2019: Year in Review

It’s been a heck of a year. Thanks for plugging along with Notes On Liberty. Like the world around me, NOL keeps getting better and better. Traffic in 2019 came from all over the place, but the usual suspects didn’t disappoint: the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, India, and Australia (in that order) supplied the most readers, again.

As far as most popular posts, I’ll list the top 10 below, but such a list doesn’t do justice to NOL and the Notewriters’ contribution to the Great Conversation, nor will the list reflect the fact that some of NOL‘s classic pieces from years ago were also popular again.

Nick’s “One weird old tax could slash wealth inequality (NIMBYs, don’t click!)” was in the top ten for most of this year, and his posts on John Rawls, The Joker film, Dominic Cummings, and the UK’s pornographer & puritan coalition are all worth reading again (and again). The Financial Times, RealClearPolicy, 3 Quarks Daily, and RealClearWorld all featured Nick’s stuff throughout 2019.

Joakim had a banner year at NOL, and four of his posts made the top 10. He got love from the left, right, and everything in between this year. “Elite Anxiety: Paul Collier’s ‘Future of Capitalism’” (#9), “In Defense of Not Having a Clue” (#8), and “You’re Not Worth My Time” (#7) all caused havoc on the internet and in coffee shops around the world. Joakim’s piece on Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice (#2) broke – no shattered – NOL‘s records. Aside from shattering NOL‘s records, Joakim also had excellent stuff on financial history, Richard Davies, and Nassim Taleb. He is also beginning to bud as a cultural commentator, too, as you can probably tell from his sporadic notes on opinions. Joakim wants a more rational, more internationalist, and more skeptical world to live in. He’s doing everything he can to make that happen. And don’t forget this one: “Economists, Economic History, and Theory.”

Tridivesh had an excellent third year at NOL. His most popular piece was “Italy and the Belt and Road Initiative,” and most of his other notes have been featured on RealClearWorld‘s front page. Tridivesh has also been working with me behind the scenes to unveil a new feature at NOL in 2020, and I couldn’t be more humbled about working with him.

Bill had a slower year here at NOL, as he’s been working in the real world, but he still managed to put out some bangers. “Epistemological anarchism to anarchism” kicked off a Feyerabendian buzz at NOL, and he put together well-argued pieces on psychedelics, abortion, and the alt-right. His short 2017 note on left-libertarianism has quietly become a NOL classic.

Mary had a phenomenal year at NOL, which was capped off with some love from RealClearPolicy for her “Contempt for Capitalism” piece. She kicked off the year with a sharp piece on semiotics in national dialogue, before then producing a four-part essay on bourgeois culture. Mary also savaged privileged hypocrisy and took a cultural tour through the early 20th century. Oh, and she did all this while doing doctoral work at Oxford. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with in 2020.

Aris’ debut year at NOL was phenomenal. Reread “Rawls, Antigone and the tragic irony of norms” and you’ll know what I’m talking about. I am looking forward to Dr Trantidis’ first full year at NOL in 2020.

Rick continues to be my favorite blogger. His pieces on pollution taxes (here and here) stirred up the libertarian faithful, and he is at his Niskanenian best on bullshit jobs and property rights. His notes on Paul Feyerabend, which I hope he’ll continue throughout 2020, were the centerpiece of NOL‘s spontaneity this year.

Vincent only had two posts at NOL in 2019, but boy were they good: “Interwar US inequality data are deeply flawed” and “Not all GDP measurement errors are greater than zero!” Dr Geloso focused most of his time on publishing academic work.

Alexander instituted the “Sunday Poetry” series at NOL this year and I couldn’t be happier about it. I look forward to reading NOL every day, but especially on Sundays now thanks to his new series. Alex also put out the popular essay “Libertarianism and Neoliberalism – A difference that matters?” (#10), which I suspect will one day grow to be a classic. That wasn’t all. Alex was the author of a number of my personal faves at NOL this year, including pieces about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, constructivism in international relations (part 1 and part 2), and some of the more difficult challenges facing diplomacy today.

Edwin ground out a number of posts in 2019 and, true to character, they challenged orthodoxy and widely-held (by libertarians) opinions. He said “no” to military intervention in Venezuela, though not for the reasons you may think, and that free immigration cannot be classified as a right under classical liberalism. He also poured cold water on Hong Kong’s protests and recommended some good reads on various topics (namely, Robert Nozick and The Troubles). Edwin has several essays on liberalism at NOL that are now bona fide classics.

Federico produced a number of longform essays this year, including “Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders” and “Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives” (the latter went on to be featured in the Financial Times and led to at least one formal talk on the subject in Buenos Aires). He also contributed to NOL‘s longstanding position as a bulwark against libertarian dogma with “There is no such thing as a sunk cost fallacy.”

Jacques had a number of hits this year, including “Poverty Under Democratic Socialism” and “Mass shootings in perspective.” His notes on the problems with higher education, aka the university system, also garnered plenty of eyeballs.

Michelangelo, Lode, Zak, and Shree were all working on their PhDs this year, so we didn’t hear from them much, if at all. Hopefully, 2020 will give them a bit more freedom to expand their thoughts. Lucas was not able to contribute anything this year either, but I am confident that 2020 will be the year he reenters the public fray.

Mark spent the year promoting his new book (co-authored by Noel Johnson) Persecution & Toleration. Out of this work arose one of the more popular posts at NOL earlier in the year: “The Institutional Foundations of Antisemitism.” Hopefully Mark will have a little less on his plate in 2020, so he can hang out at NOL more often.

Derrill’s “Romance Econometrics” generated buzz in the left-wing econ blogosphere, and his “Watson my mind today” series began to take flight in 2019. Dr Watson is a true teacher, and I am hoping 2020 is the year he can start dedicating more time to the NOL project, first with his “Watson my mind today” series and second with more insights into thinking like an economist.

Kevin’s “Hyperinflation and trust in ancient Rome” (#6) took the internet by storm, and his 2017 posts on paradoxical geniuses and the deleted slavery clause in the US constitution both received renewed and much deserved interest. But it was his “The Myth of the Nazi War Machine” (#1) that catapulted NOL into its best year yet. I have no idea what Kevin will write about in 2020, but I do know that it’ll be great stuff.

Bruno, one of NOL’s most consistent bloggers and one of its two representatives from Brazil, did not disappoint. His “Liberalism in International Relations” did exceptionally well, as did his post on the differences between conservatives, liberals, and libertarians. Bruno also pitched in on Brazilian politics and Christianity as a global and political phenomenon. His postmodernism posts from years past continue to do well.

Andrei, after several years of gentle prodding, finally got on the board at NOL and his thoughts on Foucault and his libertarian temptation late in life (#5) did much better than predicted. I am hoping to get him more involved in 2020. You can do your part by engaging him in the ‘comments’ threads.

Chhay Lin kept us all abreast of the situation in Hong Kong this year. Ash honed in on housing economics, Barry chimed in on EU elections, and Adrián teased us all in January with his “Selective Moral Argumentation.” Hopefully these four can find a way to fire on all cylinders at NOL in 2020, because they have a lot of cool stuff on their minds (including, but not limited to, bitcoin, language, elections in dictatorships, literature, and YIMBYism).

Ethan crushed it this year, with most of his posts ending up on the front page of RealClearPolicy. More importantly, though, was his commitment to the Tocquevillian idea that lawyers are responsible for education in democratic societies. For that, I am grateful, and I hope he can continue the pace he set during the first half of the year. His most popular piece, by the way, was “Spaghetti Monsters and Free Exercise.” Read it again!

I had a good year here, too. My pieces on federation (#3) and American literature (#4) did waaaaaay better than expected, and my nightcaps continue to pick up readers and push the conversation. I launched the “Be Our Guest” feature here at NOL, too, and it has been a mild success.

Thank you, readers, for a great 2019 and I hope you stick around for what’s in store during 2020. It might be good, it might be bad, and it might be ugly, but isn’t that what spontaneous thoughts on a humble creed are all about? Keep leaving comments, too. The conversation can’t move (forward or backward) without your voice.

Some lessons from Brazil

Jair Bolsonaro has been in government for almost six months now. I believe I can proudly say that I saw this coming before many people: Bolsonaro would be the next president in Brazil. However, he might not be the best person for the job.

In my assessment, Bolsonaro is not the usual politician. As John Mearsheimer brilliantly observed, politicians lie. A lot. It should be a given: dogs bark, cats climb on trees, and politicians lie. Bolsonaro, as far as I can tell, doesn’t. And that might be part of the problem: he always speaks his mind. Nothing is concealed, even when strategy might call for that.

In the past week, Bolsonaro sent an open letter to some of his followers (not written by him) manifesting how hard it is to govern Brazil. The letter sounds like a vent for the president’s frustration: “You Either Die A Hero, Or You Live Long Enough To See Yourself Become The Villain”. But what Bolsonaro means by all that is not clear. For all sorts of reasons, corruption is a living part of Brazilian politics. Actually, of politics in general, just a little more down there. So why the president sounds surprised by that?

Some people in the press speculated that Bolsonaro plans a coup. Call that it is impossible to govern with the current congress and just close it. To be sure, that is not unthinkable, and Brazil has historical precedents for that. But that doesn’t sound like something that Bolsonaro would do. Sounds more like that he is trying to bypass Congress and govern with direct popular support.

Brazilian congress is fabulously corrupt, and Bolsonaro still enjoys great popularity. Maybe he wants to use that to press Congress for the changes Brazil needs. In any case, it is a good opportunity to remember some lessons: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Or, in other words, if men were angels, we wouldn’t need government. And if we were governed by angels, we wouldn’t need checks and balances. But we are not governed by angels. Therefore, checks and balances are necessary. The downside is that this makes the government slow when important changes are necessary. The temptation is to close democratic institutions and just do things the old fashion way: through a dictatorship. I don’t think that is where Brazil is going right now. But it’s important to remember that we need way more than a president. We need people who really understand and appreciate freedom. An uneducated people on these matters will always grow impatient and vote for an easy solution.

Nightcap

  1. Japan’s new imperial era Thisanka Siripala, the Diplomat
  2. The sad decline of American democracy Scott Sumner, EconLog
  3. Understanding Israel Brent Sasley, Duck of Minerva
  4. The last struggle of the Yanomami Alma Guillermoprieto, NYRB

Brazil, 1984

Danilo Gentili, one of Brazil’s most famous and popular comedians, was convicted and sentenced to seven months of prison time for defaming Maria do Rosário, a Brazilian federal congresswoman with a suggestion that she was a whore in a YouTube video. I wrote about Maria do Rosário before here.

Danilo has been literally on the Worker’s Party blacklist for many years because of his political remarks against it. His “crime” this time, according to the official sentence, was to offend a congressperson. The same kind of defamation against a “normal” citizen would not lead him to jail. Here is what happened: in his twitter account, Danilo criticized Maria do Rosário, saying that she was a hypocrite. The reason was because José de Abreu, a Brazilian actor famous for supporting the Worker’s Party, spit on the face of a woman in a restaurant after she criticized his political positions. Abreu did that shortly after Jean Wyllys, a former Brazil congressman, spit on Jair Bolsonaro. Maria do Rosário, who always presents herself as a feminist, defended José de Abreu. Danilo commented in the case in his twiter account saying that Maria do Rosário was a hypocrite. The congresswoman sent Danilo an official congress letter asking him to delete his twits. The comedian answered putting the letter inside his paints and then sending it back, an action he recorded on video and uploaded to YouTube.

In a similar case, not too long ago, Supreme Court judge Enrique Ricardo Lewandowski threatened with jail an airplane passenger who, turning to him, said he was ashamed of the Supreme Court. Lewandowski is often perceived as defending the Worker’s Party and its interests.

Why do I so frequently write in English about Brazil? In part because I want a broader audience who doesn’t know Portuguese to know what is going on there. As far as I know, for quite some time people outside Germany or the USSR thought that they were doing pretty well. Little did they know. Also because I want to offer a counterpoint to the (more often than not) leftist media that calls Bolsonaro a far-right racist, misogynist. Finally, because I hope that people from outside who read this might engage with the cause of freedom in Brazil. George Soros and others are engaging with the cause of slavery. They count on you not caring about it.

As I wrote before, Brazilian democracy is under threat. And it is not because of Jair Bolsonaro.

Nazism: left or right? (again)

A few days ago, Brazil’s Foreign Affair’s Minister declared that Nazism “derives from the left”. Asked about his minister’s remark, president Jair Bolsonaro confirmed that he understands Nazism as a left-wing movement.

The understanding that Nazism is a left-wing movement is growing among Brazilian conservatives, especially those who support Bolsonaro’s government. On the other side of the debate, Bolsonaro’s adversaries ridiculed his remark or manifested concern with his “historical revisionism”.

Seems to me that classifying Nazim as a left-wing movement is not a Brazilian exclusivity. Political commentators from other countries (such as Dinesh D’Souza) are saying the same thing. It is probably more accurate to say that Brazilians are following a trend.

This trend, however, is not new. One of Friedrich Hayek’s main points in Road to Serfdom was to tell social democrats (who were indeed democrats in the classical liberal sense of the word) that they were closer to Nazis than they would like to admit. Hayek’s remark was as polemic then as it is now, but mainly because he is saying the truth: as Milton Friedman said, “The society that puts equality before freedom will end up with neither. The society that puts freedom before equality will end up with a great measure of both.” If I remember correctly, it was also Friedman who said that in order to obtain perfect equality more government would be necessary, which would completely undermine the desire for equality, for those in government would most certainly not be equal to everyone else.

The standard in Political Science is, of course, to call Nazim a right-wing movement. However, we see in moments like this how political and how little scientific Political Science can be. What many people observe is that Nazism shares a lot with communism: both are violent, both emphasize the collective (and not the individual), both rely on popular leaders, and so on. Of course, there are also differences: Nazism has nothing of the class-struggle so central to communism and certainly doesn’t appeal to the cosmopolitanism present in “workers of the World, unite!”.

With all that said, I have a growing feeling that there are only two political tendencies: “live and let live” and all others. Some people can’t stand the possibility of having others living a different lifestyle from them. Some people can’t stand people who disagree. Some people like to blame others. Some people truly believe that those who think and do like they do are superior to everyone else. These people come together and ask the government to force everyone else to comply.

Brazil’s Military Coup, 55 years later

Fifty-five years ago, in 1964, Brazilian president João Goulart was overthrown and substituted by Castelo Branco, a military president. Until 1985 the country was governed by military presidents. To this day people are still debating the coup (some even denying that there was a coup), much because the victims and perpetrators are still commanding the debate. In light of that, I’d like to offer some thoughts about 1964 here.

In 1789, only thirteen years after the American Revolution, a small group of Brazilian discontents planned an independent attempt in the region of Minas Gerais. The movement failed miserably, leaving one infamous victim, Tiradentes, who would much later be considered the patron of Brazilian independence. In the following years Brazil saw many other revolts and independence attempts, but in 1808 a significant change of events took over the country: instead of fighting in Europe a war against Napoleon he believed he could not win, Dom João VI, the Portuguese prince-regent, decided to move his capital from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro. However, some years later Dom João had to choose between staying in Brazil or losing his crown. He decided to go back to Portugal. His son, Dom Pedro I, remained in Brazil as a new prince-regent. Legend has it that, when embarking back to Europe, João turned to Pedro and said, “make the independence of this country before someone else does.”

And he did: on September 7, 1822, Dom Pedro I proclaimed Brazil’s independence and became the country’s first emperor. His son, Dom Pedro II, would succeed him in 1840 and rule until 1889 when the monarchy was overthrown, and the republic established. Now, just imagine if the king or prince of England or Spain proclaimed himself emperor of America. Well, that’s what happened in Brazil. It seems to me that people forget how absurd this scenario really was.

Fast-forward: Dom Pedro I followed his father’s steps in 1831. He had to choose between staying in Brazil or jeopardizing his family’s position in Europe. He went back to Portugal but left his son to become emperor in Brazil. Because Dom Pedro II was still only four years old, that wouldn’t happen until almost a decade later. And so, the 1830s were a very turmoiled time in Brazilian history. The country was ruled by several regents and was about to be torn apart. This favored speeding up Dom Pedro II’s coronation. Although he was only 14 years old, his rise to power helped to heal several wounds and bring a union to Brazil. The country’s subsequent history, at least until the proclamation of the republic in 1889, was lived under the shadow of the 1830s. To a high degree the Brazilian elites were afraid that without a strong central power, represented by the emperor, the country would fall apart, much like Hispanic America. On top of that, Brazilian economy was majorly dependent on African slaves, and the same elites were afraid that the Haitian Revolution of 1803 would be emulated in their country in the absence of a strong centralized government.

These are in my view the basics of Brazilian history in the 19th century. To prevent regional fragmentation (as in Hispanic America) or a slave revolution (as in Haiti) a very strong and centralized government was established. Liberal on the surface, but very far from that in reality. I don’t question that in the absence of this choice Brazilian history might have been quite different. However, I think that it is important to notice that Brazilian political history didn’t have a very democratic beginning.

As I already mentioned, the monarchy in Brazil ended in 1889. Dom Pedro II suffered a textbook coup d’état: some economic elites colluded with the military (mostly the army) and took over the power. The first forty years of Brazilian republic were notoriously oligarchic, ruled mostly by the coffee elites of the states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais. These elites, however, tasted their own medicine when, in 1930, Getúlio Vargas took over power by force. He would be the country’s dictator until 1945.

Vargas deserves special attention, both because of his long time in power and his enduring influence. On many occasions, he has been classified as a fascist, or something close to that. Populist is also a label that has been associated with him. I prefer to label him as “getulist”. To be sure, Vargas had some resemblance to fascists in Europe and populists in Latin America, but I understand that this is mainly so because all these governments share in their anti-liberalism, centralization of power and tendency to extreme violence.

Vargas peacefully stepped down from power in 1945, only to come back (democratically elected!) in 1951. He committed suicide in 1954. The whole period of 1945-1964 was lived under his shadow. Many tried to be his successor. Juscelino Kubitsheck, president from 1956 to 1961, began his political career as Vargas’ protégé and remained faithful to the mentor until Getúlio’s death. Leonel Brizola, governor of Rio Grande do Sul (1959-1963) – Vargas’ home state – also tried to continue Getúlio’s legacy. Even more so did Brizola’s brother in law, João Goulart, president from 1961 until the 1964 coup.

Even more than Juscelino Kubitsheck, João Goulart began his political career as a protégé of Getúlio Vargas, but never achieved the political brilliance of his mentor. Jango, as he was called, was not a communist by any means. Very much like Vargas, his ideology was a confused mix of positivism, laborism, populism and any other -isms. Very pragmatic. However, above all, Jango was a fool. He was unable to understand that the World had changed. What was successful for Vargas in the 1930s could not be reproduced in the 1960s. Because of that, amid the Cold War scenario he was mistaken for a communist by some. Others, more pointedly, realized that he was too oblivion to the communist threat Brazil was facing.

Communists had been trying to come to power in Brazil (rarely democratically) since the 1920s. The Cold War only intensified this threat. After the Cuban Revolution of 1959 many feared that Brazil would be the next domino to fall.

And this is in short, the scenario in which the military came to power in Brazil in 1964. As late Brazilian economist Roberto Campos very lucidly pointed, democracy was sadly not an option for Brazil in 1964. The country had to choose between a right-wing or a left-wing dictatorship. I believe they chose correctly. The communists took power in Cuba in 1959. They are still there. The military seized control in Brazil in 1964. They pacifically laid over power 21 years after and never tried to come back. I am not saying that a right-wing dictatorship is a good solution against leftism. Anyone who reads this here is reading his prejudices solely. What I am saying is that Brazil sadly has little democratic tradition and had even less 55 years ago. Therefore, we should not be surprised that the military took over power in 1964. Surprisingly would be if things happened in any other way. I don’t celebrate the military government of 1964-1985. Just the opposite: as with so many things in Brazilian history (or in life!) it is not something to celebrate. Just to accept and live with it.

Bolsonaro, Carnaval, Golden Shower, Reason

Sao Paulo. Carnival. Two men climb on a newsstand, bus stop, or truck. The video is not so clear. What is clear is that they are half-naked. What they do next is pretty graphic, and I don’t feel comfortable describing it here. Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, makes a tweet about what happened. Several websites, including Reason, criticize Bolsonaro.

The fact that several sites on the left criticize Bolsonaro does not surprise me, but I am disappointed with Reason. But let’s get some facts. Carnival is indeed a traditional party in Brazil, at least in some cities like Rio de Janeiro and Salvador. But for many people, Carnival is just a cultural imposition. Maybe the editors of Reason do not even know it, but Carnival is an official holiday. That is: even if you want to work, you are duly prohibited from doing so. Another thing that the editors of Reason forgot to report is that Carnival is largely sustained with public money. That is: like you or not, the party is partially sustained with your money raised through taxes. Another part of the money comes from organized crime. Yes. Carnival is partially supported by the state and partly by organized crime. Only a minimal part of the money is voluntarily given away by people interested in attending the party. That is: for a good anarcho-capitalist, Carnival is almost completely sustained by organized crime.

I grew up in a neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro where the carnival blocks start early and end late. Several streets are closed. My right to come and go is severely impaired. Even if I close all the windows (while it is 100º F outside), the noise of the music still prevents me from even thinking. I always think about people who are sick and need to rest. Or that they are elderly. Or families with small children. Carnival is the least libertarian party I can imagine: your participation is not voluntary. In fact, one of the most famous Carnival songs has very telling lyrics: “who does not like samba, good people are not. It’s bad in the head or sick on the foot.” To be clear: if you do not like samba you have a taste different from mine and we will respect ourselves? Not! You’re a bad person!

So, it is against this party that Jair Bolsonaro manifested himself. I’m proud of my president. One thing that Bolsonaro certainly did not do was try to be populist. If he wanted to be a populist, he would have done what all the presidents before him did: sponsor the bread and circus. By stating as he did, Bolsonaro proved that it is anything but populist. Reason has no idea what is going on in Brazil.

As a good libertarian I will say: if you like samba, you have a bad musical taste. Anyway, it’s your taste, not mine. But if you support Carnaval, you are attending a party that harms millions of people. You are not really thinking about your neighbor. And if you call yourself a libertarian and oppose Bolsonaro on this, something is very wrong. Maybe you just have no idea what is going on in Brazil.

Maybe you’re not that libertarian.