What is the proper role of government?

Former Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff publicly lied by saying that she had a M.A. and a Ph.D. in Economics. The lie was discovered in 2009, when she still wasn’t Brazil’s president. Maybe that’s the problem with Dilma: she would even lie to say she was highly competent in economics.

Nobody in the 19th century believed that the role of government was to control the economy. This notion only became strong in the 20th century and to a great degree thanks to Keynesianism. It was Keynes who popularized the notion that the free market is inherently unstable, and that government should exercise some oversight on it.

Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian presidential candidate ahead in the opinion polls, has no problem admitting he doesn’t know enough about economics. For me, this is one of his main strengths. In the past, Bolsonaro was more statist. Today he shows signs of becoming more inclined towards free markets. He is clearly willing to delegate the economic policy of his government to people who are strongly favorable to the free market. In other words, Bolsonaro doesn’t know a lot about economics and he is not ashamed of admitting it. But he knows that too much government control ruins a country’s economy.

Dilma is arrogant. Part of her arrogance is to believe that she would be able to control the economy politically. Bolsonaro seems to be humble enough to admit that’s impossible. Keynes believed that the economy is inherently unstable. Contradictorily he advised governments to try to control it. Hayek’s answer to Keynes was that economics is not a science you can master in college. There are simply way too many variables for any human to control.

Bolsonaro’s focus is on public security. Criminality is on the rise in Brazil. People are afraid of walking on the streets, especially in big cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. That should be the role of government: to guarantee we can go out for work, come back, and not get killed or robbed on the way. If the government is doing that, it is already doing a lot. People freely and willingly interacting with one another can do the rest. Guarantee that evildoers will be punished, and watch the economy fly. And before I forget: contrary to cultural Marxism (and Rousseau), criminals are not victims of the society. Society is the victim of criminals.

Cities in capitalism are more beautiful

The other day I wrote about some of the reasons why I love capitalism. One of them is that cities in capitalism are more beautiful. I am convinced of this when I think about some cities I am more familiar with, including their geography and history.

Most foreigners I know have difficulty to answering correctly, when asked, “What is Brazil’s national capital?”. Most people answer Rio de Janeiro, but it is actually Brasilia. Many people say that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, but I am very inclined to say that this is not so. I am still not 100% sure about this, but I believe that there is something objective about beauty. Maybe it is not something so strict, like a point. Maybe it is something broader, like an area. But still, I am inclined to say that there is something objective about it. At least for me, Brasilia is one of the ugliest cities conceivable. I am really glad to say that. Its architecture was designed by Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa. Growing up in Brazil, questioning that Niemeyer was a genius is almost anathema, almost like saying that Maradona was better than Pelé or that Ayrton Senna was not the best Formula One pilot ever. Because of that, I was always happy to say that Niemeyer’s buildings are among the ugliest things on the surface of this planet. It was like shouting that the king is naked.

Brasilia is very beautiful from the sky. Its shape resembles an airplane or a cross. But that is the problem: the city is beautiful from heaven, but not for the people walking in it. It was made for God to see from up there. But, as Niemeyer was a convinced atheist, I am not sure who is watching his creation. My guess is that Niemeyer thought that he was a god. A very mean god, who didn’t care about people having to spend lots of time in cars driving long distances.

Niemeyer was also related, with Lucio Costa, to Barra da Tijuca, a neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro where I spent lots of time growing up. Lucio Costa, as far as I’m concerned, was not a communist. I believe he was closely connected to the Brazilian version of positivism. Because positivism and communism are basically the same, it doesn’t make much of a difference. Barra da Tijuca is very similar to Brasilia: very beautiful if looked at from the sky, but very unpleasant for the pedestrian. Very long distances to walk. Cars are mandatory.

The most pleasant neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro are the result of spontaneous order. As Hayek noticed, spontaneous order is one of the central features of capitalism. People usually contrasted between planned economies (such as the USSR) and unplanned economies (such as the US in some moment of its history). But Hayek observed that all economies are planned. Some are centrally planned. Others are planned by several individuals who are not following a specific central plan.

I am convinced that cities that follow no plan, or a very simple plan, are more beautiful than cities that follow a very specific central plan. New York, as far as I know, followed a simple plan, a grid. But other than that, there was a lot of freedom in the use of the space for much of its history. It’s a city that I just love. I am more comfortable talking about Rio de Janeiro. It is a city that was at its best before modern architecture, positivism, socialism, Developmentalism, and other isms. It was better when Brazil had a little more classical liberalism.

What is Cultural Marxism, anyway?

I remember many years ago when Sarah Palin was in the spotlight and she accused Obama of socialism. Back then, I thought this was nonsense and I couldn’t see why conservatives in the US hated Obama so much. However, coming from my academic and cultural background I should know better.

This year we have presidential elections in Brazil. After many years we have presidential candidates who unapologetically call themselves right-wing. Until not many years ago, people in Brazil were simply ashamed of describing themselves in this way. Maybe it has to do with the military dictatorship Brazil was under from 1964 to 1985. Back then, to be “right-wing” was to be in favor of the dictatorship. To be left-wing was to oppose it. The armed forces took power in Brazil to avoid the communists of doing so. I am every day more convinced that this backfired. Because they were fought by the military, communists posed as victims who were simply fighting for democracy. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth: they were terrorists who wanted to transform Brazil into a South American USSR. But the communists-as-democrats is the narrative I and many Brazilians learned in school.

Brazil has a long history of communist influence. Since the 1920s the USSR tried to influence politics in my country, including a failed coup in the 1930s, the Brazilian uprising of 1935. However, communists eventually learned that Brazilians were socially too conservative to accept communist rule. That’s about when they discovered cultural Marxism, especially Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School. Brazil’s strongest socialist party, the Worker’s Party (PT) is much more influenced by Gramsci than by Lenin or even Marx. Marx is more like a shadow, a mythical figure that very few people actually read.

Cultural Marxism is not a well defined academic paradigm. It is a political program. For some years the main leaders of PT were not even secretive about this. They accepted in their economic policy many of the basics of the Washington Consensus. In their cultural agenda, however, they took in anything that would help overturn conservative values (I mean here Judeo-Christian). But even here, they would not fight it openly. Jesus was not entirely overthrown. Instead, he turned into a revolutionary, a 1st century Che Guevara,  by Liberation Theology. In the political program of winning culture, any help is welcome. That’s how Foucault, Derrida, the Frankfurt School, anything that questions modern liberal capitalist society, is used to question “everything that is.”

Cultural Marxism, in sum, is nihilism. They don’t really have anything to substitute the culture they want to overturn. That is why it sounds so abstract. Academically, that’s exactly what it is. Politically, however, it serves a very specific purpose: power.

Explaining current Brazilian politics to known-Brazilians and why I believe this is time for optimism

It seems that many observers believe that Brazil’s current political situation is one of instability and uncertainty. Since the mid-1990s the national political scene has been dominated by two parties: the Worker’s Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT, in Portuguese) and PSDB. Now, with the main leader of the PT imprisoned – former president Lula da Silva – the PSDB also seems to have lost its rationale. It is clear that this party never had faithful voters, only an anti-PT mass who saw in it the only viable alternative. Given these factors, it is true that a political cycle that began in the 1990s is coming to an end, but far from being a moment of uncertainty and pessimism, this may be the most fruitful moment in the country’s history, as it seems that finally classical liberalism is being vindicated in Brazil.

Brazil began its political history as a semi-parliamentary monarchy. As one observer of the time put it, the country had a “backward parliamentarism”: instead of parliament controlling the monarch, it was the emperor who controlled parliament. Moreover, the Brazilian economy was extremely based on slavery. In theory, Brazil was politically and economically a liberal country. In practice, it was politically and economically a country controlled by oligarchies.

With the proclamation of the republic in 1889, little changed. The country continued to be theoretically a liberal country, with a constitution strongly influenced by the North American one and a tendency to industrialization. In practice, however, Brazil continued to be politically and economically dominated by oligarchic interests.

The republic instituted in 1889 was overthrown in 1930 by Getúlio Vargas. Vargas was president from 1930 to 1945, and his political circle continued to dominate the country until 1964. Once again, political language was often liberal, but in practice the country was dominated by sectorial interests.

Vargas committed suicide in 1954, and his political successors failed to account for the instability the country went through after World War II. The Soviet Union had been trying to infiltrate Brazil since the 1920s, and this was intensified with the Cold War. The communist influence, coupled with the megalomaniacal administrative inability of Vargas and his successors, led the country to such an instability that the population in weight clamored for the military to seize power in 1964.

The military that governed Brazil between 1964 and 1985 were influenced mainly by positivism. In simple terms, they were convinced they could run the country like a barracks. For them, the motto “order and progress” written on the Brazilian flag was taken very literally. One great irony in this is that Auguste Comte’s positivism and Karl Marx’s communism are almost twin brothers, products of the same anti-liberal mentality of the mid-19th century. The result was that Brazilian economic policy for much of the military period was not so different from that of the Soviet Union at many points in its history: based on central planning, this policy produced spectacular immediate results (the period of the “Brazilian miracle” in the early 1970s), but also resulted in the economic catastrophe of the 1980s.

However, the worst consequence of the military governments was not in the economy but in the political culture. The military fought against communism in a superficial way, overpowering only the guerrillas and terrorist groups that engaged in armed struggle. But in the meantime, many communists turned to cultural warfare, joining schools, universities, newsrooms, and even churches. The result is that Brazilian intellectual life was taken over by communism.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, elected president in 1994, is an important Brazilian intellectual. Although not an orthodox Marxist, his lineup is clearly left-wing. The difference between FHC (as he is called) and a good part of the Brazilian left (represented mainly by the PT) is that he, like Tony Blair in England and Bill Clinton in the US, opted for a third way between economic liberalism and more explicit socialism. In other words, FHC understood, along with leading PSDB leaders, that the Washington Consensus is called a consensus for good reason: there is a set of economic truths (pejoratively called neo-liberals) that are no longer the subject of debate. FHC followed these ideas, but he was heavily opposed by the PT for this.

Since the founding of the PT, in the late 1970s, Lula’s speech was quite radical, explicitly wishing to transform Brazil into a large Cuba. But Lula himself surrendered to the Washington Consensus in the early 2000s, and only then was he able to be elected president. Once in office, however, Lula commanded one of the greatest corruption scandals in world history. In addition, his historical links to the left were never erased. Although in his first term economic policy was largely liberal, this trend changed in his second term and in the presidency of his successor, Dilma Rousseff.

Today Brazil is still living in an economically difficult period, but an ironic result of more than a decade of left-wing government (especially the PT) is the strengthening of conservative and libertarian groups in Brazil. In the elections from 2002 to 2014 it was virtually impossible to identify candidates clearly along these lines. In this year’s election, we expected several candidates to explicitly identify themselves as right-wing. Jair Bolsonaro, the favorite in contention, is not historically a friend of the free market, but his more recent statements demonstrate that more and more he leans in this direction.

It is possible that in 2018 Brazil will not yet elect an explicitly libertarian president. But even so, the economic transformations initiated by FHC seem now to be vindicated. Only with the strengthening of the Internet did Brazilians have real access to conservative and libertarian ideas. With that, one of the most important political phenomena in Brazil in the last decade is the discovery of these ideas mainly by young people, and it is these young people who now cry for a candidate who defends their ideas. Bolsonaro seems to be the closest to this, although there are others willing to defend similar economic policy. After more than a decade of governments on the left, it seems that Brazil is finally going through a well-deserved right turn.

Explaining Jair Bolsonaro to non-Brazilians

I wrote about Jair Bolsonaro here some time ago, but I believe that, with the recent political changes in Brazil, it is worthy to write about him again.

Jair Messias Bolsonaro is a pre-candidate to the Brazilian presidency. Elections will happen in October, and so, following Brazilian electoral law, his candidacy won’t be official until later this year. However, it is already very public that he is going to run for president of the country.

Bolsonaro has been a congressman from Rio de Janeiro state since the 1990s, but he only achieved national notoriety fairly recently, during the last decade of government by the Worker’s Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT, in Portuguese). A former captain of the Brazilian army, he entered politics mainly to defend the interests of his colleagues. As with much of South America at some point between the 1960s and 1980s, Brazil was ruled by the military from 1964 to 1985. Since those governments, there is a tendency of loss of prestige of the armed forces in the country. Bolsonaro defended simply better pay and better work conditions for his fellow soldiers.

In the 1990s he opposed several policies of the Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC) government. FHC was responsible for bringing Brazil closer to the Washington Consensus, modernizing the Brazilian economy in many ways. Bolsonaro, however, believed that FHC was selling Brazil to foreigners. Ironically, in that opinion, he was in the company of the Worker’s Party. When the Worker’s Party came to power in 2003, Bolsonaro remained in silence for quite a while. His public opposition to the Lula and Dilma governments began only when the Ministry of Education tried to send to public schools material concerning gender ideology. Bolsonaro and others saw in that an infringement of the separation between the responsibilities of church, government, and state.

Because of his opposition to gender ideology in public schools, Bolsonaro is constantly unjustly accused of misogyny and homophobia, something silly to say the least. Bolsonaro is not a hater of women and homosexuals, at least not more than the majority of the Brazilians. The only thing one can say about him is that, as with many Brazilians, he is very crude with his language. One anecdote might help to explain. When Bolsonaro was already father to four sons, he had his first daughter. Joking, he told his friends that “he’d got weaker.” To many in the Brazilian leftist press, this means that Bolsonaro thinks that women are lesser than men. The same press, however, is not as judicial with the language of other politicians, including former president Lula da Silva, who commonly makes much worse statements. Bolsonaro’s every statement has been scrutinized by people on the left searching for something to blame.

The truth is that apparently unknowingly, Bolsonaro was one of the first Brazilian politicians to consistently fight against Gramscianism. I explain. As I was saying before, from 1964 to 1985 Brazil was ruled by the military. This happened because since the 1920s Brazil was a target of influence by the USSR. Luís Carlos Prestes, one of the most important historical leaders of the Brazilian Communist Party (Partido Comunista Brasileiro, PCB, in Portuguese), trained in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. All leftist parties in Brazil today (including the Worker’s Party) have some historical connection to the PCB. The Soviets (and Chinese, and Cubans) intensified their pressure on Brazil in the 1950s and 1960s. The result was that the vast majority of Brazilian society urged the militaries to take power in 1964.

The armed forces were great in fighting the conventional war against the communists, defeating several guerrillas in the Brazilian interior. But they were simply awful in fighting the cultural war. Early on, many on the Brazilian left noticed that they shouldn’t fight the government in a conventional Marxist-Leninist style, trying to come to power by force. Instead, they should follow Italian socialist leader Antonio Gramsci, and get to power winning hearts and minds first. And so they did. While the soldiers were busy fighting guerrillas, communist occupied schools, universities, the press, and even churches (mainly the Roman Catholic) by the Liberation Theology.

Thanks to Gramsci and his followers, when the military regime was over, Brazilian culture was majorly leaning to the left. The Worker’s Party, publicly socialist, came to power not by force, but by votes. However, Marxism as an economic agenda died a long ago. Lula and Dilma know perfectly well that classical liberalism is the way to go in economics. The aim of the Worker’s Party and associated political groups – most of whom are economically illiterate – is to transform culture. In post-marxism, the “oppressed” are no longer the factory workers, but women, homosexuals, blacks and however fits their agenda for power. We have to sympathize with some of the leftist agenda in Brazil. Historically, thanks to the false capitalism practiced there, Brazil was not a good place for minorities. The individual was never privileged in Brazil. However, the leftist solution (socialism) only makes things worse. Many countries in Latin America, starting with Cuba and Venezuela, can testify to that.

Back to Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro came to the opposition of the Worker’s Party because of the falsely progressive agenda the ruling party was trying to implement. However, since then, Bolsonaro is becoming more and more convinced of the entirety of the liberal-conservative agenda, including its economics. By liberal-conservative I mean the tradition of John Locke, Adam Smith, the Founding Fathers, Edmund Burke, Von Mises and others. Bolsonaro was intelligent and honest enough to cry that “the king is naked.” The Brazilian left doesn’t care about minorities. If they did, they would be conservative or libertarian. Classical liberal ideas have a proven record of helping the poor and the oppressed. Socialism continues to hurt everybody but the very few in power.

The leftist media covering Brazil is frightened and trying everything possible to denigrate Bolsonaro. However, so far their strategy is backfiring. Bolsonaro’s popularity in Brazil grows with every attack. On the internet, his followers call him “Mito” (Myth, in Portuguese). In every city that he visits he is followed by a large crowd of fans. In that sense, he is very much a Brazilian Donald Trump. The left insisted so much on talking about minorities that now the large minority that doesn’t fit into leftist stereotypes found his candidate.

Brazil has severe problems and one solution: rule of law. Bolsonaro seems to be not a populist, but someone who understands that society and economy need order to thrive. And it is becoming very apparent that, to the despair of the left, he might be the next Brazilian president.

The problem with Brazil (and it’s not socialism)

The problem with Brazil is not Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. It’s not the Worker’s Party. It’s not Socialism.

Certainly one of the most important politicians in Brazilian History was Getulio Vargas. Vargas came to power in a coup (that symptomatically most Brazilian historians call a revolution) in 1930. He ended up staying in power, without ever being elected by popular vote, until 1945. Then he peacefully resigned, not without electing his chosen successor, Eurico Gaspar Dutra. Vargas came back to power immediately after Dutra, and committed suicide while in office. Almost all Brazilian presidents from 1945 to 1964 were from Vargas’ close circle.

Brazilians to this day are still taught that Vargas was a hero, persecuted by an evil opposition. Initially, Vargas was some kind of Brazilian positivist. He was anti-liberal because liberalism is weak and slow. We need a strong technical government, able to identify problems and come with solutions fast. However, while in office, he became “the father of the poor,” a defensor of the lower classes. Nothing could be farther from the truth, of course, but that’s how Vargas is remembered by many.

One of my favorite interpretation of Brazil comes from Sergio Buarque de Holanda. According to Holanda, the problem with Brazil is that Brazilians are cordial. What he means by that is this: using Weber’s models of authority, he identified that Brazilians were never able to support a Legal-Rational authority. Vargas was seen as “a father.” not a president. The country is seen as a big family. Lula used a very similar vocabulary and tried to reenact Vargas’ populism.

As I mentioned, Holanda’s interpretation is Weberian. Weber’s most famous book is The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The problem with Brazil is that it never went through a protestant reformation. And because of that, it never developed the “spirit of capitalism” that Weber describes. Brazil is still, to a great degree, stuck with traditional and charismatic forms of authority.

To be sure, Brazil has many features of a modern liberal state. Since late 18th century Portugal tried to copy these from more advanced nations, especially England. Brazil followed suit. But you can’t have the accidents without the substance. Unless Brazil actually goes through a transformation in its soul, it will never become the modern liberal state many want it to be. Quoting Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, “An ignorant people will always choose Rosas.”