In 1978, José Piñera became one of the American-educated Chilean economists assigned to craft Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s economic strategy. While the dictator’s military tortured and killed dissidents, his economists marginalized unions and privatized pensions—transforming Chile into a free-market titan. Last week, Pinochet remained under arrest, awaiting possible trial for genocide. But his former secretary of labor and social security was sitting pretty: As the Cato Institute’s point man on privatizing Social Security, he had just scored an invite to a White House policy forum.

Q: You’re working here for the Cato Institute, a place that espouses libertarian values and rejects large-scale government interference in citizens’ lives. And yet you honed your expertise under a military dictatorship. Is that a contradiction?

A: No, on the contrary. We, a group of economists, were able to turn a transitory military government that arose from a civil war into one that moved the country toward a free society—all in terms of undertaking a free-market economic revolution and making a peaceful transition toward a democratic system. So we entered as a group of economists into a government—we didn’t choose the government; it was there because of a civil war.

Q: The Institute for Public Accuracy has been sending out bulletins implying that you should not be the Social Security pointman for Cato. Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs calls you “a vital cog in the Pinochet dictatorship’s ability to implement a draconian labor code.”

A: No, I know nothing [about that]. And I believe in free speech….I believe that you must focus in life if you want to make a difference. I am focusing on Social Security.

Q: Do you think that we are closer than ever here in the United States to embracing the privatization of Social Security?

A: I don’t call it privatization. I call it choice. It confuses the issue to call it privatization….But yes, I believe we are closer to a system of choice.

I feel myself very much in love with American ideas, especially the American ideas of freedom and responsibility. I like your values. Especially your founding fathers. I am a great admirer of your founding fathers….My biggest value is freedom. I would have preferred much more to work for President Jefferson.—Amanda Ripley