Now it is true. As I predicted some time ago, Jair Bolsonaro became Brazil’s president. Bolsonaro is not the brightest guy in the room, but I believe he has some qualities a leader requires. Above all, Bolsonaro shows conviction, a quality central to leadership, as Albert Mohler observes. Bolsonaro has the conviction that socialism/communism is the wrong way, and that Brazil has to try an alternative. The alternative, he has grown to understand, is the free market.
In his first remarks as president, Bolsonaro said that Brazil is “leaving socialism.” Some Brazilian friends, even people with high education, found this quote preposterous. In their view, Brazil can’t abandon socialism because she never tried it. That’s quite scary! After almost two decades of rule of the Worker’s Party (PT) there are people in Brazil who believe that Brazil never tried socialism.
It must be observed that PT is a big party, with many internal tendencies. Still, historically the party has the objective of turning Brazil into a socialist country. It is quite shocking that some people haven’t realized this!
On the other hand, many Brazilians still charge capitalism for all the country’s problems. The difficulty with this is that, if we take capitalism as free-market, Brazil has never been capitalist. Brazil’s economic history, in a nutshell, is of government control of the economy.
One of the challenges Brazil has, as surprising as it may be, is to teach people what is socialism and what is capitalism. The other is to make people understand that socialism is just bad. It has been tried. It failed, as it should. Capitalism, understood as economic freedom, worked everywhere. And there is no reason to believe that it wouldn’t work in Brazil.
President Macron spoke to the French nation today (12/10/18). He apologized a little for his figurative distance from the rank-and-file. Then he tried to buy some off the yellow vests off with other people’s money. The national minimum monthly wage will rise by about US$113; overtime will not be taxed anymore. You are not going to believe the next appeasement measure he announced. I have a hard time believing it myself but I read it and heard it from several sources. President Macron decreed a significant Christmas bonus for public servants and ordered (I think) private employers to follow suite. The bonus will also be tax-free. I have no idea what effects these measures will have. I suspect the weather has more influence on the yellow vests’ behavior.
The movement began, as most Americans know by now, as a protest against a new extra tax on diesel fuel. It was presented a little breathlessly as a way to save the planet. This is significant in several ways. First, it suggests that a large fraction of the French people do not believe in climate change (like me) or do not care about it. Second, it demonstrates that Mr Macron, probably along with the political class in general, have lost touch with much of their electorate for not realizing the these perceptions. Third, it shows sheer incompetence if not cynicism. Any average thinking person in France could have warned Mr Macron that a tax on diesel is one of the most regressive taxes possible. The transport of ordinary goods in France relies largely on diesel-powered trucks. A tax on diesel proportionately (proportionately) hits the poor more than the prosperous. Perhaps the government thought that those affected were too stupid or too passive to protest.
The government has reversed its decision on the diesel tax but it’s too late. It seems to me the diesel tax was simply a case of the straw that broke the camel back. Fifty years ago, the French gave themselves a wonderful cradle-to-grave summer camp. It’s a real good one, I must say, including a sort of winter camp of free ski vacations for children. (Would I make this up?) This was based on the original idea that “the rich” could be taxed into paying for summer camp. (Sounds familiar?) After two generations, the bills are finally coming due. The definition of “the rich” has been going down fast. Indirect (and therefore regressive) taxes are everywhere. The increase in the tax on diesel was just one of the latest.
The providential and fun state has other consequences. The main one is that it is implicitly anti-business. It protects employees almost completely against being laid off. It’s solicitous of their leisure with a 34 hour week and many many vacations and holidays. French governing circles have become used to celebrating GDP growth rates so low they are considered shameful in America. I think it’s rigorously true that in the past twenty years, unemployment has never gone below 8%. It’s normally been closer to 9% and even 10%. It’s 20% if you are young. I am guessing (guessing) that it’s 40% and up if you are young and your name is Mohammed.
There is worse. In a pattern that will seem familiar to many Americans, there is a big well-being divide between the capital, Paris proper, and the rest of France. Parisians live in a low-density city with good public transport and many employment opportunities. Housing prices and rents are high in Paris, as you might expect. In nearly all of the rest of France, there are few jobs, spotty services. (I am told it’s not uncommon to have to drive 2 hours each way to consult a specialist); hospitals are good but far and few. Many of those charming villages you see from the freeway have not had schools for many years. Housing in the hinterland is cheap. Of course, this is enough to cause people of low means to be stuck where they are.
It’s difficult for foreign reporters to understand the yellow vests movement, for a small reason and for a big one. First, it does seem to be originally a genuine grassroot movement. Accordingly, it has no leaders and not authorized spokespersons. Second, and much more importantly, in my lifetime the very conceptual vocabulary of market economies has vanished from the public discourse. The yellow vests interviewed on television do not know how to express what hurts them. When ordinary French men and women, and what passes for their intellectual elites, discuss, or even think, about economic problems the only tools they have at their disposal is the pseudo-Marxist vocabulary of those who got their Marxism from Cliff Notes (if that). I think there is only one small French group (on Facebook) that is able to evade this conceptual tyranny. In France, thinking in terms of vaguely socialist terms has ceased to be a choice. It’s now a monolithic social and intellectual reality.
I don’t see how even a more determined and more talented political leader than Mr Macron can tell the great mass of the French people: Summer camp is over; everybody go home and learn to make do with less free stuff. Then, re-learn work.
With all this, France is a functioning democracy. The French elected Macron after six years of disastrous “Socialist” Party rule. Perhaps, as has been the case before, the French people -with their historical inability to reform- will be the canary in the mine for everyone else: The big generous state based on taxation is bad for you or for your children. Just ask the French.
- Why the left needs “bottom” Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
- How Adam Smith proposed to have his cake and eat it too Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
- Can relationship anarchy create a world without heartbreak? Sophie Hemery, Aeon
- The Lies We Were Told Simon Wren-Lewis, Mainly Macro
“Ideology is a menace.” Paul Collier says in his forthcoming book The Future of Capitalism and I couldn’t agree more: ideology (and by extension morality) “binds and blinds”, as psychology professor Jonathan Haidt describes it, and ideology, especially utopian dreams by dedicated rulers, is what allows – indeed accounts for – the darkest episodes of humanity. There is a strange dissonance among people for whom political positions, ideology and politics are supremely important:
- They portray their position as if supported by facts and empirical claims about the world (or at least spit out such claims as if they did believe that)
- At the same time, believing that their “core values” and “ideological convictions” are immune to factual objections (“these are my values; this is my opinion”)
My purpose here is to illustrate that all political positions, at least in part, have their basis in empirically verifiable claims about the world. What political pundits fail to understand is not only that facts rule the world, but that facts also limits the range of positions one can plausible take. You may read the following as an extension of “everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions, but not to his or her own facts”. Let me show you:
- “I like ice-cream” is an innocent and unobjectionable opinion to have. Innocent because hey, who doesn’t like ice-cream, and unobjectionable because there is no way we can verify whether you actually like ice-cream. We can’t effortlessly observe the reactions in your brain from eating ice-cream or even criticize such a position.
- “Ice-cream is the best thing in the world”, again unobjectionable, but perhaps not so innocent. Intelligent people may very well disagree over value scales, and it’s possible that for this particular person, ice-cream ranks higher than other potential candidates (pleasure, food, world peace, social harmony, resurrection of dinosaurs etc).
- “I like ice-cream because it cures cancer”. This statement, however, is neither unobjectionable nor innocent. First, you’re making a causal claim about curing cancer, for which we have facts and a fair amount of evidence weighing on the matter. Secondly, you’re making a value judgment on the kinds of things you like (namely those that cure cancer). Consequently, that would imply that you like other things that cure cancer.
Without being skilled in medicine, I’m pretty sure the evidence is overwhelmingly against this wonderful cancer-treating property of ice-cream, meaning that your causal claim is simply wrong. That also means one that you have to update your position through a) finding a new reason to like ice-cream, thus either invoking some other empirical or causal statement we can verify or revert back to the subjective statements of preferences above, b) renege on your ice-cream position. There are no other alternatives.
Now, replace “ice-cream” above with *minimum wages* and “cancer” with “poverty” or any other politically contested issue of your choice, and the fundamental point here should be obvious: your “opinions” are not simply innocent statements of your unverifiable subjective preferences, but contain some factual basis in them. If political opinions, then, consists of subjective value preferences and statements about the world and/or causal connections between things, you are no longer “entitled to your own opinions”. You may form your preferences any way you like – subject to them being internally consistent – but you cannot hold opinions that are based on incorrect observations or causal derivations about the world.
Let me invoke my national heritage, illustrating the point more clearly from a recent discussion on Swedish television. The “inflammatory” Jordan Peterson, as part of his world tour, visited Norway and Sweden over the past weekend. On Friday he was a guest at Skavlan, one of the most viewed shows in either country (boasting occasionally of more viewers than the large sport events) and– naturally– discussed feminism and gender differences. After explaining the scientific evidence for biological gender differences*, and the observed tendency for maximally (gender) egalitarian societies to have the largest rather than smallest gender-related outcomes, Peterson concludes:
“there are only two reasons men and women differ. One is cultural, and the other is biological. And if you minimize the cultural differences, you maximize the biological differences… I know – everyone’s shocked when they hear this – this isn’t shocking news, people have known this in the scientific community for at least 25 years.”
After giving the example of diverging gender rates among engineers and nurses he elaborates on equality of opportunity, to which one of the other talk show guests, Annie Lööf (MP and leader of the fourth largest party with 9% of the parliamentary seats) responds with feelings and personal anecdotes. Here’s the relevant segment transcribed (for context and clarity, I slightly amended their statements):
Peterson: “One of the answers is that you maximize people’s free choice. […] If you maximize free choice, then you also maximize differences in choice between people – and so you can’t have both of those [maximal equality of opportunity and minimal differences along gender lines]”
Lööf: “because we are human beings [there will always be differences in choice]; I can’t see why it differs between me and Skavlan for instance; of course it differs in biological things, but not in choices. I think more about how we raise them [children], how we live and that education, culture and attitudes form a human being whether or not they are a girl or a boy.”
Peterson: “Yes, yes. That is what people who think that the differences between people are primarily culturally constructed believe, but it is not what the evidence suggests.”
Lööf: “Ok, we don’t agree on that”.
So here’s the point: this is not a dispute over preferences. Whether or not biology influences (even constitute, to follow Pinker) the choices we make is not an “I like ice-cream” kind of dispute, where you can unobjectionably pick whatever flavor you like and the rest of us simply have to agree or disagree. This is a dispute of facts. Lööf’s positon on gender differences and her desire to politically alter outcomes of people’s choices is explicitly based on her belief that the behaviour of human beings is culturally predicated and thus malleable. If that causal and empirical proposition is incorrect (which Peterson suggests it is), she can no longer readily hold that position. Instead, what does she do? She says: “Ok, we don’t agree”, as if the dispute was over ice-cream!
Political strategizing or virtue signalling aside, this perfectly illustrates the problem of political “opinions”: they espouse ideological positions as the outcome of enlightened or informed fact-based positions, but when those empirical statements are disproved, they revert to being expressions of subjective preference without a consequent diminution of their worth! Conservatives still gladly hum along to Trump’s protectionism, despite overwhelmingly being contradicted in the factual part of their opinion; progressives heedlessly champion rent control, believing that it helps the poor when it overwhelmingly hurts the poor. And both camps act as if the rest of us should pay attention or go out of our way to support them over what, at best, amounts to “I like ice-cream” proposals.
Ideology is a menace, and political “opinions” are the forefront of that ideological menace.