Final thoughts on Rio Olympics

Rio Olympics are over, and it seems to me, they are leaving a great impression. Despite all the problems the city and the country faced in recent years, not to mention the fact that Brazil is still a developing country, all ends well for Summer Olympics 2016.

One final comment I would like to make about the events once again relates to Brazilian athletes: Brazil scored an unprecedented 19 in the medal table (7 golds, 6 silvers and 6 bronzes), establishing a new record for itself. Among Brazilian medalists were people like Martine Grael, who won gold in Sailing, 49er FX Women. Martine is the daughter of twice Olympic gold medalist in sailing Torben Grael. Her brother Marco and uncle Lars also sailed in the Olympics. We also had people like Isaquias Queiroz dos Santos, who won Silver in Canoe Sprint, Men’s Canoe Single 1000m, Bronze in Canoe Sprint, Men’s Canoe Single 200m, and again Silver in Canoe Sprint, Men’s Canoe Double 1000m, becoming the first Brazilian athlete to ever win three medals in a single edition of the Olympic Games.

Isaquias was born in a very poor region of Brazil, and has been through great adversity before becoming an Olympic medalist: as a child he poured boiling water on himself and spent a month in hospital recovering; at the age of 5 he was kidnapped and offered up for adoption before being rescued by his mother; at the age of 10 he fell out of a tree and lost a kidney. In his teenage years he severed the top third off his left ring finger. He started training in a social project supported by Brazilian Federal government.

I am pretty sure that this picture happens with athletes and medalists from other countries: on one hand we have medalists like Martine, coming from a well-to-do environment and with a family of athletes who introduced her to the sport. On the other hand we have medalists like Isaquias, who had to face great hardships but was helped by social programs to become an Olympic athlete. Considering that, should the government create more programs to develop more people like Isaquias? Should the government prevent the privileges of people like Martine? Questions like these may sound preposterous to many, but they actually reflect much of the political discussion we have today: should the government help kids from poor families with education, healthcare and other things in order to create a head start? Should the government overtax the rich (and their heritage) in order to create more equality? In other words, what we have here is a discussion of equality versus freedom. In order to talk about that we have to understand what is equality and what is freedom.

There are many senses in which Isaquias and Martine will never be equals: they were born in different places, to different families. They had different life stories. There is a sense in which no two individuals are equal: each one of us is in each one way unique. And that makes us all special in each one way. Of course, when talking about equality most people are thinking about equality of outcome. But they forget (or ignore) that in order to have this kind of equality you need to ignore all the differences between individuals – the very same thing that makes us all unique and special – or to use government force to take from one and give to another. So, unless you are willing to ignore all the differences that make us all unique or to use force against non aggressors, you have to accept at least some income inequality as part of life. The classical liberal answer to that is that we need to be equal before the law: a great part of the liberal project in previous centuries was basically to abolish privileges (private laws) and to make all equally responsible before government. That is an equality we can all have. And we should.

The second point is freedom. Freedom from what? Or to do what? There are at least two kinds of freedom discussed in the context of the liberal revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries. One is related to John Locke and the Founding Fathers, the other to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The discussion about this phrase can go really long, but I want to emphasize simply that in Jefferson’s view you have the freedom to pursue your own understanding of happiness. I may completely disagree with what you are choosing for your life, but at the same time I am not to force you in any way to change your choices. I am not to force upon you my brand of happiness, not matter how much I am sure I have the correct one.

Rousseau’s version of freedom is very different: as he famously stated, “whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole of society, which means nothing more or less than that he will be forced to be free.” In other words, if you are a minority (and especially if you are an individual, the smallest minority possible) people can force upon you their brand of happiness. That is one reason why Rousseau is called “the philosopher of vanity”: he refuses to accept that people see life in a different way from his own. Rousseau’s vision of freedom is connected to his troubled relation with Christianity – where indeed you need to have a relationship with God through Jesus to become free. But the catch is that in Christianity God never forces you. Rousseau’s god is very different, and as such, Rousseaunism is just a Christian heresy.

To conclude, in order to create more income equality you have to destroy the classical liberal version of freedom – or to change to another version that inevitably leads to totalitarianism. As Milton Friedman said, “A society that puts equality — in the sense of equality of outcome — ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests.” I just hope we can have more people like Isaquias and Martine, who achieve great goals, sometimes with the help of friends and family, sometimes in completely unpredictable ways.

Still thinking about the Olympics

Rio Olympics are close to the end, and so far it has been a wonderful time for Brazilian athletes: the country is scoring 15 total in the medal table, quite high in its historical record. Brazil’s first Olympic medal in 2016 was won by Felipe Wu right in the first day of competition: silver in Shooting, 10m Air Pistol Men. Wu was followed by Rafaela Lopes Silva, who won gold in Judo, Women -57 kg, and then by Mayra Aguiar, who won bronze, also in Judo, Women -78 kg. Rafael Silva won another bronze for Brazil in Judo, Men +100 kg, and then Arthur Mariano won still another bronze, this time in Gymnastics Artistic, Men’s Floor Exercise. Diego Hypolito won silver in the same competition. On the tenth day of competition Poliana Okimoto won Bronze in Marathon Swimming, Women’s 10km and Arthur Zanetti won Silver in Gymnastics Artistic, Men’s Rings. The next day, Thiago Braz da Silva surprised everyone by beating favorite French Renaud Lanillenie and winning gold in Athletics, Men’s Pole Vault.

In the last few days other athletes followed the ones mentioned in this opening paragraph, but I limit the text to them for a reason: one highlight of these first 9 Brazilian medalists is that, with the exception of Hypolito, all of them are in the military, and some of my friends on what is considered “the right” in the Brazilian political spectrum are using this information to poke (in good spirit) my friends on the left. On the other hand, my friends on the left highlight that many of the Brazilian medalists also have in common coming from very poor backgrounds, and finding in government social programs the chance to become professional athletes. I want to be careful to say that both are wrong and I want to explain why (I hope I will still have some friends after this). Basically both ignore the concept of opportunity cost.

The concept of opportunity cost postulates that spending in one direction means not spending in another. In other words, that every choice comes with the cost of forgoing the next best alternative. It was developed in all but name by 19th century French economist Frédéric Bastiat in the parable of the broken window (also known as the broken window fallacy or glazier’s fallacy) that appeared in his 1850 essay Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas (That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Not Seen). The parable goes somewhat like this: a boy breaks a window. The window owner gets upset, but someone tries to comfort him by saying that this will give the window manufacturer the opportunity to work. In the end, the economy wins. Bastiat shows that this is a fallacy: the money spent in a new window could have been spent in another way, say, with new shoes. The world would have new shoes and still have a window, but now the world has a new window and no shoes. Bastiat proceeds to show the law of unintended consequences, or how our actions can affect the economy in ways that are “unseen” or ignored, and also to apply the concept to several areas of public policy. Two of these happen to be military expenditure and “Theatres, Fine Arts.”

Concerning military expenditure, Bastiat argues that spending money in order to defend the country against foreign aggressors can be a good investment, but that any money that goes beyond this necessity would have been better spent in other way. This argument goes against Bastiat’s contemporaries who argued that money spent on the military had the benefit of creating jobs, even if defense was not a real necessity. Bastiat’s conclusion is that if the money was left with the taxpayer, this person would find ways to spend that would create more and better jobs. Applying to current events, if Brazil is spending money in the military in order to protect its borders, this is a good investment. If instead it is spending money in the military in order to get Olympic medals, the money should be spent elsewhere.

Bastiat lived before modern Olympic Games, so he has nothing directly to say public spending in this kind of event, but I guess that what he says about “Theatres, Fine Arts” also applies here. Some of his contemporaries defended that the government should invest in Theatres and Fine Arts, because these things are good in themselves, created jobs, and so on. Bastiat was once more against what he saw as excessive public spending. This time his answer exposed him to the logical fallacy of the straw man, or misrepresenting one’s argument in order to make it easier to attack: his critics accused him of not caring about Theatres and Fine Arts. But if we examine the evidences carefully, that is not the case at all: to say that the government should not invest in Theatres and Fine Arts is not to say that nobody should invest in it. It is just to say who is supposed to make the investment, the government of individuals. I am not equalizing Theatres and Fine Arts with sports, but I believe the lesson applies in this field as well: to say that the government should not invest in sports is totally different from saying that nobody should invest in it.

In conclusion, it seems that public investment in the military and social programs is helping Brazil to win medals in this Olympics. But we can ask ourselves where would that money have gone had this investment not been made. Based on Bastiat, I believe that if the money spending was left for the individuals, Brazil would have better military, more Olympic medals, and less necessity of social programs, not to mention better jobs, and a better overall economy. Perhaps after this Olympic Games my friends both on the left and on the right can feel like investing more in sports. Or maybe they will realize they prefer to spend on something else.

Some thoughts on the Olympic Games and cosmopolitanism

Right now my city, Rio de Janeiro, is hosting the Summer Olympic Games. It is in many ways a great moment, and it is especially good to see people from so many parts of the world together in relative harmony. In other words, a good example of cosmopolitanism. The cosmopolitanism in the city today reminds me of the attempts of multilateralism that marked Brazilian (and world) foreign policy in previous governments, but that now seem to fade away. The two terms, cosmopolitanism and multilateralism, are not exactly synonyms, but are closely related: multilateral policies should work in bringing peoples together in a more cosmopolitan world. Concerning that, I think of a multilateralism that does not work in bringing people together through cosmopolitanism, and one that can work in that way.

When the Cold War was over, multiple theories were presented to explain what would happen to a world without the tension between two superpowers. Some suggested that the US would reign as a lone superpower; others that it would embrace some form of benign hegemony, in a New World Order. Others still believed that US power was in decline, and that the World would see more multilateralism in the 21st century. This last view was especially dear in Brazil, but as the 21st century progresses, it does not seem to hold as much water anymore.

One great example of multilateralism substituting American hegemony was the integration of Western Europe, but that does not seem to be the case anymore. It is true that beginning shortly after WWII European countries experienced growing levels of regional integration, culminating with the European Union and the Euro in the 1990s. But even then, economists warned politicians and the general public that such a level of integration was not possible, at least not without a central government in Europe. Successive economic crises, Brexit, and the harsh questioning of immigration policies show today that economists were right back then.

Another example of multilateralism celebrated in the 1990s was the growing importance of the UN. Successive humanitarian missions and interventions in several countries suggested that that UN could now surpass the dawn that marked the relationship between USA and USSR in the previous period. Optimism went so far as to discuss themes such as the ‘obligation to intervene’, substituting previous understandings of state sovereignty. But as the years go by, cases like Haiti, Rwanda, Sudan, and many others show that the optimism was at best too high.

Finally and more recently, Brazil and other underdeveloped and developing countries focused greatly on South-South Cooperation, trying to substitute the more standard paradigm of North-South Foreign Aid. This materialized in initiatives such as UNASUR and BRICS. Although presented as a new development, that was actually very reminiscent of The Non-Aligned Movement, The Group of 77, and other initiatives from the 1960s and 1970s. Now, as Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Turkey, China, Russia, and several other countries face growing levels of economic and political hardship, attempts to “overcome American hegemony” seem but preposterous.

New forms in multilateralism in Europe, the Global South, and even the World (in the UN) did not work because they are not really democratic, as they claim to be. Behind a rhetoric of democracy, empowerment of the poor, and so on, they are just new forms of mercantilism: political elites trying to control the economy, not just at the national level, but the international one as well. The point was never to actually bring people together, but to maintain the status quo by avoiding real competition.

The multilateralism that can bring about cosmopolitanism, and that somewhat shows in the Summer Olympic Games in Rio, is one characterized by spontaneous order. People do come together: that is the natural ways of things. The desire to trade spontaneously brings different peoples closer to one another, and as they are closer they realize how much they have in common, and also what can be learnt from the differences. It is not always a peaceful dealing, but the more people are educated to tolerate the differences and to benefit from them, the more cosmopolitan they become.

A top down approach to cosmopolitanism is just a deformed clone of the real thing. Even if some results appear, they always seem to fall somewhere in the uncanny valley, and anyway, the results do not last very long. A bottom up cosmopolitanism is the real thing, and if only elites let it be, it can grow stronger, bring more wealth, and even a little more peace to the world.