Life

Screenshot 2020-03-26 at 12.15.15

No matter how old, frail or vulnerable it may be, a life isn’t something to take or risk at another’s discretion. Nor does it undermine culpability when someone dies as a result of negligence. The common law ‘eggshell skull’ rule reflects this moral principle.

During the Coronavirus pandemic, some erstwhile defenders of the famous Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) appear to have forgotten that natural rights are conceived to protect life as well as liberty and property. They seem to think that the liberties we ordinarily enjoy have priority over the right to life of others. The environment has changed and, for the time being, many activities that we previously knew to be safe for others are not. They are not part of our set of liberties until a reformed set of rules, norms and habits establishes a sufficiently hygienic public environment. To say that bans on public gatherings violate natural rights a priori is as untenable as G.A. Cohen’s claim that a prohibition on walking onto a train without a valid ticket is a violation of one’s freedom.

The clue for anarcho-capitalist state-sceptics that this is a genuine shift in social priorities is that even organized criminal gangs are willing to enforce social distancing. You do not have to believe that the state itself is legitimate to see that the need for social distancing is sufficiently morally compelling that it can be enforced absent free agreement, just as one does not need free agreement to exercise a right to self-defense.

Not every restriction is going to be justified, although erring on the restrictive side makes sense while uncertainty about the spread of infection persists. Ultimately, restrictions have to balance genuine costs with plausible benefits. But rejecting restrictions on a priori grounds does not cohere with libertarian principles. Right now, our absolute liberties extend to the right to be alone. Everything else must be negotiated under uncertainty. Someone else’s life, even two-weeks or so in the future, is a valid side-constraint on liberty. People can rightfully be made to stay at home if they are fortunate enough to have one. When people have to travel out of necessity, they can be temporarily exempted, compensated or offered an alternative reasonable means of satisfying their immediate needs.

A PPE pandemic reading list

I haven’t written for a while – other duties get in the way – but I’d like to suggest this reading list in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics for the present time of crisis and perplexity. The main reason is that everyone seems to be an expert in Economics, Epidemiology, and Political Philosophy these days, assuming that from “facts” we can easily derive “values” and answer the question, “what is to be done?” I think this is at best a naïve attitude and at worst the same rationalistic hubris we experience everytime a political issue is simplified and reduced to a matter of “science”. Yes, there are facts and they shouldn’t be ignored, but it’s not easy to decide what is to be done, morally and politically, in light of those facts.

The first item on the list is Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. A classic, and a reminder that people choose all the time to sacrifice some degree of liberty in the altar of survival (or a chance to survive), but also a reminder that Leviathan may turn from friend to foe, from protector to persecutor – and there is very little we can do about it. The second item is John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, which then explores this topic in light of the fact that civil government shouldn’t have absolute power. It makes an attempt to show us how that power can, or should, be limited within a certain sphere of responsibility. Though it’s still there to protect us.

In this time of pandemic, people feel tempted to panic. People and politicians are calling for dramatic measures, and one reason is that the use of government coercion – which, according to Locke, ought to be limited – might be necessary to force people to cooperate, for example, by staying home. This is a proposed solution to the dilemmas of collective action posed by the problem that some may “free-ride” on the rest, and, as a result, the disease will keep spreading, frustrating any attempt to slow it down. Against dramatic, desperate and, perhaps, arrogant, use of political power, and in favor of prudence and wisdom, Edmund Burke’s collection of writings from the period of the French Revolution can be a beacon of light. On the other hand, explaining the dilemmas of collective action and suggesting ways of solving them, Mancur Olson offers an insightful look at incentives and group behavior in The Logic of Collective Action.

However, the idea that government coercion is the only solution to dilemmas of collective action (such as imposing a quarantine, for example) doesn’t hold water. In fact, other economists follow Olson in saying the problem is real and challenges a strict individualist way of thinking, but, adding to Olson’s point, they also acknowledge the role of private action and sanctions in fostering cooperation. Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons is a wonderful study that opens up a number of possibilities for private enforcing of collective action to preserve and promote the frugal allocation of common goods. This can be complemented by The Quest for Community, an overlooked work by sociologist Robert Nisbet, where it becomes clear that, between individuals, the state, and the market, there’s room for other associations and communities that strengthen civil society – particularly in this challenging time. Nisbet’s lesson invites liberty-loving people to reflect on whether a hyper-individualistic view of the world ends up pitting helpess individuals against Leviathan instead of offering the buffer zone of community in between. This is something Alexis de Tocqueville discussed in the 19th century.

And just for the sake of dealing with the issue that “is” doesn’t easily lead to “ought”, and that science might have facts and an explanation for them, but does not easily conduce to a proper discussion on values policy, I must finish this PPE pandemic reading list with F. A. Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. On Chapter 4, for example, Hayek introduces a constrast between “rationalist liberalism” and “anti-rationalist liberalism”. Rationalist liberals assume too easily that knowledge of the facts on the ground will give them what they need to re-design a society governed by reason. Hayek warns us against this technocratic assumption and offers a defence of “anti-rationalist liberalism”. Anti-rationalist liberals understand the importance of spontaneous order and of constraining power (even at a time of crisis) while prudently balancing the values of liberty and safety in light of past experience and tradition.


Three Additional readings:

Buzan, Waever and De Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (1997). In a liberal democracy, the state steps in suspending some civil liberties only if it can persuade citizens that there’s a threat that justifies it. This book offers a framework to interpret how such threats are constructed in official and non-official discourse, and to what extent this construction of a threat can be effective.

Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan (2013). 25th anniversary edition. Looks at US history and how government employed crises to its advantage and the advantage of the ruling elites. In particular, security and economy related issues are dealt with.

Sanford Ikeda, Dynamics of the Mixed Economy (2002). Shows that a time of crisis might be a time for further interventionism in the economy, as Higgs (see above) suggests, but might also be a time for disintervention, as seems to be the case with part of the agenda today (FDA deregulation, etc.) This is based on Ludwig von Mises’ view that interventionist economies are not very stable and are always swinging as a pendulum between socialism and capitalism.

 

The Vexing Libertarian Issue of Transition

I have appointed myself an old sage to the world. When your knees are creaky and every snotty eighteen-year-old treats you patronizingly, the least you can do to compensate is award yourself wisdom. Anyway, long story short, it’s a good excuse to spend much time on Facebook. I feel I am rendering a public service. I am continuing my teaching career there. It’s unpaid but the conditions are much better and all the students actually want to be in class.

Of course, it’s also true that Facebook is addictive. It’s not a bad addiction. For this old guy, it’s almost incredible to have frequent conversations with an MD in Pakistan, my niece in India, an old girlfriend in Panama, a young friend’s wife in Japan, and of course, many different kinds of French people. I even have a Facebook friend who lives in the mountains of Algeria; we have lively talks in French. Recently, a young woman who described herself as a Myanmar village girl reached out. (I know what you are thinking but if she is really one of those internet sex trolls, I salute the originality of her marketing strategy.) At all times a day and night, I have at least one Facebook friend who is not asleep. It’s pleasant in these days of confinement.

The same confinement, perhaps, slows me down and makes me more likely to tally up everything. As a result, a new impression has pierced my consciousness. Expressing contempt for democracy seems to be in vogue among people who identify as libertarians (with a small “l,” big “L” Libertarians have nearly vanished from my world. It could just be me.) This contempt reminds me that I have been asking the same question of libertarianism for now about fifty years, all with not much success.

I refer to the question of transition. I mean, what is it supposed to look like moving from wherever we are, in terms of governance, to a society with a drastically diminished government interference in individual lives? I have been receiving evasive answers, answers that don’t make even superficial sense, and swift escapes effected by changing the subject.

Let me say right away that I am not looking for a crushing reading assignment (a common punitive, passive-aggressive maneuver among intellectuals). Mine is a simple question. One should be able to sketch a rudimentary answer to it. Then, it would be up to me to follow through. Then, no excuse!

To my mind, there are only two extreme transition scenarios. One is the Somali scenario. The state falls apart under its own incapacity to limit internal aggression. It disappears or nearly so. When the point is reached where government authority extends only three blocks from the presidential palace to the north and east, and one block from the south and east, you pretty much have a stateless society. Goal reached!

The second scenario is a gradual change from the current “democratic” arrangements. I mean by this fair and reasonably honest elections followed by a peaceful transfer of power. I mean freedom of expression. And, disturbingly, this also includes courts of law. This is disturbing because courts without enforcement of their decisions are not really courts. This fact implies the threat of coercion, of course.

Now, I can imagine a situation like right now with the Corona Virus epidemic when governments (plural) demonstrate on a large scale their inability to do the obvious. The citizens often react to this sort of demonstration by asking for better and more government. However, it does not have to be that way. The combination of wide communication through the internet and – like now – of enforced leisure – may switch the dial. It’s conceivable that large numbers will get the idea that government that is at once heavy-handed, expensive, and incapable is not a good answer to much of anything. With that scenario one can imagine a collective demand for less government.

Strangely, this sort of scenario may be on display in France now, as I write. Well, this is not so strange after all. A deeply statist society where govt absorbs 55% of GDP and up may be exactly the best place to figure out that more government is not the answer. From this thought to the idea that less government may be the answer there is but one step. My intuition though is that it’s a big step. That’s because few people understand markets. No one but a handful of college professors seems to have read the moral philosopher Adam Smith. (Tell me that I am wrong.)

So, I would like for those who are more advanced than I am on this issue of transition (a low bar) to engage me. I am not interested in the same old ethical demonstrations though. Yes, the state is an instrument of coercion and therefore, evil. I already know this. In the meantime, the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States does a fair job of protecting my freedom of speech, my freedom, of thought, my freedom of religion. I am not eager to leave this behind for the complete unknown. Are you? Why? How?

“There’s Nothing Morally Wrong With Not Wanting to Work Hard at School”

That’s a point I agree with in an opinion piece I recently stumbled across.

And it relates to a larger point that’s been brewing in my head the longer I hang around campus. Most of these kids simply shouldn’t be here. They don’t want it enough, and they really don’t need it. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that they don’t want to work hard enough to make school a valuable experience. College is a distraction for most kids who really should be getting work experience instead.

I’d love to live in a world where people valued education and pursued it for its own sake. I’d love to find out my garbage man is a lover of classic Russian literature. But I actually live in a world where people value schooling which they pursue for credentials. And any education they get along the way is an accidental byproduct. The one things students seem to learn is how to flatter their professors. Sure, they learn while they’re at school (how can you be 18 and not learn something?!), but I’m far from convinced that they learn because of school.

The trouble is that the one thing schools have been effective at teaching students is how important school is. Is it so important that nearly a quarter of “amusement and recreation attendants” should have bachelor’s degree or higher? I won’t argue that carnies should be high school drop-outs like in the good old days. But if I had the choice between one who passed my class (with a C+) and one who spent an extra couple years learning how to make sure a bolt is tightened properly, I know who I want operating my teacups.

As a society, we’re fooling ourselves. We’ve set up a system where we convince kids that they need a degree to live a good life, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as college graduates go on to uncritically hire college graduates. That leaves an unsustainable tension: most students (rightly) don’t want to work hard at school, but they want to go to school. “Society” wants them to work hard at school, but doesn’t want to deny anyone a degree. At best we end up wasting everyone’s time. At worst, we set kids up for failure then leave them with student loans. In either case we erode standards and diminish the signalling value of school along with the educational value. We need someone to go into high schools to tell kids that there’s nothing morally wrong with opting out of college entirely.

Brazil, the country of Carnival (?)

Maybe for most English speakers it isn’t even known, but we are in the Carnival week. Carnival is a festive season that occurs before the liturgical season of Lent. The main events typically occur during February or early March. It typically involves public celebrations, including events such as parades, public street parties and other entertainments. I’m unashamedly taking some elements from Wikipedia here to try to explain it. It is basically equivalent to Mardi Gras. Carnival (or Carnaval, as we say it in Portuguese) is a big thing in Brazil. Or maybe not. That’s what this post is about.

Carnival is a Christian feast, at least in its origin. It occurs right before lent. Lent is the forty days that antecede the Passover. The idea was that people would fast (at least to some degree) during the forty days of lent. Therefore, Carnival was the last opportunity for forty days to indulge in some pleasures of the flesh. Carnival literally means “remove meat”, from the Late Latin expression carne levare. “Farewell to meat” is another possible translation. However, carne is not solely meat in Latin; it also refers to the flesh, especially in the Christian association between sin and flesh. Carnaval, therefore, is the feast of the flesh – taken literally or not. At least in Brazil, to my knowledge, the relationship between Carnival, Lent and Passover is little known. I believe that most people just take it to be a major party that happens sometime between February and March.

Brazil is popularly known as the country of Carnival, Samba and Soccer. Of these three, I kind of like the last one. Not so much the first two. To my knowledge, Carnival has always been very popular in Rio de Janeiro, at least since the early 19th century. At that time, it was known as Entrudo, a celebration in which mostly people throw water on one another, like in a water balloon fight. However, there were some improvements: people started throwing some liquids other than water if you know what I mean and that even at strangers. The party was also an opportunity for slaves to poke on their masters. Carnaval eventually became associated with the slaves’ African culture, and I suppose that’s how the Christian origins were somewhat lost. Today, Carnaval in Rio is strongly associated with Samba music.

I haven’t done a very scientific research for this, but to my knowledge, most people in Rio actually don’t like Carnaval. Carnaval is a street party, with all that comes with it: people leave tons of trash behind; people get drunk, and often violent; the music can get really loud and sometimes going on for hours, even into the night. Given the specific nature of the festival, there are people having sex on the street and other things happening as well. It is hard to say this without sounding moralistic, but the thing is that Carnaval ends up being the most anti-libertarian thing one can imagine. If “don’t do onto others what you don’t want to be done onto you” is the golden rule we’re trying to put into practice, Carnaval is the undoing of this.

In the late 19th century, some authorities already realized that the festival was getting out of control and tried to organize it somehow, mostly to no avail. But things really got out of control in the early 20th century. Coming out of the monarchy, Brazilian intellectuals were dedicated to the task of identifying the Brazilian identity. Sérgio Buarque de Holanda made a huge contribution to this with is Roots of Brazil (Raízes do Brasil), in which he said that Brazilians had a hard time understanding and applying the impersonal relationships necessary for a modern capitalistic society. Another major contribution in this conversation was done in 1933 by anthropologist/sociologist Gilberto Freyre in his book Casa-Grande e Senzala (English: The Masters and the Slaves). In this book, Freyre argued that the Brazilian national identity was the result of miscegenation (both biological and cultural) between masters and slaves.

On the one hand, I want to say that Freyre’s argument was revolutionary because he was saying that Brazilians were not an “inferior race” because of race-mixing. Just the opposite: Brazilian culture was permeated by highly positive elements exactly because of miscegenation. Consider that Freyre was saying that in the 1930s, when race-mixing was still a major taboo in the US, not to mention Nazi Germany. But on the other hand, I believe that Freyre contributed to a movement that gave up trying to “civilize” Brazil.

The topic of civilization is always a polemic one because it implies that some cultures are superior to others. I don’t want to go that way. But I also don’t want to be a cultural relativistic. Some cultures are superior to others in some aspects. There is nothing culturally superior in leaving tons of trash in the streets after a street party. There is nothing culturally superior in imposing your music taste on others. There is nothing superior in imposing your take on sexuality on others.

In the late 19th century, some authorities were trying to organize Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro because things were getting out of control. In the early 20th century, most authorities gave up that enterprise because they decided that Rio de Janeiro (and Brazil) is that “mess”. Instead of trying to correct the bad aspects of Carnaval, they decided to celebrate it as the very essence of Brazilian culture. Eventually, into the 20th century, Carnaval became a great example of panem et circenses policy.

I understand that in the early 21st century more and more people in Brazil are getting sick and tired of Carnaval, and that has some connections with politics. Typically (though definitely not always) people on the left want to celebrate Carnaval. People on the right typically (though definitely not always) don’t want to. Some people on the left are already saying that Bolsonaro’s government represents the taking over of government by Christian fundamentalists. I doubt. They may be right at a very low degree. But for the most part, what is happening is that Brazil is too diverse for a single project of nation to work for everybody. Ironically Gilberto Freyre was right: we are the result of this mixture, and this is not a bad thing. People only need to learn to respect the opinions, tastes and preferences of the other elements in this mix.

Edge of Democracy in Brazil?

The past few days Brazilian internet was packed with commentaries about The Edge of Democracy (Portuguese: Democracia em Vertigem), a 2019 Brazilian documentary film directed by Petra Costa that was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 92nd Academy Awards (and lost). To be honest, I didn’t watch this movie and I’m not planning to. My life is already quite busy as it is. However, judging by the trailer and by what people were saying, “The film follows the political past of the filmmaker in a personal and intimate way, in context with the first term of President Lula until the events leading to the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, analyzing the rise and fall of both presidents and the consequent sociopolitical crisis that swept the country. The arrest of Lula paved the way for the rise of Jair Bolsonaro and his eventual presidency” (from Wikipedia). Vox says this: “Filmmaker Petra Costa grew up in a politically involved family in Brazil, and that’s her starting point for The Edge of Democracy, in which she traces recent developments in Brazilian politics and shows how the country moved so quickly from a fledgling democracy toward far-right authoritarianism”. So, it seems to me that the movie is about how Brazil was becoming a vibrant democracy under the rule of the Workers’ Party and now it’s becoming a far-right autocracy. Judging by that, these are some thoughts on how I see democracy in recent and past Brazilian history.

Brazil was a Portuguese colony, but this was different from America being an English colony. There were not thirteen colonies in Brazil. Portugal’s oversight of Brazil was stronger than England’s over America. There was basically no space for local rule in Brazil. Therefore, Brazil came from its colonial days with basically no self-government experience.

Brazil became independent from Portugal in 1822. But again, this was different from America’s independence. In 1808 the Portuguese royal family came to Brazil, running away from Napoleon. Brazil became a United Kingdom with Portugal in 1815. Dom João VI, the Portuguese king, gave in to the court’s pressure and went back to Portugal in the early 1820s. However, he left his son Dom Pedro I as prince regent in Brazil. And at this Pedro declared Brazil’s independence in 1822.

Dom Pedro I was crowned as Emperor of Brazil and ruled until 1831. Suffering multiple pressures, he went back to Portugal like his father before him. From 1831 to 1840 Brazil was ruled by several regents. In 1840 Dom Pedro I’s son, Dom Pedro II, became emperor. He ruled until 1889, when he was deposed by a military coup.

Brazil has been a republic ever since, but not like America. We didn’t simply have presidential elections every four years. The first two Brazilian presidents were virtually military dictators. Civilians came to power in 1894 and ruled until 1930, but these were not exactly democratic times. Mostly the country was ruled by coffee oligarchs.

The last of these coffee planter presidents ruled until 1930. Then Getúlio Vargas came to power in a coup. He ruled until 1945. Vargas was deposed but continued to be a major political player. So much so, that he came to the presidency in the 1950s. He committed suicide in 1954, while still in office. Basically, the country was still under Vargas’ shadow from 1945 to 1964. And that’s when the military came to power.

Brazil was under military governments from 1964 to 1985. This is the historical period that people tend to remember and refer to the most. The military came to power because the population asked them to. There was a great fear of communism, and the army would theoretically defend Brazil against this. I am not saying that this fear was justified or that military governments was the right solution, but this is how most people thought at that time.

The last military president surrendered power in 1985. Since then, Brazil has been ruled by civilians. The Workers’ Party (or Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT, in Portuguese) became one of the most competitive political forces in Brazil in this period. Officially founded in 1980, it always had Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as one of its main leaders. The Workers’ Party always presented itself as broadly leftist, without further specification. Among its founders were sympathizers of Roman Catholic Liberation Theology, radical socialists who defended armed opposition to the dictatorship, and union workers (Lula among them).

Lula was presidential candidate in 1989, 1994 and 1998, always coming in second place with about 30% of the votes. During those years Lula and the Workers’ Party were radically opposed to the economic reforms Brazil was going through. Like in other countries, Brazil was suffering from the crumbling of years of populism. The Washington Consensus was the order of the day, but the Workers’ Party was against everything it called “neoliberalism”. “Out with FHC (Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Brazil’s president from 1995 to 2002) and the IMF” was their usual chant. The party even defended not paying Brazil’s staggering international debts. Lula still hung out with socialist leaders, mostly Fidel Castro. However, in 2002 he presented a different platform. Advised by advertising professional and political strategist Duda Mendonça, he announced that, if elected president, he wouldn’t undo FHC’s economic reforms. Plagued by several international economic crises (Mexico, Asia, Russia, Argentina), Brazil was having a hard time entering the free-market world. The once highly popular FHC came out from office with low popularity. The combination of these factors (FHC’s low popularity at the time and Lula’s promise to pursue a less radical path) opened the way for the Workers’ Party to come to Brazil’s presidency.

In the first years of his government Lula was true to his promise. He not only maintained but deepened FHC’s economic reforms. After the initial shocks, Brazil slowly reacted to the free-market medicine and the economy started to grow. This guaranteed Lula’s reelection in 2006, although by then major corruption scandals already surrounded his presidency, centrally the Mensalão scandal. This scandal broke in 2005 when it was discovered that the Workers’ Party gave monthly payments to several deputies from other parties to vote for legislation that was favored by the ruling party. Although the investigations implicated some of Lula’s closest allies, the president himself managed to get off scot-free.

Lula’s second term in office marked a change from the first and even from his party’s historical stand up until then. The Workers’ Party since its inception always posed as a firm adversary to corruption. Political corruption is hardly something new in Brazil. Going back to the beginning of this text, one of Brazil’s historical problems has always been the difficulty of separating public and private. This was ironically famously observed by Raymundo Faoro, one of the Workers’ Party initial supporters. In Donos do Poder (Owners of the Power) Faoro observed that Brazil has always been led by ruling elites who saw public property as their property. In this scenario the very idea of corruption becomes fuzzy since ruling elites believe they are not stealing – they are simply using what is rightly theirs! It is against this scenario that Faoro and others proposed a technocrat professional bureaucracy. After the Mensalão scandal, however, the Workers’ Party became cynical towards corruption. Their usual response to it became to say that previous governments also did it, that they didn’t invent corruption or simply to say that Lula was an innocent man being politically persecuted by the elites. In sum, Workers’ Party officials and supporters were divided between those who, while not denying the veracity of the corruption scandals, tried to minimize it, and those who completely denied it.

Lula left his second term in office still high on popularity. So much so that he was able to elect his successor, Dilma Rousseff. Dilma, however, would face several difficulties in her presidency. Number one, although somewhat forgotten by the general public, the corruption scandals were still a reality that would surface every now and then. Second, Brazil was suffering the effects of the 2008 world economic crisis. Finally, Dilma was herself a shamefully inept leader.

As I mentioned before, Lula came to power in 2003 mainly because he and others in the Workers’ Party were able to (partially) come to terms with the fact that the Washington Consensus is called a consensus for a reason: as much as some things in political economy are debatable, some are not – centrally, you can’t spend money that you don’t have forever. Dilma would have none of that. Although she is famously very confused in the way she speaks, all things point to the fact that Dilma is trapped in a painfully outdated Keynesian mentality. Trapped in this mentality, she overspent – against Brazilian law. For this reason, she was impeached.

Dilma’s impeachment was followed by a short government of her vice-president, Michel Temer, and now the country is governed by Jair Messias Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro was for many years an obscure politician from Rio de Janeiro, elected mostly to corporately defend the military as workmen. Almost an unofficial union leader for soldiers. Bolsonaro, however, is also an admirer of the Brazilian army in general. He graduated from Academia Militar das Agulhas Negras, something akin to West Point. As a reformed army captain, he fiercely believes that the military did save Brazil from communism in the 1960s. As I mentioned before, that’s exactly what people in the 1960s believed. I’m not saying that they were right.

Ironically, leftists greatly benefited from the military governments of the 1960s-1980s. The guerrilla in Brazil’s countryside was crushed by the armed forces and the urban armed resistance was mostly weak and disorganized. Some important leaders in the Workers’ Party came precisely from these two. But Brazilian armed forces were shamefully unprepared to fight a cultural war. While some sectors of the left were still following Mao Zedong or Che Guevara, trying to reach power by force, others were reading Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, following a more cultural path to power.

In any case, the left was very good at posing as victims. In the years that followed the military governments, there was a tendency to romanticize the resistance. Some people, artists and politicians, made whole careers on that. To be “persecuted by the dictatorship” became a major asset.

But the truth is that Brazilian left never fought for democracy. This isn’t meant to depreciate them. It’s just a statement of fact. Actually, what I meant in the first paragraphs was to show that Brazil has a very weak democratic tradition. Beginning very early in the 20th century, shortly after the Russian Revolution, communists tried to take power in Brazil by force. Again, this is just a statement of fact. This continued up to the early 1960s when, fueled by Cold War fear (some might say paranoia, I don’t really mind), people begged the armed forces to take power. Has it not lasted for so long, the military governments would probably have been long forgotten or taken as something positive. But because they lasted for so long, the left was able to play its cards and pose as democratic victims of an authoritarian regime.

And this is, I believe, how we come to 2020. Bolsonaro has, I believe, a wrong idea about the military governments. Even if they were truly necessary to avoid a communist coup, they shouldn’t have lasted for so long. Besides that, the military presidents had their ups and downs in how they governed the country. Bolsonaro mostly can’t see that. The left, on the other hand, romanticizes the dictatorship. Some of them seem to actually believe in the lie that they were fighting for democracy. They were not. Had they won the war against the military forces, Brazil would have become something akin to Castro’s Cuba or Mao’s China. Had the military not won against the guerrillas, Brazil would have something akin to Colombia’s FARCs.

In sum, Brazil is still trapped in things that happened in the 1960s. Socialists, of course, wanted a big state. That’s basically their ideology. Ironically, in order to fight that, the military built an equally gigantic state. Petra Costa’s family got rich, fabulously rich, during the military governments. Today her family has contracts with the Workers’ Party. Some things change, but others remain the same: some people don’t care if governments are red or blue. All they care about is the green of the dollars. And a smaller state would be bad business for this kind of people.

The Least Empathic Lot

On standard tests of empathy, libertarians score very low. Yet, the world’s “well-known libertarian bias” coupled with many people’s unwarranted pessimism makes us seem like starry-eyed optimists (“how could you possibly believe things will just work themselves out?!”).

Under the Moral Foundations framework developed and popularized by Jonathan Haidt, he and his colleagues analyzed thousands of responses through their YourMorals.org tool. Mostly focused on what distinguishes liberals from conservatives, there are enough self-reported libertarians answering that the questionnaire to draw meaningful conclusions. The results, as presented in TED-talks, podcast interviews and Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion contains a whole lot of interesting stuff.

First, some Moral Foundations basics: self-reported liberals attach almost all their moral value to two major categories – “fairness” and “care/harm.” Some examples include striving for equal (“fair”) outcomes and concern for those in need. No surprises there.

Conservatives, on the other hand, draw fairly evenly on all five of Haidt’s different moralities, markedly placing weight on the other three foundations as well – Authority (respect tradition and your superiors), Loyalty (stand with your group, family or nation) and Sanctity (revulsion towards disgusting things); liberals largely shun these three, which explains why the major political ideologies in America usually talk past one another.

Interestingly enough, In The Righteous Mind, Haidt discusses experiments where liberals and conservatives were asked to answer the questionnaire as the other would have. Conservatives and moderate liberals could represent the case of the other fairly well, whereas those self-identifying as “very liberal” were the least accurate. Indeed, the

biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the Care and Fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives.

Within the Moral Foundations framework, this makes perfect sense. Conservatives have, in a sense, a wider array of moral senses to draw from – pretending to be liberal merely means downplaying some senses and exaggerating others. For progressives who usually lack any conception of the other values, it’s hard to just invent them:

if your moral matrix encompasses nothing more than Care and Fairness, then to imagine a political opponent is to reverse one’s own position for those foundations – that Conservatives act primarily on other frequencies, on other foundations, wouldn’t even occur to them.

Libertarians, always the odd one out, look like conservatives on the traits most favoured by liberals (Fairness and Care/Harm); and are indistinguishable from liberals on the traits most characteristic of conservatives (Authority, Loyalty, and Sanctity). Not occupying some fuzzy middle-ground between them, but an entirely different beast.

Empathy, being captured by the ‘Care’ foundation, lines up well with political persuasion, argues Yale psychologist Paul Bloom in his Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Liberals care the most; conservatives some; and libertarians almost none at all. Liberals are the most empathic; conservatives are somewhat empathic; and libertarians the least empathic of all. No wonder libertarians seem odd or positively callous from the point of view of mainstream American politics.

Compared to others, libertarians are more educated and less religious – even so than liberals. Libertarians have “a relatively cerebral as opposed to emotional cognitive style,” concluded Haidt and co-authors in another study; they are the “most cerebral, most rational, and least emotional,” allowing them more than any others to “have the capacity to reason their way to their ideology.”

Where libertarians really do place their moral worth is on “liberty” (a sixth foundation that Haidt and his colleagues added in later studies).  Shocking, I know. Libertarians are, in terms of moral philosophy, the most unidimensional and uncomplicated creatures you can imagine – a well-taught parrot might pass a libertarian Turing test if you teach it enough phrases like “property rights” or “don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff.”

The low-empathy result accounts for another striking observation to anyone who’s ever attended an even vaguely libertarian event: there are very few women around. As libertarians also tend to be ruthlessly logical and untroubled by differential outcomes along lines of gender or ethnicity – specifically in small, self-selected samples like conferences – they are usually not very bothered by the composition of their group (other than to lament the potential mating opportunities). The head rules, not the heart – or in this case, not even the phallus.

One of the most well-established (and under-appreciated) facts in the scientific community is the male-female divide along Simon Baron-Cohen’s Empathizing-Systemizing scale. The observation here is that males more often have an innate desire to understand entire systems rather than individual components – or the actions or fates of those components: “the variables in a system and how those variables govern the behaviour of that system,” as Haidt put it in a lecture at Cato. Examples include subway maps, strategy games, spreadsheets, or chess (for instance, there has never been a female world champion). Women, stereotypically, are much more inclined to discover, understand, mirror and even validate others’ feelings. Men are more interested in things while women are more concerned with people, I argued in my 2018 Notes post ‘The Factual Basis of Political Opinion’, paraphrasing Jordan Peterson.

The same reason that make men disproportionately interested in engineering – much more so than women – also make men more inclined towards libertarianism. A systemizing brain is more predisposed to libertarian ideology than is the empathizing brain – not to mention the ungoverned structure of free markets, and the bottom-up decentralized solutions offered to widespread societal ills.

Thus, we really shouldn’t be surprised about the lack of women in the libertarian ranks: libertarians are the least empathic bunch, which means that women, being more inclined towards empathy, are probably more appalled by an ideology that so ruthlessly favours predominantly male traits.

As I’ve learned from reading Bloom’s book, empathy – while occasionally laudable and desirable among friends and loved ones – usually drives us towards very poor decisions. It blinds us and biases us to preferring those we already like over those far away or those we cannot see. The “spotlight effect” that empathy provides makes us hone in on the individual event, overlooking the bigger picture or long-term effects. Bloom’s general argument lays out the case for why empathy involves in-group bias and clouds our moral judgements. It makes our actions “innumerate and myopic” and “insensitive to statistical data.” Empathy, writes Bloom:

does poorly in a world where there are many people in need and where the effects of one’s actions are diffuse, often delayed, and difficult to compute, a world in which an act that helps one person in the here and now can lead to greater suffering in the future.

In experiments, truly empathizing with individuals make us, for instance, more likely to move a patient higher on a donation list – even when knowing that some other (objectively-speaking) more-deserving recipient is thereby being moved down. Empathy implores us to save a visible harm, but ignore an even larger (and later) but statistically-disbursed harm.

Perhaps libertarians are the “the least empathic people on earth.” But after reading Bloom’s Against Empathy, I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. Perhaps – shocker! – what the world needs is a little bit more libertarian values.