Latin American Politics & Society 46.2 (2004) 172-176
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Glen Biglaiser, Guardians of the Nation? Economists, Generals, and Economic Reform in Latin America. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002. Tables, figures, notes, bibliography, index, 251 pp.; hardcover $45, paperback $23.50.
During the second half of the twentieth century, military political action in South America led to decisionmaking dilemmas with an immediacy that leaders of military governments had never before confronted. Economies were in such critical condition that generals and admirals knew they had to make changes. Because military leaders are traditionally inexperienced in the theoretical and applied labyrinths of the "dismal science," the problems they dealt with in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Uruguay from the 1960s until the end of the Cold War were turned over to civilian experts.
The central question of this book is why military "regimes" adopted the economic policies they did. Never mind the casual use of "regime" (most were governments at best; only Peru 1968-75 would qualify as a true regime); this is much more than a point to be mooted by social scientists and historians interested in military involvement in politics or economic policymaking or, in this case, both. It is a matter with implications for the future. Each of the countries Biglaiser treats experienced clashes between advocates of neoliberal and statist economic theories. Each of these countries bears the marks of these clashes today. The leaders of each may have to grapple with unpleasant consequences in the short and long terms.
When it comes to economics, most military leaders in South America are statists. They favor state participation in policymaking and execution, in planning and development. This is because the state there has yet to reach the level of institutional strength and infrastructural sophistication to assure national sovereignty, something already achieved in the rest of the Atlantic world, wherein are the countries--and the armed forces--South Americans have striven to emulate. To military leaders, their profession and the state are inseparable.
Over the course of the twentieth century, during which political and economic systems developed, the ideational literature of the military profession exhibited convictions that the military was the purest image [End Page 172] of the state, that it represented the most worthy representative of the nation. These are convictions South Americans may have had in the nineteenth century, and the European-inspired professionalization process spanning the decades 1890-1940 made them even stronger. Military ideational literature still reveals significant adherence to statism and to the transcendent nature of the nation-state. This is at present in stark contrast to that which has obtained in much of the Atlantic world. So, then, why did South American military leaders tolerate neoliberalism, privatization, diminution of the state's role, and the like?
The answer for Biglaiser lies in military rulers' desire for survival amid sea changes in transnational and domestic economies. Early on he analogizes Platonist references to lead his readers--very cautiously this is done--to see the military as "guardians," economists as "philosophers," and even military leaders as would-be "kings." Philosophers, we know from the Republic, are supposed to have been free from personal and sectoral interests, thus particularly qualified to govern for the common good. Rulers must be "the best of the guardians," agree Socrates and Glaucon (Republic, Book III, 412, c-d). The best rulers embrace philosophy or look to philosophers to guide their decisionmaking actions. They work for what is best for all those they rule. The Platonist ideal, conceived two-and-a-half millennia ago for the Greek city-state, is a hard one to apply to republican South America. But the analogy is nevertheless intriguing, and it makes for a good book.
In 183 pages of text there are no wasted words in well-documented discussions of policy choices, appointments, neoliberal economics, policy formulation, privatization, the profession of economics, and the role of ideas in South America. The principal shortcoming--lack of understanding of certain qualities of the military profession--will fail both to deter...