How the populists came to power

Jair Bolsonaro was elected president in Brazil. Donald Trump in the US. In other countries, similar politicians are gaining popular support. Some are calling these politicians “populists”. I don’t really know what they mean by this term. The populists that I know better are Getúlio Vargas, Brazil’s president for almost 20 years in the mid-20th century and Juan Peron, a leading political figure in Argentina in the same time period. What they had in common? Both fought the communist influence in Latin America, favored the labor movement and were anti-liberal. They were also extremely personalist, leading to something that could be understood as a cult of personality. I completely fail to see important similarities between Trump and Bolsonaro on the one hand and Vargas and Peron on the other. But I can see some similarities between Trump and Bolsonaro. The latter two both came to power against what the left became in the last few decades.

Once upon a time, there was a young German philosopher called Karl Marx. He was very well read but wasn’t very bright on economics. Anyway, he decided that he would correct the classical liberal economic theory of Adam Smith. The result was that Marx concluded that in the center of the economy, and actually in the center of history itself, was the class struggle between the workforce and the bourgeoisie. Of course, although appealing on the surface, Marx’s economic theory is pure nonsense. Maybe Marx himself knew it, for at the end of his life he was more interested in living a peaceful life in London than in leading a revolution. But this didn’t stop Marxists from starting Revolutions throughout the world, beginning in Russia.

Ludwig Von Mises brilliant pointed out that Marxism would never work as the economic foundation of a country, for it ignored private property. Without private property, there is no price formation and without prices economic calculation is impossible. In doing so, Mises founded the Austrian School of Economics. The economic debate between Austrians and Marxists ensued, but arguing with a Marxist is like playing chess with a pigeon. He will climb on the board, knock down the pieces and believe that he won. Regardless, facts don’t care about your feelings, and reality proved again and again that Mises was right.

However, at the same time, something else was happening. In Italy, a Marxist named Antonio Gramsci concluded that armed revolution was not the best way to power. He believed that a cultural approach would be better. Some German scholars in Frankfurt concluded pretty much the same. Their question was “why the proletariat will not follow us?”. The answer was that they were too alienated by capitalist culture.

Following Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, Marxists all over the world gave up studying economics and decided to study culture. They concluded that everyone can feel oppressed. The class struggle seized to be between factory workers and factory owners and turned into a fight between man and woman, black and white, gay and straight. Identity politics was born.

And that’s how the “populists” came to power. It is not so much that the common people (and especially conservatives and libertarians) are crazily in love with Bolsonaro or Trump. It is just that people eventually get tired of being called oppressors. The left, once legitimately concerned with the conditions of the poor, ignored that the best solution for poverty is the free market. Instead, they decided they would crush the common people they swore to protect, calling them homophobic, misogynists and so on. Common people answered by voting for whoever was on the other side of the political spectrum.

A Brazilian view on the French Protests

Paris has been taken by a great number of protesters complaining about (yet another) tax, this time on fuel and with the justification of “combating climate change”.

Five years ago, in 2013, several cities in Brazil (Rio de Janeiro among them) were taken by protesters. They were initially complaining about a rise in the bus tariffs. A small rise, if examined by itself, but apparently the last drop among a number of reasons to be discontent.

The Brazilian protests of 2013 were very ironic. Lula da Silva, a socialist, was elected president in 2002. He was reelected four years later, despite major indications that he was involved in corruption scandals. Lula left office very popular, actually, so popular that he was able to make a successor, Dilma Rousseff, elected president in 2012. It was during Dilma’s presidency that the protests took place. They were initially led by far-left groups who demanded free public transportation. So here is the irony: a far-left group, with a far-left demand (free public transportation), was protesting against a (not so far) left government. The situation became even more ironic because millions of Brazilians, who didn’t identify as socialists, also went to the protests, not because they wanted free public transportation (most people are intelligent enough to understand, even if instinctively, that such a thing cannot exist), but because they were fed up with the socialists government at one point or another.

The lesson is: “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.” The 2013 protests culminated this year, with Bolsonaro’s election. Mises observed very acutely that socialism simply cannot work. What he observed on paper, reality has confirmed again and again. France is just the latest example.

Why Hayek was Wrong About American and European Conservatism I

The title of this post refers to F.A. Hayek’s essay ‘Why I am Not a Conservative’, which can be found as an appendix to his 1960 book The Constitution of Liberty. What this post is really about is the deficiencies of American conservatism and the general idea of liberal conservatism or a natural alliance between classical liberals and conservatives. However, first a few words about Hayek’s essay as Hayek is an important figure for liberty advocates. The essay in question is well known and particularly easy to find online.

Hayek’s criticism of conservatism overestimates the extent to which it is just a limiting position, slowing down change. The relation of conservatism to tradition is seem too much as conservatism being too slow to accept changes to tradition. Traditionalist conservatism, however, has been a much more active and dangerous force than that. ‘Traditionalism’ as far as I know is a 20th century term used particularly in France (René Guénon) and Italy (Julius Evola) to refer to a spiritual based for politics of an extreme conservative kind which found natural alliance with fascism. It seems clear enough that it has precedents in late 18th and 19th century conservative monarchist thinkers like Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, and Juan Donosó Cortes.

Carl Schmitt, who was maybe the greatest 20th century admirer of those thinkers, joined the Nazi Party in 1933, though found himself purged as not properly Nazi from his post as head of a jurists’ association in 1936. Not only did Schmitt admire the French and Spanish thinkers mentioned, he was a great admirer of Edmund Burke. Burke is a favourite of those claiming a conservative-liberty affinity. It would be unfair to suggest that Burke would have welcomed National Socialism (though the same applies to de Bonald, de Maiste, and Donosó Cortes).

It is a fact that a large part of conservative thinking of the time of the rise of Fascism, and allied forms of illiberal government such as corporatism, regarded it as a legitimate counter to Bolshevism and disorder. Even Ludwig von Mises defiled his own 1927 book Liberalism with generous words about Fascism as a counter to Bolshevism. The reality is that at the time such regimes came to power there was no immediate risk of Communist take over and this is a horrifying position, which cannot be justified by suggesting that Mises was writing in the heat of the moment as Bolsheviks stalked power in any particular country. Winston Churchill welcomed Fascism in Italy and even initially welcomed Hitler’s rise in Germany, before becoming acquainted with the reality of his regime. It is of course the case that Fascism and National Socialism had socialist roots as well as traditionalist conservative roots, but then a liaison between socialism and traditionalist conservatism as a counter to liberal individualism has a history going well back into the 19th century.

We can see right now in Europe the growing force of conservatism with a populist-nationalist emphasis targeting abnormals (as in everyone who does not fit their assumptions of a normal person in their country). This is not some new addition to the repertoire of the right. The strong man of the Northern League in Italy, Metteo Salvini, has aligned himself with Mussolini recently by tweeting a variation of Mussolini’s slogan ‘many enemies, much honour’ on Mussolini’s birthday. The Hungarian equivalent of Salvini, the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has rehabilitated the pre-war authoritarian leader Miklós Horthy. The Legue, Orbán’s Fidesz party, the Bannonite wing of the Republican Party and the like are stuffed with Vladimir Putin apologists, or at least as in Bannon’s case slippery arguments according to which he does not like Putin, but we should ally with him. In any case, Bannon is very active supporting the pro-Putin parties in Europe.

These parties draw on long traditions of conservative populism, monarchist anti-liberalism, and the like. The appeal to conservative love of monarchy, state church, and social conformity was a major weapon of monarchist conservative forces after the 1848 Springtime of the Peoples in Europe, helped by violent Russian intervention in the Austrian Empire to ‘restore order’. We see something like this now in the growing strength of a brand of conservatism which does not just limit change but fosters change in the direction of illiberalism, nationalism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, Christian identity, free trade, liberal protections of the individual from state power, the rights of civil society organisations to stand up to the state, and economic protection, seeking inspiration from the kleptomaniac nationalist authoritarian regime in Russia.

Enthusiasm for Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan is less obvious, but Orbán has put him on his list of ‘illiberal democracy’ heroes, and we can reasonably say that the rhetoric and methods of Erdoğan have been an inspiration for the populist right throughout Europe, even as, like Órban, it puts Islamophobia at the centre.

The role of Donald Trump and Steven Bannon as friends of, and models for, European populists should give reason to wonder whether Hayek misunderstood US conservatism. More on this in the next post.

Communism / socialism is rubbish – both in theory and in practice.

I’m getting tired of reading and listening to so-called libertarian or conservative people saying that “in theory socialism is beautiful.” No, it’s not. In theory, socialism can be summed up as “the end of private property.” This is how Karl Marx summed it up. The genius of Ludwig von Mises is precisely in the fact that he did not have to wait until 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, to realize that this does not make sense. When the Soviet Union was still a young country sweeping intellectuals around the world, von Mises made the following remark: without private property, there is no supply and demand. Without supply and demand, there is no price formation. Without prices the economic calculation is impossible. And that is precisely what happened in the USSR and happens in countries that follow the path of socialism: without the compass of free market prices, governors can not make decisions about allocating resources. Socialism is the death of rationality in economics. Socialism is rubbish in practice because before that it’s rubbish in theory. Please stop talking nonsense. The free market, on the other hand, is beautiful in practice because first of all, it is beautiful in theory.

On the Difference between Hayek’s Road to Serfdom and Increasing Central Planning

Once, in another place, I had pointed out the misunderstandings of the common interpretation of Hayek’s road to serfdom thesis. This was not an unintended process by which government intervention on markets inevitably leads to further and increasing interventions. That might be Ludwig v. Mises’ thesis, but not Hayek’s.

What Hayek stated in The Road to Serfdom was that the checks- and-balances system of modern constitutionalism appears as an obstacle to the quick achievement of the concrete ends that an interventionist policy aims for. Thus, the road to serfdom is an unintended process by which legal constitutional processes are eroded by decisions based on expediency.

On that occasion it was left pending to solve the question of where the confusion on the central thesis of “The Road to Serfdom” came from.

The source of the answer to this question is yet Ludwig v. Mises. The Road to Serfdom was first published in 1944, but, previously, in essays published in 1935, we find Hayek, still heavily influenced by L. v. Mises, stating opinions that are very similar to the common confusion about the meaning of the road to serfdom: “In fact, however, if by planning is meant the actual direction of productive activity by authoritative prescription to be used, or the prices to be fixed, it can be easily shown, not that such a thing is impossible, but that any isolated measure of this sort will cause reactions which will defeat its own end, and that any attempt to act consistently will necessitate further and further measures of control until all economic activity is brought under one central authority” (“Socialist Calculation I: The Nature and History of the Problem”, first published in Collectivist Economic Planning, London,  1935, and reprinted in Individualism and Economic Order, Chicago, 1948).

F. A. Hayek did not change his opinions of 1935 in The Road to Serfdom (1944), he just shifted the realm of his inquiry from economics to political philosophy. Nevertheless, it would be a crass error to judge Hayek’s political and legal theory -for good or for bad- using his former opinions as an economist.

Human Action, Ch. 1

Well, I finally started reading Human ActionOne connection stood out to me from the first chapter. 

First, there’s much more attention paid to fundamental philosophy than I expect from economic treatises. This is understandable given that Mises felt he had to set the stage — sparring, as he says, with the irrationalists, polylogists, historicists, positivists, behaviorists, and other economists within the youngest science. Every undergrad, cracking open Hobbes’ Leviathan, is startled to find lengthy remarks on human cognition in what they thought was only a work of political philosophy; this was a similar experience. 

There are noticeable allusions between von Mises and pre- and post-Tractatus Wittgenstein. Both Austrians and both Ludwigs, the economist writes that “It is impossible for the human mind to conceive logical relations at variance with the logical structure of our mind. It is impossible for the human mind to conceive a mode of action whose categories would differ from the categories which determine our own actions” (p. 25). Similarly, for the philosopher, the logical structure of thought (and language) was a central theme of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus; one of the young Wittgenstein’s conclusions was that some (ethical, aesthetic, metaphysical) postulates go beyond the limits of language and, when crunched into such human linguistic straightjackets, create sheer nonsense (leading to such maxims like, “What can be said at all can be said clearly…”) (TLP, §7).

Each Ludwig, of course, limited their inquiry to the human mind, discovering, like Kant, universal conditions of rational beings (or so I garner so far from Mises). 

Another methodological point in common. Ludwig von Mises, in section The Alter Ego, remarks on “the ultimate given,” an idea which, I believe, is unpopular in contemporary epistemology. The empirical sciences must reach final points of inquiry, upon which their tools fail to produce deeper insight. This is so because, to Mises, there are only “two principles available for a mental grasp of reality, namely, those of teleology and causality” (p. 25): teleology belonging to purposeful behavior, and causality to non-purposive objects of study. The former, applied ad infinitum, must stop at the unmoved mover, and the latter can only invoke an infinite regress. This point is important for deploying praxeology as a deductive science.

This doesn’t seem like a new insight, but it’s also one that Wittgenstein touches upon in a different way in Philosophical Investigations, writing in the first segment “Explanations come to an end somewhere.” The use of language in daily life does not imply ultimate, elucidated concepts between speakers; we never ask for these and likewise we do not need them to communicate. Reaching deeper into shared insight also leads to confusion; we talk of objects and ideas as ‘wholes’ and ‘composites,’ but these categories are not unambiguous. Wittgenstein situates the sense of concept-analysis only within a language game: “The question ‘Is what you see composite?’ makes good sense if it is already established what kind of complexity — that is, which particular use of the word — is in question. If it had been laid down that the visual image of a tree was to be called ‘composite’ if one saw not just a single trunk, but also branches, then the question ‘Is the visual image of this tree simple or composite?’, and the question ‘What are its simple component parts?’, would have a clear sense — a clear use.” So therefore, “To the philosophical question: ‘Is the visual image of this tree composite, and what are its component parts?’ the correct answer is: ‘That depends on what you understand by “composite”.’ (And that is of course not an answer but a rejection of the question.)” (PI, §47).

In the future I might post on Mises’ short use of terms like “being,” “change,”and “becoming,” which he uses in a sense reminiscent of Parmenides.

Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. G. E. M. Anscombe trans.

von Mises, Human Action. Scholar’s Edition. Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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.