Final thoughts on Rio Olympics

Rio Olympics are over, and it seems to me, they are leaving a great impression. Despite all the problems the city and the country faced in recent years, not to mention the fact that Brazil is still a developing country, all ends well for Summer Olympics 2016.

One final comment I would like to make about the events once again relates to Brazilian athletes: Brazil scored an unprecedented 19 in the medal table (7 golds, 6 silvers and 6 bronzes), establishing a new record for itself. Among Brazilian medalists were people like Martine Grael, who won gold in Sailing, 49er FX Women. Martine is the daughter of twice Olympic gold medalist in sailing Torben Grael. Her brother Marco and uncle Lars also sailed in the Olympics. We also had people like Isaquias Queiroz dos Santos, who won Silver in Canoe Sprint, Men’s Canoe Single 1000m, Bronze in Canoe Sprint, Men’s Canoe Single 200m, and again Silver in Canoe Sprint, Men’s Canoe Double 1000m, becoming the first Brazilian athlete to ever win three medals in a single edition of the Olympic Games.

Isaquias was born in a very poor region of Brazil, and has been through great adversity before becoming an Olympic medalist: as a child he poured boiling water on himself and spent a month in hospital recovering; at the age of 5 he was kidnapped and offered up for adoption before being rescued by his mother; at the age of 10 he fell out of a tree and lost a kidney. In his teenage years he severed the top third off his left ring finger. He started training in a social project supported by Brazilian Federal government.

I am pretty sure that this picture happens with athletes and medalists from other countries: on one hand we have medalists like Martine, coming from a well-to-do environment and with a family of athletes who introduced her to the sport. On the other hand we have medalists like Isaquias, who had to face great hardships but was helped by social programs to become an Olympic athlete. Considering that, should the government create more programs to develop more people like Isaquias? Should the government prevent the privileges of people like Martine? Questions like these may sound preposterous to many, but they actually reflect much of the political discussion we have today: should the government help kids from poor families with education, healthcare and other things in order to create a head start? Should the government overtax the rich (and their heritage) in order to create more equality? In other words, what we have here is a discussion of equality versus freedom. In order to talk about that we have to understand what is equality and what is freedom.

There are many senses in which Isaquias and Martine will never be equals: they were born in different places, to different families. They had different life stories. There is a sense in which no two individuals are equal: each one of us is in each one way unique. And that makes us all special in each one way. Of course, when talking about equality most people are thinking about equality of outcome. But they forget (or ignore) that in order to have this kind of equality you need to ignore all the differences between individuals – the very same thing that makes us all unique and special – or to use government force to take from one and give to another. So, unless you are willing to ignore all the differences that make us all unique or to use force against non aggressors, you have to accept at least some income inequality as part of life. The classical liberal answer to that is that we need to be equal before the law: a great part of the liberal project in previous centuries was basically to abolish privileges (private laws) and to make all equally responsible before government. That is an equality we can all have. And we should.

The second point is freedom. Freedom from what? Or to do what? There are at least two kinds of freedom discussed in the context of the liberal revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries. One is related to John Locke and the Founding Fathers, the other to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The discussion about this phrase can go really long, but I want to emphasize simply that in Jefferson’s view you have the freedom to pursue your own understanding of happiness. I may completely disagree with what you are choosing for your life, but at the same time I am not to force you in any way to change your choices. I am not to force upon you my brand of happiness, not matter how much I am sure I have the correct one.

Rousseau’s version of freedom is very different: as he famously stated, “whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole of society, which means nothing more or less than that he will be forced to be free.” In other words, if you are a minority (and especially if you are an individual, the smallest minority possible) people can force upon you their brand of happiness. That is one reason why Rousseau is called “the philosopher of vanity”: he refuses to accept that people see life in a different way from his own. Rousseau’s vision of freedom is connected to his troubled relation with Christianity – where indeed you need to have a relationship with God through Jesus to become free. But the catch is that in Christianity God never forces you. Rousseau’s god is very different, and as such, Rousseaunism is just a Christian heresy.

To conclude, in order to create more income equality you have to destroy the classical liberal version of freedom – or to change to another version that inevitably leads to totalitarianism. As Milton Friedman said, “A society that puts equality — in the sense of equality of outcome — ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests.” I just hope we can have more people like Isaquias and Martine, who achieve great goals, sometimes with the help of friends and family, sometimes in completely unpredictable ways.

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