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.

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.

Brazil-Africa Relations, Now and Then

The first academic paper I ever published was about Brazil-Africa Relations, approximately from the 1960s to the 2000s. The main point of the article was to compare three moments of Brazilian Foreign Policy Towards Africa: the Independent Foreign Policy of the Early 1960s; the Foreign Policy of the latter Military Governments (late 1970s) and the Foreign Policy of the Lula administration (2003-2011). My main conclusion was that the foreign policy towards Africa of these three moments was very similar. Although some would exalt Lula’s foreign policy as something extraordinary, the truth, as I saw it, was that it was very well grounded in a tradition of Brazilian Foreign Policy.

Today I feel somewhat ashamed of that paper. I failed to highlight the irony: the leftist government of Lula had a foreign policy strikingly similar to that of the (supposedly) far-right military regime. The information, to be sure, is all there. One has simply to come to this obvious conclusion.

The foreign policy of Lula and Dilma was indeed very similar to that of Ernesto Geisel and João Batista Figueiredo, the last two generals to be presidents of Brazil, and not only regarding Africa. Dilma’s economic policy was extremely similar to that of Geisel, the same policy that, by the way, led Brazil to the hyperinflation of the 1980s and early 1990s.

It is definitely ironic. The Workers Party began as an opposition to the military government in Brazil. Dilma was a terrorist guerrilla warrior who fought against that regime (and never publicly apologized for that). However, once in power, they became very similar to their enemies. I’ll leave the readers to come to their own conclusions about this. But regarding Africa: I wasn’t able to continue my research. But I’m still very interested in that continent. Brazil is geographically and culturally very similar to many African nations. I believe there are great opportunities for mutual aggrandizement. But “mutual” is not what I saw in my research. I saw Brazil being hypocritical: The US is (in the sick mind of some leftist Brazilian politicians and diplomats) imperialist towards Brazil; therefore, Brazil will be imperialist towards Africa. I hope that a more market-friendly Brazil will be able to do something different.

What is going on in Brazil

I’ve been thinking about writing a short essay about some of the things going on in Brazil right now, especially concerning politics and economics, for my English speaking friends. I guess one can get really lost in the middle of so much news, and to the best of my knowledge, some left-leaning journalists are saying quite some nonsense already. So here we go!

President Dilma Rousseff was impeached over a year ago. Her party, the Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT in Portuguese) is officially a social democrat party, close to the European social democracy tradition, i.e., socialists who want to attain power through a non violent, non revolutionary path. In the end, as it happens with so many big parties, PT has many internal tendencies and in-fighting, but I believe the party can be summarized especially in two tendencies.

On one hand you have cultural Marxists, in the Frankfurt School but even more in the Antonio Gramsci tradition. Many people in PT and other Brazilian socialist parties understood long ago that they had to win a cultural war before they won the political war. And so, these factions are much more interested in feminism, gay rights, and minority rights in general than in anything else. To the best of my knowledge, this is a strategy that backfires somewhat: cultural Leftism is a self defeating philosophy, and so, cultural Marxists are more and more into a witch hunt that damages even themselves. They make a lot of noise, to be sure, but they can’t run a country.

On the other hand, many Brazilian socialists are almost entirely pragmatic. It seems that they forgot about Marxism long ago, and are somehow even convinced of the Washington Consensus. They know basic economics, such as money doesn’t grow on trees and there’s no such thing as free lunch. But they also don’t want to lose face, and most importantly, don’t want to lose position. So, they surely won’t take measures that really shrink the size of the state to a healthy degree.

Dilma’s supporters still say she was the victim of a coup. Of course, she wasn’t. She was impeached with overwhelming evidence of her wrongdoings according to Brazilian law. Other than that, it is hard to believe in a coup where all branches of government agree and the military are not involved in any way. Eventually her supporters sophisticated the argument by saying she was the victim of a “parliamentary coup.” It is nonsense, but if we take it with a grain of salt we can be reminded of something important in Brazilian politics – or politics in general. Dilma was not impeached because of her wrongdoings. Many politicians in Brazil have done similar or worse things than her. She was impeached because she lost support, mostly in the legislative branch. For the wrong reasons (opposition to Dilma), the representatives did the right thing.

One of the problems that Brazil faces today is that the same congress that impeached Dilma for the wrong reasons expects from her successor, Michel Temer, the political favors they used to get from Dilma’s predecessor, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. But these favors are not cheap. Other than that, even if he is a crook, Temer seems to realize that Brazil can’t suffer any more socialism. In the end Brazil is facing some (sort of) free market reforms, but without really shaking the basis of a state too big to function properly.

Brazil six months after Dilma Rousseff

Six months after President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, Brazil remains plunged into one of the biggest crises in its history. Economically the outlook is worrisome, with little chance that the country will grow again anytime soon. Politically the government of President Michel Temer has little credibility. Although brought to power by a process whose legitimacy cannot be questioned (even if groups linked to the former president still insist on the narrative of the coup – although without the same energy as before), Temer has no expressive popular support and is attached to oligarchic interests difficult to circumvent. In other areas, the crisis is also present: urban violence is increasing, unemployment, especially among the young, remains high, and education is among the worst in the world, among other examples. It is surprising that Brazil, considering its GDP, is one of the largest economies on the planet.

As I predicted in a previous article, Dilma Rousseff’s departure from power, however just and necessary, would not be the solution to all Brazil’s problems. Rousseff, although president of the country, was far from having a leading role in the Brazilian reality. As local press often put it, she was just a pole put in place by former President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva hoping to one day return to power (which he never completely left). Today, however, Lula is the target of several corruption investigations and is expected to go to jail before he can contest new elections. Meanwhile, the government of Michel Temer offers little news compared to the previous.

Michel Temer is a lifelong member of PMDB. PMDB was formed during the Military Government that lasted from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. It was the consented opposition to the military, and eventually added a wide variety of political leadership. Leaving the military leadership period, some tried to keep the PMDB united as a great democratic front, but this was neither doable nor desirable. Keeping the PMDB together was not feasible because what united its main leaders was only opposition to the military government. In addition, the party added an irreconcilable variety of political ideas and projects, and it was not desirable to keep them together because it would be important for Brazilian political leaders to show their true colors at a moment when internationally the decline of socialism was being discussed. After a stampede of many of its most active leadership to other parties (mainly to the PSDB), the PMDB became a pragmatic, often oligarchic, legend and without clear ideological orientation, very similar to the Mexican PRI.

Being a party of national expression, the PMDB had oscillating relations with all Brazilian governments since the 1980s, but with one certainty: the PMDB is a party that does not play to lose. Eventually a part of the party leadership understood that the arrival of the PT to the presidency of the country was inevitable and proposed an alliance. This explains the presence of Temer as Rousseff’s vice president. But it would be wrong to say that the PMDB simply joined the winning team: the PT was immeasurably benefited by the alliance, and probably would not have reached or remained in power without the new ally. The alliance with the PT also showed that, despite the ideological discourse, the PT had little novelty to offer to Brazilian politics.

Although he has waved with reforms in favor of economic freedom, Temer has done little that can considered new so far. The freezing of government spending, well received by many right-wing groups, does not really touch the foundations of Brazilian statism: the government remains almost omnipresent, only without the same money to play its part. The proposed pension reform, similarly, does not alter the fundamentals of the state’s relationship with society. Finally, Temer put the economic policy in the hands of Henrique Meirelles, who had already been President of the Central Bank of Lula. Meirelles is one of the main responsible for the crisis that the country faces today, and its revenue to get around the problems remains the same: stimulus spending. In other words, do more of what brought us to the current situation in the first place.

A positive aspect of the current Brazilian crisis is the emergence or strengthening of right-wing political groups. Although the Brazilian right still is quite authoritarian, there are inclinations in favor of the free market being strengthened. Of course, strengthening a pro-market right annoys the left, and this is perhaps the best sign that this is a political trend gaining real space. While it is still difficult to see a light at the end of the tunnel, the 2018 presidential election may be the most relevant to the country since 1989.