Eduardo Frei: Communitarianism In Action

Eduardo Frei Montalva, former President of Chile. Attribution: Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional, licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY 3.0 CL)

For the past half-century, the West has lived in a liberal age. Whether left or right-wing, Democratic or Republican, Labour or Conservative, successive governments have made it their mission to free individuals from the shackles of traditional social, economic, cultural and political structures. Whether welfare payments have been increased or decreased, taxes raised or lowered, the justification is usually the advancement of individual liberty. What it means to be free is contested, rather than the merits of freedom versus other goods.

The prioritisation of this liberty over any teleology sets liberalism apart from other ideologies. Instead of pre-supposing a particular conception of the good life, liberalism seeks to give everybody the freedom to pursue their full measure of happiness. The notion of the common good is treated with disdain and fear. According to Ayn Rand, it represents “the good of some men taking precedence over the good of others, with those others consigned to the status of sacrificial animals".

But in recent years, liberalism has been challenged. Populists from Donald Trump to Matteo Salvini have rocked the democratic order. In response to these challenges, mainstream politicians have begun to ditch certain liberal concepts. Kier Starmer’s new slogan, “Prosperity, Security, Respect”, has sought to broaden the political discourse beyond freedom. The Conservative think-tank Onward has called for a new politics to address insecurities and promote belonging. In their words, voters are craving “protection from the accelerating headwinds of globalisation and social reform, not yet greater exposure to the howling gales of changes”.

In November 2019, American Senator Marco Rubio - previously a fairly orthodox republican and market-liberal - gave a speech at the Catholic University of America where he called for “common good capitalism”. He slammed the American economy for leaving “millions of people unable to find dignified work and feeling forgotten, ignored and behind”. Rubio’s argument draws on Catholic social teaching; at several points, he quotes Pope Leo XIII, who believed the ultimate goal of any society was the improvement of its citizens and the creation of conditions by which they could live a dignified life.

Another devotee of Leo XIII is the former President of Chile, Eduardo Frei Montalva. Frei was born in Santiago in 1911 and went on to found the Falange Nacional (despite what the name suggests, it bore no allegiance to Franco), which would eventually morph into the Christian-Democratic Party of Chile. His politics drew heavily on Catholic social teaching. As theologian Thomas Massaro writes, this involves “carefully balancing the goods of the individual and of human society”[1]. According to this view, individuals hold innate worth, and resources should be distributed to allow all people to live in a manner commensurate with that worth. Yet this cannot be equated to individualism; rights are paired with duties, for without those duties, human dignity itself can neither be achieved nor sustained. Unlike modern liberalism, Catholic social teaching embraces the idea of the common good.

For Frei society was more than just an aggregation of individuals. Its true value lay in the habits, obligations and solidarity that built up over time. In this respect, his inherent conservatism is obvious and reminiscent of Burke. Although, unlike Burke, Frei believed the state could play a critical top-down role in instigating and promoting community. In fact, his program, Promocion Popular, used public funds to create 20,000 civil society organisations, including residents committees, mothers centre’s and sports teams [2].

Upon assuming office in 1964, Frei was confronted by a series of longstanding socio-economic problems. Prominent among these was an unjust colonial-era land settlement. Millions owned tiny holdings while a small number of wealthy individuals held vast and often unused estates. Poverty was rife and hundreds of thousands lived in the vast shantytowns that ringed major cities. Chile’s education system left millions illiterate and granted opportunities to only a select few; just 60% of children reached their second year of primary school, while 20% reached secondary school, and only 0.2% would graduate [3].

Over six years, Frei’s government would reform Chile. A new progressive income-tax funded an increase in the salaries of long-neglected public employees and the construction of 260,000 new homes [4]. Schooling witnessed the biggest improvements; secondary and university education grew by over 100% and 3000 new schools were built [5].

Yet change was not, nor could it have been, total. Poverty, slum housing and illiteracy persisted. Land reform fell below expectations; roughly one-fifth of properties liable to takeover were expropriated [6]. As historian Brian Loveman argues, reforms “improve[d] the lives of thousands, but they failed to solve the fundamental issues” at stake [7].

To make matters worse, Frei showed little tolerance for protesters, even publicly defending police officers who fired on peaceful demonstrators. Such brutality incited further violence, and by the late 1960s, Chile was chaotic and becoming harder to govern. Intra-party divisions weakened Frei’s leadership and in 1969 a military coup was even rumoured. Frei did not stand for re-election in the 1970s. His fellow Christian Democrat, Radomiro Tomic, did, however, coming in 3rd place with 28% of the vote.

So how should we assess Frei today? Clearly, his presidency was not an overwhelming success. While Chile was a better place by 1970 than it had been in 1964, his promise of a ‘revolution in liberty’ was never realised, nor was his goal of ensuring all individuals lived a life commensurate with their innate worth.

But there is more to Frei than his presidency. His government provides an example of genuine ‘common good’ politics. He did not abandon the notion of freedom, but rather he sought to place it within a communal framework that encompassed dignity, purpose and belonging. No region or people has a monopoly on good ideas. As we in the west seek to reform our politics to better balance such goods, we should be willing to look to the rest of the world for guidance.

Too often in politics, those who advocate for social justice also seek to dismantle our communal identities. They discredit religion and the nation-state. They erode the intangible forces that give meaning to our lives and help build trust between one another. They forgot that society is more than a collection of autonomous beings, undermining the collective identities that make collective institutions possible. Without the feeling of commonality that shared identities provide, it is far harder to get people to put aside their narrow short term interests in pursuit of the common good. In contrast, Frei skilfully combined a love of tradition and community with a yearning for economic justice.

Moreover, Frei was not averse to discussing politics in moral, and even spiritual terms. He spoke movingly of Chile’s 170 years of Republican life and the obligations this history imposed upon those who would seek to govern. In 1980, when leading popular opposition to the Pinochet regime, he decried military rule as “anti-history” [8]. “Has not the loss of liberty been a dramatic lesson?” he asked.

Today, technocracy, and the belief in liberal neutrality, has hollowed out our public discourse. Our politicians have lost the ability to inspire the better angels of our nature: to speak to our conscience and our sense of moral decency. In such a world, Frei can serve as an example of political rhetoric done right. Frei was not perfect. In fact, he can be criticised on multiple fronts. But his brand of communitarian politics, deeply rooted in the idea that all deserve dignity, freedom, purpose and respect, is one that is highly relevant to the modern-day. It should serve as an inspiration to us all.

Other Sources

[1] MASSARO, THOMAS J. United States Welfare Policy: A Catholic Response. Georgetown University Press, 2007.

[2][4][6] Collier, S. & Sater, W.F., 2004. A History of Chile, 1808–2002 / Simon Collier, William F. Sater. 2nd ed.,

[3] Silvert, Reissman & Reissman, Leonard, 1976. Education, class, and nation: the experiences of Chile and Venezuela / Kalman H. Silvert, Leonard Reissman., New York: Elsevier.

[5] Rector, J.L., 2005. The history of Chile / John L. Rector., New York; Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

[7] Loveman, B., 1979. Chile: the legacy of Hispanic capitalism / Brian Loveman, New York: Oxford University Press.

[8] Stern, S.J., 2006. Battling for hearts and minds: memory struggles in Pinochet's Chile, 1973-1988 / Steve J. Stern., Durham, N.C.; London: Duke University Press. 171-174

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