Monarchical Brazil was not a conservative paradise

Seems to me that there is a strong tendency between contemporary Brazilian conservatives to consider the Brazilian Empire (1822-1889) a golden age in Brazilian history. Many Brazilian conservatives are now defending the monarchy as an ideal form of government for Brazil.

As someone said, “the more we change, the more we remain the same.” Brazil became independent from Portugal in 1822. The independence was officially proclaimed by Dom Pedro I, son of Dom João VI, the king of Portugal. I think that maybe Brazilians are so acquainted with this fact that they don’t realize how crazy it is: the prince of Portugal declared the independence of Brazil! That didn’t happen because Dom Pedro fought with his father. By all accounts, father and son enjoyed the best relationship possible. Dom Pedro declared Brazil’s independence because if he didn’t, someone else would.

Dom Pedro’s independence was just one among many others. Tiradentes tried to proclaim the independence of [at least part of] Brazil in 1789, basically 30 years before Dom Pedro! And this is just one example! Tiradentes independence was not successful because it was averted by Portugal. Dom Pedro’s independence was successful because he was Portugal (ok, he wasn’t Portugal, but he was part of it)!

The fact that Brazil’s independence was proclaimed by a Portuguese monarch gives a very special meaning to what means to be conservative in Brazil. Today, in the US, one may call himself a conservative because he defends the ideas of Thomas Jefferson. But in his day Thomas Jefferson was a radical! A rebel who revolted against the British monarchy. Dom Pedro was not exactly a rebel. He wanted, to a great degree, to maintain things just the way they were. Certainly, many of his supporters were afraid of a more radical independence movement. To say the least, Brazil’s independence was a compromise between radicals and conservatives.

Brazilian monarchy avoided many reforms, inspired by classical liberalism, that were happening in other places. To give just one example (in my personal view, the most glaring), Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery (in 1888). I don’t blame Dom Pedro I for this. I also don’t blame his son, Dom Pedro II, who ended up being emperor for the majority of the monarchical period (1840-1889). But the fact is that the monarchy maintained many of the privileges inherited from Portugal, and avoided reforms that Anglo-American conservatives would support.

Brazilian conservatives have to be careful with the use of this word. To be a conservative in Brazil is not necessarily the same as being a conservative in England or the US.

On the rift between economics and everything else

The line is often heard: economists are “scientific imperialists” (i.e. they seek to invade other fields of social science) jerks. All they try to do is “fit everything inside the model”. I have this derisive sneer at economists very often. I have also heard economists say “who cares, they’re a bunch of historians” (this is the one I hear most often given my particular field of research, but I have heard variations involving sociologists and anthropologists).

To be fair, I never noticed the size rift. For years now, I have been waltzing between economics and history (and tried my hand at journalism for some time) which meant that I was waltzing between economic theory and a lot of other fields. The department I was a part of at the London School of Economics was a rich set of quantitative and qualitative folks who mixed history of ideas, economics, economic history and social history. To top it all, I managed to find myself generally in the company of attorneys and legal scholars (don’t ask why, it still eludes me). It was hard to feel a big rift in that environment. I knew there was a rift. I just never realized how big it was until a year ago (more or less).

There is, however, something that annoys me: the contempt appears to be self-reinforcing.  Elsewhere on this blog (here and here) (and in a forthcoming book chapter in a textbook on how to do economic history), I have explained that economists have often ventured into certain topics with a lack of care for details. True, there must be some abstraction of details (not all details are useful), but there is an optimal quantity of details. And our knowledge grows, the quantity of details necessary to answering each question (because the scientific margin is increasingly specialized) should grow. And so should the number (and depth) of nuances we make to answer a question.  There is a tendency among economists to treat a question outside the usual realm of economics and ignore the existing literature (thus either rushing through an open door or stepping in a minefield without knowing it).  The universe is collapsed into the model and, even when it yields valuable insights, other (non-econs) contributors are ignored.  That’s when the non-econs counter that economists are arrogant and that they try to force everything into a mold rather than change the mold when it does not apply. However, the reply has often been to ignore the economists or criticize strawmen versions of their argument. Perceived as contemptuous, the economists feel that they can safely ignore all others.

The problem is that this is a reinforcing loop: a) the economists are arrogant; b) non-economists respond by dismissing the economists and ridiculing their assumptions; c) the economists get more arrogant. The cycle persists. I struggle to see how to break this cycle, but I see value in breaking it. Elsewhere, I have made such a case when I reviewed a book (towards which I was hostile) on Canadian economic history. Here is what I said for the sake of showcasing the value of breaking the vicious circle of ignoring both sides:

These scholars (those who have been ignored by non-economists) could have easily derived the same takeaways as Sweeny. Individuals can and do engage in rent-seeking, which economists define as the process through which unearned gains are obtained by manipulating the political and social environment. This could be observed in attempts to shape narratives in the public discourse. According primacy to the biases of sources is a recognition that there can be rent-seeking in the form of actors seeking to generate a narrative to reinforce a particular institutional arrangement and allow it to survive. This explanation is well in line with neoclassical economics.

This point is crucial. It shows a failing on both sides of the debate. Economists and historians favorable to “rational choice” have failed to engage scholars like Sweeny. Often, they have been openly contemptuous. The literature has evolved in separate circles where researchers only speak to their fellow circle members. This has resulted in an inability to identify the mutual gains of exchange. The insights and meticulous treatments of sources by scholars like Sweeny are informative for those economists who consider rational choice as if the choosers were humans, with all their flaws and limitations, rather than mechanistic utility-maximizing machines with perfect foresight (which is a strawman often employed to deride the use of economics in historical debates) . In reverse, the rich insights provided by rational choice theorists could guide historians in elucidating complex social interactions with a parsimony of assumptions. Without interaction, both groups loose and resolutions remain elusive.

See, as a guy who likes economics, I think that trade is pretty great. More importantly, I think that trade between heterogeneous groups (or different individuals) is even greater because it allows for specialization that increases the value (and quantity) of outputs.  I see the benefits of trade here, so why is this “circle of contempt” perpetuating so relentlessly?

Can’t we just all pick the 100$ bill on the sidewalk?

On why complexity from simple rules is counterintuitive

“… normally we start from whatever behavior we want to get, then try to design a system that will produce it. Yet to do this reliable, we have to restrict ourselves to systems whose behavior we can readily understand and predict–for unless we can foresee how a system will behave, we cannot be sure that the system will do what we want.

“But unlike engineering, nature operates under no such constraint. So there is nothing to stop systmes like those at the end of the previous section from showing up. And in fact one of the important conclusions of this book is that such systems are actually very common in nature.

“But because the only situations in which we are routinely aware both of the underlying rules and overall behavior are ones in which we are building things or doing engineering, we never normally get any intuition about systems like the ones at the end of the previous section.”

Stephen Wolfram

The deeper you dig into math and computer science, the more Hayekian things look. The impossibility of economic calculation under socialism has important counterparts in Godel and Turing/Church.

RIP John Perry Barlow – On the right to free information

Sadly, John Perry Barlow, the founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation has died today. He was – to me – a huge inspiration for the internet anarchy and the cyberlibertarian movement I support.

His vision of the internet was to create “a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.”

As a tribute to Barlow, I would like to provide a summary of his speech on The Right To Know at TEDx Marin.

  1. The first time Barlow got online, he thought the internet would create the collective organism of mind.
  2. He believed that one day everyone on the planet would be endowed with the right to say whatever they want to say within their hearts, and nobody would be in the position to shut them up. In addition, everybody would have the right to not listen to what was said or written on the internet.
  3. The internet was going to be the great challenger of dogmatism.
  4. Having founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation in July 1990, he spent many years thinking about the intersection between Cyberspace and the physical world.
  5. All the existing power relations in the physical are being renegotiated in Cyberspace.
  6. We are now at the point where the physical world is starting to become terrified of Cyberspace. This is obviously shown by how governments deal with Wikileaks and the Arab awakening.
  7. Cyberspace has provided the bloggers, and journalists of Wikileaks and the Arab awakening with the opportunity to question the political structure. They knew that their real power was the ability to speak, and to be heard.
  8. They also understood that they had the right to know.
  9. If we play our cards right, the internet will make it possible for everybody on the internet to satisfy his curiosity to the fullest extent that is presently known by our species. Everyone interested, can know what is presently known.
  10. Nothing like this has had ever happened before.
  11. To achieve that, we have to realize that we cannot own free speech.
  12. Copyright is the wrong model for monetizing the expression of the mind. Thought is not a thing, … it is an action. The more a thought is heard and understood, the more powerful it becomes. It’s not like physical goods.
  13. Because of the old model of thinking of expression as a thing that must be regulated towards scarcity, there are many things going on right now that are militating against Freedom of expression.
  14. Comcast, yesterday, stopped all of our access to PirateBay. PirateBay is a notorious copyright infringement site, but is also an important cause with different members from European parliaments.
  15. The other thing is that the Freedom of expression necessarily includes tolerance to the other person’s right to speak up his mind. No matter how abominable his ideas may be.
  16. The answer to hate speech is love speech, and the answer of the speech you can’t stand is the speech of your own heart. Go out there and stop those who will try to own Freedom of expression.
  17. Take a look at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

2018 Hayek Essay Contest

The 2018 General Meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society will take place from September 30 – October 6, 2018 at ExpoMeloneras and Lopesan Hotels in Meloneras, Gran Canaria, Canary Islands. As with past general meetings, the Mont Pelerin Society is currently soliciting submissions for Friedrich A. Hayek Fellowships. The fellowships will be awarded through the Hayek Essay Contest.

The Hayek Essay Contest is open to all individuals 36 years old or younger. Entrants should write a 5,000 word (maximum) essay that addresses the quotation(s) and question(s) detailed on the contest announcement (available at the above link). The deadline for submissions is May 31, 2018. The winners will be announced on July 31, 2018. Essays must be submitted in English only. Electronic submissions should be sent in PDF format to this email address ( Authors of winning essays must present their papers at the General Meeting to receive their award. The essays will be judged by an international panel of three members of the Society.

Please feel free to share this announcement with any individuals who may have an interest in submitting an essay for consideration of a fellowship award. All questions may be directed to the MPS Young Scholars Program Committee by email at or phone at +1.806.742.7138.

MPS Young Scholars Program Committee

In the Search for an Optimal Level of Inequality

Recently, the blog ThinkMarkets published a post by Gunther Schnabl about how Friedrich Hayek’s works helped to understand the link between Quantitative Easing and political unrest. The piece of writing summarized with praiseworthy precision three different stages of Friedrich Hayek’s economic and political ideas and, among the many topics it addressed, it was mentioned the increasing level of income and wealth inequality that a policy of low rates of interest might bring about.

It is well-known that Friedrich Hayek owes the Swedish School as much as he does the Austrian School on his ideas about money and capital. In fact, he borrows the distinction between natural and market interest rates from Knut Wicksell. The early writings of F.A. Hayek state that disequilibrium and crisis are caused by a market interest rate that is below the natural interest rate. There is no necessity of a Central Bank to arrive at such a situation: the credit creation of the banking system or a sudden change of the expectancies of the public could set the market interest rate well below the natural interest rate and, thus, lead to what Hayek and Nicholas Kaldor called “the Concertina Effect.”

At this point we must formulate a disclaimer: Friedrich Hayek’s theory of money and capital was so controversial and subject to so many regrets by his early supporters – like said Kaldor, Ronald Coase, or Lionel Robbins – that we can hardly carry on without reaching a previous theoretical settlement over the apportations of his works. Until then, the readings on Hayek’s economics will have mostly a heuristic and inspirational value. They will be an starting point from where to spring new insights, but hardly a single conclusive statement. Hayekian economics is a whole realm to be conquered, but precisely, the most of this quest still remains undone.

For example, if we assume – as it does the said post – that ultra-loose monetary policy enlarges inequality and engenders political instability, then we are bound to find a monetary policy that delivers, or at least does not avoid, an optimal level of inequality. As it is explained in the linked lecture, the definition of such a concept might differ whether it depends on an economic or a political or a moral perspective.

Here is where I think the works of F.A. Hayek have still so much to give to our inquiries: the matter is not where to place an optimal level of inequality, but to discover the conditions under which a certain level of inequality appears to us as legitimate, or at least tolerable. This is not a subject about quantities, but about qualities. Our mission is to discover the mechanism by which the notions of fairness, justice, or even order are formed in our beliefs.

Perhaps that is the deep meaning of the order or equilibrium that it is reach when, to use the terminology of Wicksell and Hayek’s early writings, both natural and market interest rates are the same: a state of affairs in which the most of the expectancies of the agents could prove correct. The solution does not depend upon a particular public policy, but on providing an abstract institutional structure in which each individual decision could profit the most from the spontaneous order of human interaction.

A preliminary argument against moral blameworthiness

For a while now I’ve advocated not an absence of morality, but an absence of moral blameworthiness. Here’s a first, brief attempt to jot down the basic idea.

There’s two arguments. First let’s consider the epistemic conditions that must hold to make a moral judgment. For any enunciator of a moral judgment, e.g. “this murder, being unprovoked, was wrong,” the speaker must have knowledge of specific details of the case — who committed the crime? was there malice aforethought? — and also moral knowledge, knowledge with normative validity. To judge something as moral or immoral, then, requires information of one kind which is open to forensic methods and of another kind which is … highly contested as to its epistemic foundations. Obvious thus far. Now, this is the situation of the bystander judging retroactively. The perpetrator of the immoral act is in an even worse predicament. Most people would agree, as a basic axiom of juvenile jurisprudence, that a person must have “knowledge of right and wrong” in order to be morally blameworthy. This allows us to discriminate between mentally competent adults, on the one hand, and children or mentally challenged individuals on the other. However, like we have said, this domain of right and wrong is highly contested by highly intelligent people, enough to cast skepticism into all but the most stubborn, and so most people, acting according to their ethics, understand themselves to be acting uncertainly. And, unlike the bystander judging retroactively, the perpetrator is on a time crunch, and must make snap decisions without the luxury of an analysis of the objective conditions — who, what, how, why — or a literature review of the subjective conditions, the theories.

So, to sum up, moral blameworthiness requires knowledge of right and wrong. This knowledge is highly contested (and widely considered to be emotional rather than rational); thus, people must act, but must act under highly uncertain information. Without an agreed-upon rubric moral action is more or less guessed. The doer is in a more uncertain situation than the judger so his judgment is likely to be less justified, more forgivably wrong.

Okay, but now as a friend has pointed out, where morality is highly contested is on the margins, and not the fundamentals. There is a lot of agreement that unprovoked murder is wrong, this does not seem highly contested (though certainly there is disagreement provided the forensic circumstances). So, can we not hold a murderer morally accountable?

Here, in response to that, is the second argument, which is much more fundamental and probably exposes me to some logical consequences I don’t want to accept. With action, there is something we could call a “regression to non-autonomy.” Traditional perspectives on morality and punishment emphasized the individual making a choice to commit an offense. This choice reflected bad moral character. More recently, the social sciences have impacted the way we think about choices: people are shaped by their environments, and often they do not choose these environments. Get the picture? But, it is even worse than that. We could say that the murderer chose to pull the trigger; but, he did not choose to be the sort of person who in that situation would pull the trigger. That person was a product of their environment and their genes. Aren’t they also a product of “themselves”? Yes, but they did not choose to be themselves; they simply are. And, even when someone “chooses to be a better person,” this choice logically presupposes the ability to choose to become a better person, which, again, is an ability bestowed upon some and not upon others and is never of our own choosing. Thus if we go back far enough we find autonomy, or a self-creative element, is not at root in our behavior and choices. And non-autonomous action cannot be considered morally blameworthy.

This is my argument (I do not claim originality; many people have said similar things). The murderer is doing something immoral, but finding them worthy of blame seems, to me, almost if not always out of the question. This ends up being hard to accept psychologically: I want to find history’s greatest villains morally culpable. I cannot, though. Instead of any sort of retributivist punishment — found, now, to be psychologically satisfying but morally confused — we are left only with punishment policy that seeks to deter or isolate offenders, the category of “moral blameworthiness” found to be lacking.

I invite criticisms of the arguments as sketched out here — preferrably, ones that don’t require us to get into what actually is moral or the status of free will.