights by empowering the state, is a ticket to poverty and tyranny.

Yet this is the road the convention has gone down. According to the Santiago-based think-tank Center for Public Studies, the Chilean draft has 49,637 words and 499 articles. This outdoes—and not in a good way—some of the leading authoritarian basket-cases in the region. Venezuela’s constitution only has 34,237 words and 350 articles. Bolivia’s has 38,353 words and 411 articles. Chile’s draft even beats Ecuador, which has 49,523 words and 444 articles.

If the draft constitution becomes law, Chileans might no longer be able to use public money for private education. This would meet the bolshevik goal of denying middle-class children access to nongovernment schools, which for many is only possible because their parents combine family savings with public vouchers to pay tuition fees. Options in healthcare will be curtailed as well as water rights necessary for mining and agriculture.

A world-class pension system, which allows workers to save in private accounts, is not protected. The new law establishes a state-run system. The document doesn’t say what will happen to savings already accumulated. But it doesn’t explicitly defend the property right and funds may not be heritable.

The ambiguity throughout the draft is likely no accident. It will allow the unicameral legislature to decide what happens to private savings and other individual freedoms. The same goes for what is a “just” price in an expropriation of land claimed by indigenous activists. Good luck running a country with rules like that.

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