Nightcap

  1. Reclaiming Full-Throttle Luxury Space Communism Aaron Winslow, Los Angeles Review of Books
  2. Elves and Aliens Nick Richardson, London Review of Books
  3. Imperialism, American-style Michael Auslin, Claremont Review of Books
  4. The Congo reform project: Too dark altogether Angus Mitchell, Dublin Review of Books

Military Dictatorship in Brazil: Was it worth it?

The title of this text can already cause controversy since many understand that there was no dictatorship in Brazil, but a series of military governments that could not be classified as dictatorial. But the fact is that, in 1964, Castelo Branco became president in place of João Goulart, being succeeded by Costa e Silva, Medici, Geisel and João Figueiredo. Calling this dictatorship or not, the fact is that João Goulart was deposed and Castelo Branco occupied the presidency to avoid that the country was taken by groups sympathetic to the communism, making Brazil a “Big Cuba”. And it is against this fact that I ask if it was worth it: was it worth having 21 years of military governments to prevent a socialist government from being implanted in Brazil?

A socialist government was implemented in Brazil in 2003 by popular vote. Although political propaganda in 2002 had proclaimed an inclination towards the center of the political spectrum, the fact is that the PT never completely abandoned its socialist inclinations. It could even be said that FHC is worthy of the same comment: although less inclined to the left, the PSDB does not carry “democratic socialism” in the name for nothing. In light of this, I ask if it was worth having 21 years of military governments in Brazil. In 1988, just three years after João Figueiredo left the presidency of the country, a Constitution was promulgated with a strong Progressive character. In 1994, less than 10 years after the last military president stepped down, Brazil elected a “Third Way” president. In 2002 a president with a past of explicit connections with socialism came to power, and in 2011 the country happened to be governed by a former guerrilla warrior. If the objective of placing the military in power has been to avoid the implantation of socialist governments in Brazil, it can be said that this goal was not achieved. It was only postponed for just over 21 years.

What is socialism? Why is it so bad? Even without any empirical research, I am quite sure that most of the Brazilian population would not know how to answer these questions. In a similar vein, I am quite convinced that most of the country’s “literate class” (artists, academics, and intellectuals of all kinds) is sympathetic to socialism. Many of the political parties in Brazil carry “socialism” or “communism” in the name.

What did the military governments offer in exchange for socialism? Although they had varied characteristics, most of the governments between 1964 and 1985 tended to be a modernized version of Positivism. Positivism states that all knowledge (tradition, common sense, religion) will be superseded by positive scientific knowledge. Another way of defining it is to say that only what is empirically proven is true. Positivism, however, presents some problems. First, it is self-defeating, that is, it does not stand up to its own validation criteria: “Only what is empirically proven is true.” Is this empirically proven? Is it empirically proven that “only that which is empirically proven is true”? No. And it could not even be. Another difficulty is to carry out the empirical tests. It is possible, even with constraints, to conduct empirical tests in a controlled environment (in laboratories) to test theories and hypotheses. But it is not possible to declare the universality of the results, even if the tests are performed a very large number of times.

This “problem of induction” (to draw universal conclusions from particular, albeit many, observations) was famously answered by Karl Popper: in Popper’s definition, the aim of science is not to prove universal truths, but to affirm with confidence a set of information. In other words, nothing is “scientifically proven,” but many things are scientifically falsified by the lack of favorable evidence. Ludwig von Mises answered the problem of induction in another way: not everything has to be empirically tested to be considered true. There are truths that are self-evident, even without any empirical test. Despite the differences, both Popper and Mises offered possibilities of non-positivistic sciences (in the sense of systematic knowledge), especially valid for the study of human beings living in society.

Positivism and Marxism are sister doctrines. Both emerged in the 19th century in response to liberalism. The origin of liberalism lies in Christianity, if not in the affirmation of the existence of the Christian God in all the details presented by the Bible, at least in elements such as Natural Law and an anthropology similar to that of Christian teaching. Positivism and Marxism have moved away from Christianity by adopting a materialist view of reality (it only exists, or at least it only matters what we can experience empirically) and by denying the natural limitations of the human being.

Following von Mises, the Austrian School rejects the positivist methodology, and therefore is classified as heterodox. Although we should avoid anachronisms, the tendency of classical economists was the same: from introspection and axioms, rather than from empirical tests. It is not a matter of despising the scientific method altogether, quite the opposite! The scientific method is excellent for taking the man to the moon and discovering the cure of diseases. It just is not fit for a human “science.” To believe so is to fall into a “fatal conceit”. The military that governed Brazil between 1964 and 1985 can be accused of this fatal conceit. They generally believed that they could rule the country as if it were a barracks.

In conclusion: was it worth it? Certainly avoiding Socialism is a great and necessary goal. But combating it with Positivism is not the right path. Two mistakes do not make a hit. Was there the possibility of combating socialism with liberalism? I think not. Brazil didn’t have the liberal tradition necessary to confront socialism and other forms of authoritarianism or totalitarianism (and maybe it still hasn’t). Looking back, we can only regret that the options were so bad. Looking forward, we can try to improve our options by building a true liberalism in Brazil.

Does socialism need to be corrupt?

Brazil is going through a deep crisis right now. It is tempting to say that this is the greatest crisis in the country’s history, but I am quite afraid to make this comment. Unlike England and the United States, which have experienced significant institutional stability in the past 200 or 300 years, Brazil has gone through several political breakdowns in its history, and the current economic crisis is far from the hyperinflation of the 1980s. But there is a characteristic that links the present crisis to the previous ones: the presence of a tendentially authoritarian state.

Although Brazil was governed by an openly socialist party only between 2003 and 2016, this does not mean that socialist characteristics were not present in the country much earlier. One of the central theses of F.A. Hayek in the Road to Serfdom is that the democratic socialist parties of Western Europe (notably the Labor Party in England) had more features in common with the Nazis and fascists than they would have liked to admit. In other words, the differences between left (even a moderate left) and extreme right were illusory: they both had the fundamental characteristic of trying to plan society centrally.

The opposition between spontaneous order and central planning was one of the central theses in Hayek’s career. In Fatal Conceit he develops this theme a lot, showing how the opposition between central planning and lack of planning is a fallacy: society will forcibly be planned. The question is by whom: for a small group of people on behalf of all the others, or for a large group of individuals, each with limited responsibilities? According to Hayek, this distinction between central planning and individual planning is one of the central separations between an authoritarian society (left or right) and a truly free society.

It is difficult to say if the PT (“worker’s party”) government between 2003 and 2016 was the most corrupt in Brazilian history. Homesick people can always claim that corruption was also present in previous governments (it was just not investigated), and possibly they would be right. Before becoming a country ruled by a socialist party, Brazil has always been a patrimonialist country. And this is a fundamental point that adherents of socialism cannot understand: Brazil has never been a capitalist country, at least not in the sense that the liberal tradition employs.

Starting from Hayek, we conclude that central planning is impossible. Planners do not have the information they need to make their plans. As Mises taught, without private property there is no price formation, and without price formation the economic calculation is impossible. This opens space for what Hayek calls a fatal conceit: the assumption that it is possible to run a country from a central body, a presupposition that not only fails to achieve its goals, but also leaves piles of corpses on the way.

The PT government was probably the most corrupt in Brazilian history because it was what most rejected capitalism. The opposite of the free market is the attempt to centrally plan the economy. To centrally plan the economy, an army of administrators is needed. To watch over these administrators, a host of supervisors is needed, and so on. Corruption is inevitable.

Socialist governments are always among the most corrupt, and the reason is simple: the more government, the more corruption. A simpler, more decentralized government is not perfect. But it’s the best we can wish for. It would certainly be a government with less control over money, and thus less likely to steal.