Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Chilean miners and capitalism

There's been a bit of pontificating all over the internet regarding the rescuing of the Chilean miners as to whether this represents a victory for capitalism, or a symbol of its failure.

Some, like the Wall Street Journal, have argued that the way in which private companies designed the method and technology that saved the 33 miners trapped at the San Juan mine in Chile, is a symbol of how capitalism, and man's ability to innovate, has triumphed over mother nature's cruelty.

Others, like the HuffPo argue that the lax safety standards at the mine were caused by a desire to profit at the expense of the miners, and thus represents a flaw in capitalism.

There may be a grain of truth in the latter, but certainly plenty of truth in the former - that the triumph of man in rescuing their fellow man through science and innovation is a wonder to behold, and that this represents more of the capitalist ethos than socialism. Expect lots of iridium Oakley sunglasses to be sold over the next year!

Ultimately though, this is not an argument about left vs right, or socialism vs capitalism. It's actually about freedom versus despotism.

Chile is (now) a free and transparent society. It has has mostly social-democrat rule over the last two decades, but is currently run by a capitalist centre-right president. It's stable and prosperous. Regardless of the side of the spectrum you sit on, no one would argue against the present Chile as a transparent democracy. 33 miners were trapped, and at great expense and under the full glare of the world's attention, they conceived a plan, sought external help from those with expertise like NASA, and got to work. The Chilean government did this because it was in their interests to save their boys - they would have lost their mandate from the people had they not tried.

I just wonder, would China, North Korea, Libya, Myanmar or any other despotic nation have given two figs for 33 miners trapped in a hole? Would they have simply ignored the chance of a rescue, and move to reopen the mine to full production? It's hard to imagine anything other than a free and transparent society giving it's full endorsement to the rescue of its men in a deep dark hole.

Contrast that with the despotic nations. There are a number of major industrial accidents in China that cause loss of life or huge environmental pollution. One of the worst environmental disasters of all time, Chernobyl, was famously covered up by the former Soviet Union until Swedish nuclear reactor workers 1000km away had their geiger alarms go off, caused by the drifting radiation from the Ukraine. The USSR typified how despotic nations would rather hide their problems than move to save their people.

Chile, as a prosperous and free nation is able to tolerate the criticisms of mining safety that have come and will continue to come. They will improve the safety of their mines, because their people will demand it. But the democratically elected Pinera government will remain the legitimate voice of the Chilean people, because they rescued their men, and in doing so, showcased the very best of their national soul to the world. Freedom has prospered as a result, and ultimately, that's good for capitalism too.

Update: Pablo at Kiwipolitico has given his thoughts on the Chilean mining rescue. Worth a look.


Pablo said...


Good angle on the event. With mining accidents in China and Ecuador in the last 48 hours, this could set up a good test of your theory (especially because Ecuador is ruled by an indigenous socialist, Rafael Correa, who may or may not be genuinely wedded to democracy).

I wrote a slightly different take of the event over at that covers some additional ground.

Hamish Collins said...

Pablo, thank you. I was taught by people much smarter than me about Chilean politics, the nature of democracy and despotic nations, and behaviours of leaders of such regimes in transition.

Pablo said...


Much thanks for the link. It looks like we share interests, as authoritarian regime transitions was one of the areas I wrote about when in academia (and which I still follow closely). Cheers.

Hamish Collins said...

I see the penny hasn't yet dropped, Pablo.

baxter said...

"here's been a bit of pontificating all over the internet regarding the rescuing of the Chilean miners as to whether this represents a victory for capitalism, or a symbol of its failure."

Personally I regard it as an example of the power of Christian prayer and faith.

ZenTiger said...

Putting all the credit to capitalism is a bit like saying that a hammer and nails builds a house.

It was as much the conscience of the owners and the human spirit (and more cynically, the media scrutiny) that made the decision to wield the tools to rescue the minors.

Man's ingenuity, and the conditions that promote this (free thinking, access to investment money, a thirst for knowledge and a host of other factors) certainly helped to build the mines and provide the technological resources for the rescue, but equally the profit put before safety ethos contributed to the accident.

Low safety standards in places like China indicate that life is cheap, as they have many mining disasters. However, the efforts of individuals and organisations to rescue their fellow man following those disasters are also evident.

Here's a record of rescues in China mines: Rescues in China and an example of a rescue operation: 115 rescued from mine

I think that the more open a society the more likely ethics and morality can be brought to bear in terms of worker safety, but the safety that comes FIRST is more the issue, as at a personal level, irrespective of the left/right debate, human beings will rise to the occasion and try the rescue regardless of the situation that caused it. Any impediment to that is all about greed over-ruling conscience.

ZenTiger said...

..rescue the miners, although maybe one of them was underage?.

Pablo said...


As for the penny dropping, no, it has not. But then again as you must know being academic almost requires that one not have any common sense or personal interactive skills (of which I am clearly Exhibit A in some circles).

I will say, though, that you have been very well taught and actually retained something after graduation. That is a rarity. Good on you.