Still thinking about the Olympics

Rio Olympics are close to the end, and so far it has been a wonderful time for Brazilian athletes: the country is scoring 15 total in the medal table, quite high in its historical record. Brazil’s first Olympic medal in 2016 was won by Felipe Wu right in the first day of competition: silver in Shooting, 10m Air Pistol Men. Wu was followed by Rafaela Lopes Silva, who won gold in Judo, Women -57 kg, and then by Mayra Aguiar, who won bronze, also in Judo, Women -78 kg. Rafael Silva won another bronze for Brazil in Judo, Men +100 kg, and then Arthur Mariano won still another bronze, this time in Gymnastics Artistic, Men’s Floor Exercise. Diego Hypolito won silver in the same competition. On the tenth day of competition Poliana Okimoto won Bronze in Marathon Swimming, Women’s 10km and Arthur Zanetti won Silver in Gymnastics Artistic, Men’s Rings. The next day, Thiago Braz da Silva surprised everyone by beating favorite French Renaud Lanillenie and winning gold in Athletics, Men’s Pole Vault.

In the last few days other athletes followed the ones mentioned in this opening paragraph, but I limit the text to them for a reason: one highlight of these first 9 Brazilian medalists is that, with the exception of Hypolito, all of them are in the military, and some of my friends on what is considered “the right” in the Brazilian political spectrum are using this information to poke (in good spirit) my friends on the left. On the other hand, my friends on the left highlight that many of the Brazilian medalists also have in common coming from very poor backgrounds, and finding in government social programs the chance to become professional athletes. I want to be careful to say that both are wrong and I want to explain why (I hope I will still have some friends after this). Basically both ignore the concept of opportunity cost.

The concept of opportunity cost postulates that spending in one direction means not spending in another. In other words, that every choice comes with the cost of forgoing the next best alternative. It was developed in all but name by 19th century French economist Frédéric Bastiat in the parable of the broken window (also known as the broken window fallacy or glazier’s fallacy) that appeared in his 1850 essay Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas (That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Not Seen). The parable goes somewhat like this: a boy breaks a window. The window owner gets upset, but someone tries to comfort him by saying that this will give the window manufacturer the opportunity to work. In the end, the economy wins. Bastiat shows that this is a fallacy: the money spent in a new window could have been spent in another way, say, with new shoes. The world would have new shoes and still have a window, but now the world has a new window and no shoes. Bastiat proceeds to show the law of unintended consequences, or how our actions can affect the economy in ways that are “unseen” or ignored, and also to apply the concept to several areas of public policy. Two of these happen to be military expenditure and “Theatres, Fine Arts.”

Concerning military expenditure, Bastiat argues that spending money in order to defend the country against foreign aggressors can be a good investment, but that any money that goes beyond this necessity would have been better spent in other way. This argument goes against Bastiat’s contemporaries who argued that money spent on the military had the benefit of creating jobs, even if defense was not a real necessity. Bastiat’s conclusion is that if the money was left with the taxpayer, this person would find ways to spend that would create more and better jobs. Applying to current events, if Brazil is spending money in the military in order to protect its borders, this is a good investment. If instead it is spending money in the military in order to get Olympic medals, the money should be spent elsewhere.

Bastiat lived before modern Olympic Games, so he has nothing directly to say public spending in this kind of event, but I guess that what he says about “Theatres, Fine Arts” also applies here. Some of his contemporaries defended that the government should invest in Theatres and Fine Arts, because these things are good in themselves, created jobs, and so on. Bastiat was once more against what he saw as excessive public spending. This time his answer exposed him to the logical fallacy of the straw man, or misrepresenting one’s argument in order to make it easier to attack: his critics accused him of not caring about Theatres and Fine Arts. But if we examine the evidences carefully, that is not the case at all: to say that the government should not invest in Theatres and Fine Arts is not to say that nobody should invest in it. It is just to say who is supposed to make the investment, the government of individuals. I am not equalizing Theatres and Fine Arts with sports, but I believe the lesson applies in this field as well: to say that the government should not invest in sports is totally different from saying that nobody should invest in it.

In conclusion, it seems that public investment in the military and social programs is helping Brazil to win medals in this Olympics. But we can ask ourselves where would that money have gone had this investment not been made. Based on Bastiat, I believe that if the money spending was left for the individuals, Brazil would have better military, more Olympic medals, and less necessity of social programs, not to mention better jobs, and a better overall economy. Perhaps after this Olympic Games my friends both on the left and on the right can feel like investing more in sports. Or maybe they will realize they prefer to spend on something else.

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