Where the state came from

One of the questions that led me to libertarianism was “what is the state?” More than that: Where did it come from? How it works? What’s the use? Analogous questions would be “what is politics?” and “what is economics?” If my classroom experience serves as a yardstick for anything, the overwhelming majority of people never ask these questions and never run after answers. I do not blame them. Most of us are very busy trying to make ends meet to worry about this kind of stuff. I even sought an academic training in politics just to seek answers to these questions. For me it’s nothing to have answers, after all, I’m paid (albeit very poorly paid) to know these matters. Still, I wish more people were asking these types of question. I suspect that it would be part of the process to review the political and economic situation in which we find ourselves.

Many times when I ask in the classroom “what is the state?” I receive in response that Brazil is a state. In general I correct the student explaining that this is an example, not a definition. The modern state, as we have it today, is mainly the combination of three factors: government, population, and territory. The modern state, as we have it today, can be defined as a population inhabiting a specific territory, organized by a centralized government that recognizes no instance of power superior to itself. Often, in the academic and popular vocabulary, state and government are confused, and there is no specific problem in this. In fact, the two words may appear as synonyms, although this is not a necessity. It is possible to distinguish between state and government thinking that the state remains and governments go through.

The state as we know it today is a product of the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age. I believe that this information alone should draw our attention enough: people have lived in modern states only in the last 500 years or so. Throughout the rest of human history other forms of political organization have been used. I am not saying (not here) that these other forms of organization were better than the modern state. I am simply saying that the modern state is far from being natural, spontaneous, or necessary. Even after 1500 the modern state took time to be universally accepted. First, this model of organization spread throughout Europe at the beginning of the Modern Era. It was only in the late 18th century and early 19th century that this model came to be used in the American continent. The modern state spread globally only after the decolonization movement that followed World War II. That is: the vast majority of modern states are not even 70 years old!

What is the purpose of the state? At least in my experience, many people respond by “providing rights” or “securing rights.” People think about health, education, sanitation, culture, security, etc. as duties of the state towards society. It is clear that many people think about health, education, housing, etc. as rights, which in itself is already questionable, but I will leave this discussion for another time. The point I want to put here is that empirically states have only cared about issues like health and public education very recently. In the classic definition of Max Weber (late 19th century), the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. In other words, virtually anyone can use violence, but only the state can do it legally. That is: the primordial function of the state is to use violence within a legal order. Other functions, such as providing health and education, came very late and only became commonplace with the welfare state that strengthened after World War II.

I find it always interesting to see how we live in a young world. Basically the entire world population today lives in some state and expects from this state a minimum level of well-being. However, this reality is only about 70 years old. The idea that we need to live in states that provide us with a minimum of well being is not natural and far from obvious. To understand that the modern state is a historical institution, which has not always existed, it is fundamental to question its validity. Moreover, to note that the functions of the state that seem obvious to us today did not exist 70 years ago leads us to question whether it is valid to expect things such as health and education from the state.

My personal perception is that the modern state (defined by territory, population, and government) is better than any alternative that has already been proposed. However, the state of social well-being is only a sugar-watered socialism. Socialism, by definition, does not work, as Ludwig von Mises very well shows. Partial socialism is as likely to function as full socialism. Expecting the state to use violence within legal parameters is valid and even fundamental. But to expect that this same state may successfully diversify its activities entering the branches of health, education, culture, etc. is a fatal conceit.

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.

Socialism is just a new form of slavery

When Fidel Castro died he was totally alone. It doesn’t matter if relatives or friends were standing beside him: in the end, we are all alone. We experience the world through our sense of perception. Of the things themselves we have no experience. On the other hand, all humans have perception of themselves. We just know that we are. This self awareness is a fundamental aspect of what it is to be human. Castro’s death already received a lot of attention, but I believe it is a moment really worthy of reflection. Under his half-century regime millions died or suffered, and it’s always important to remember that we are talking about a little country, an island in the Caribbean. Cuba was one of the most prosperous nations in the Americas, and today it is one of the most miserable.

It is really sad to see that most of my colleagues are unable to call evil by its name. In the mid-nineteenth century Karl Marx predicted that capitalism was going to collapse because of its internal contradictions. He was not saying that he wanted capitalism to collapse. He was saying that this was a scientific fact, as sure as the next eclipse predicted by an astronomer. Capitalism, of course, didn’t collapse. Marx’s economic theory was simply nonsensical, and was contradicted by logic and facts. But Marxists couldn’t admit it. Instead they replaced economics with culture, and the working class with Others as the oppressed. Blacks, women, Native Americans, underdeveloped countries and many others became the new oppressed class. Fidel Castro fit beautifully in the Marxism of the New Left. He was the charismatic dictator of the charming island nation of Cuba. The US, ruled by leftists in the 1960s and 1970s, was unable to give a consistent answer to it. Latin America, ruled by dictatorships that the left called “right” (no one wants to take their dictators home), was also not in place to contrast the evils of the Castro regime. A perfect storm.

Castro, for all we know, died with no regrets for the evils he committed in life. Political commentators say that history will judge him. But this is a lie. History can’t judge anyone. Only people can judge people. And it is fundamental that political commentators today judge Castro for all the evil he has done. Castro didn’t kill people in Cuba only. He supported, in one way or another, brutal regimes all over the world, mostly in Latin America. To this day he is partly responsible for the evils of Foro de São Paulo. But many political commentators insist in the lie that in Cuba there’s true freedom: they have enough to eat, universal healthcare and universal education. Why would they want freedom?

Freedom is the fundamental state of human beings. We are, in the end, all alone. Of what goes in our hearts, only we are aware of. Sometimes not even us. All of us make choices based on knowledge that’s unique. Circumstances of time and space shape the choices that we make. And life is made of choices. Marxism, socialism, and all forms of statism go against these fundamental truths.

People in Cuba are not free. They are all slaves to the Castro family. Some people want to have life in a cage, as long as they receive food every day. Of course this is a lie. In order to live in a cage you need to have someone outside the cage bringing the food. Someone has to be free. This person becomes your slave as well, and this constitutes a fundamental contradiction of socialism: Alexis de Tocqueville mentioned that socialism is just a new form of slavery. In slavery someone is forced to work for somebody else under the threat of physical violence. Under socialism everybody is forced to work for everybody else. Let’s hope that Castro’s death may help put socialism in the past, where slavery is, and that Latin America may finally see the light of freedom.

Adios a Fidel

It was so romantic when those truckfuls of young men with beards took over the cesspool of Havana on New Year’s Eve (a scene immortalized in The Godfather Two). They were bringing freedom and relief from poverty to the beleaguered people of Cuba who had suffered under American imperialism for more than sixty years.

When his main acolyte was through shooting a few hundred political opponents – which took weeks – the business of revolutionary construction began in earnest. Soon, the Revolution had to face an invasion from disgruntled sons of the exiled Cuban upper-class. The invasion was roundly betrayed by the fabled Pres. John F. Kennedy. After that, the Revolution found extravagant financial support from the Soviet Union, a poor country itself but a large one.

Later, the leader of the Cuban Revolution tried to get the US nuked by his big Russian brother. That cool leader must have had his reasons, I am sure.

The stubbornness of opponents (“worms”) was so great that the Revolution was forced to jail a few thousand of them, including poets (along with thousands of men whose crime was homosexuality). Other obdurate traitors to the Revolution left Cuba on balsa rafts and on rafts made with old barrels. Many drowned at sea. Their choice! After a while, one Cuban in five was living abroad, away from the workers’ paradise.

The Revolution triumphed in the fields of education and public health. Nowadays, Cubans’ level of literacy is a high as that of other Latin American countries. Although it’s not really free, the Cuban public health service is pretty good, what with its separate public-public sector and its sector for Communist Party members only, the two equal to each other, of course.

When the first leader became too old, somehow, the best revolutionary found to succeed him was his little brother, as happened in other people’s democracies such as North Korea.

In the meantime, there had been several military adventures, all in tropical countries where even ordinary Cuban privates could afford bananas for once. That they did not win anywhere was not their fault. One prominent general even had to be shot by the leadership because he was dealing drugs. His trial lasted a whole week.

Today, after fifty years, progress is so great that ordinary Cubans easily earn forty or fifty dollars a month. Many earn three times more by renting their bedroom to foreign visitors. Take university professors and medical doctors. They can always make much more than fifty a month by driving a taxi. And meat is now available six days a month instead of the customary four. You can’t argue with this!

As Westerners, we must be especially grateful that the Cuban Revolution has made the island into one of the best destinations for sex tourism in the world.

Yes, Fidel was really, really cool and we will all miss him. He was our youth. He embarked on a great experiment in human happiness. That it failed is not his fault at all. Nobody is perfect. At least, his long life of power and influence has had the great merit of showing what happens to Communist take-overs in the long run, when no external factor puts a precocious end to them.

PS To this day, many Cubans and an embarrassing number of western leftists believe that the Cubans’ poverty is mainly due to the US BLOCKADE of the island. Well folks, there was a blockade, in the early sixties. It lasted two weeks (fourteen or fifteen days). Since then, there has been an American economic embargo on Cuba. It means that Americans cannot buy from or sell most items to Cuban economic actors. Cubans could always buy anything from and sell anything to anyone else in the whole wide world, including our Canadian cousins who have everything we have. We are talking here of a fifty year-old grand lie. You had to be cool, like Fidel and his little brother to pull it off!

From the Comments: Lenin knew what he was doing when he picked Stalin

Barry and William had an interesting discussion in the ‘comments’ threads of Dr Rosi‘s post about Lenin. At the heart of the dialogue is whether or not Lenin thought Stalin was an incompetent fool. Here is Dr Stocker’s final response:

This all depends on accepting that a text written by Krupskaya was Lenin’s own view. Leaving that aside, Kotkin is very against the idea that Stalin was stupid and I don’t think we should equate Stalin’s crassness with stupidity. Even leaving aside Kotkin, it is clear that Stalin did intellectually demanding things over many years, with regard to political organisation, political journalism and writing on Marxist doctrine (particularly the national question and this was before the Revolution long before issues of Stalin getting people to write things for him).

General Secretary of the Party was a very influential job, which meant selecting the people to run the party and therefore the country along with a complex range of other tasks which require some intellectual capacity. If Lenin appointed Stalin believing that Stalin was not very bright and could therefore be given an unimportant job, he was bizarrely mistaken about the demands and influence of the party secretary, the head of the Party in a party-state. Lenin did not need this title as he was the undoubted leader and instigator of the October Revolution. After he was off the scene, the party secretary would inevitably be the most powerful person in Russia. Stalin was at all times crude, brutal, cunning, calculating and dishonest in his behaviour, but this is not same as intellectual lack.

As Robert Service, amongst others, have pointed out Trotsky portrayed himself as the great intellectual with the right to inherit Lenin’s mantle and needed to portray Stalin as stupid and maybe needed to believe that someone lacking in his formal education, knowledge of foreign languages and manners associated with intelligentsia culture really was stupid. Well Stalin won the power struggle and I think it had something to do with intelligence behind the crassness.

Lenin and Trotsky themselves have been exaggerated as Great Thinkers by their followers. Clearly they had some scholarship and intellectual capacity, but what did they write which anyone would care about if they hadn’t come to power in 1917? Interest in Lenin’s writings has dropped off in a quite extreme way since Leninism stopped being the official ideology of what used to be the USSR, allied regimes and some large allied political parties outside the socialist bloc. Sort of equalises the intellectual legacy of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin.

Read the whole thing.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. The ABC’s of really bad news
  2. Most ideologies have no use for distinguishing between prophet and politician
  3. The conservative split over Donald Trump
  4. Will we proceed with campaign slogans, or with reflection and hard work? A must read
  5. Healing through decentralization

Brazil: the country of slavery yesterday is the country of socialism today

Although President Dilma Rousseff was impeached, and the PT (the Worker’s Party) suffered great losses in the municipal elections some weeks ago, it is still clear that PT in particular and socialism at large still has strong support among the population, especially in intellectual, cultural, and political circles. The Brazilian political spectrum often intrigues observers both from inside and outside the country: among the 35 registered political parties, almost none presents itself consistently as liberal or conservative. The only one to do so is the newly created Partido Novo (literally New Party). Other parties present themselves as socialist, social democrats, or don’t talk about this at all. To use the infamous left-to-right political spectrum, all political parties present themselves either as left or center. To present itself as right is still taboo for Brazilian political parties. Things surely seem to be changing as the already mentioned Partido Novo enters the scene and some individual politicians, such as Jair Bolsonaro, present themselves openly as right-wing. Also, social movements such as Movimento Brasil Livre and think tanks such as and Instituto Von Mises Brasil help create momentum for a new right in the country. It is possible that in future elections conservative and liberal candidates will gain seats, especially in the legislative chamber, but as parties are concerned, the right is still mostly a wasteland in Brazil. But why is that so?

Many analysts blame two factors for the lack of party representation for the Brazilian right. First, there’s the military government, from 1964 to 1985. Although statist both in political and economical terms (as it would be expected in a military government), this period was consistently identified as “right.” Therefore, to identify someone as right is still usually understood as to identify as a supporter of the military regime. Second, there is the successful work of the left, especially in the propaganda arena. The main reason for the 1964 coup was the threat of a communist revolution, such as in Cuba. The military was successful in fighting the communist guerrilla insurgency in the countryside, but were mostly unaware of the intellectual struggle in schools, universities, and other places (despite much talk of censorship to this day). Related to that or not, the fact is that the right is still underrepresented in intellectual and cultural spheres.

I’m not saying that either of the above explanations is wrong, but I’d like to suggest an alternative that goes much further in the past: Brazil is the country of socialism today because it was the country of slavery yesterday. When slavery was abolished in 1888, Brazil was the last country in the Western world to do so. An estimated four million slaves had been imported from Africa to Brazil, 40% of the total number of slaves brought to the Americas. This is ten times as many as were trafficked to North America and far more than the total number of Africans who were transported to all of the Caribbean and North America combined. According to the only national census accomplished during the monarchy, in 1872, Brazil had a population of about 10 million people. 15.24% were slaves, and 84.8% were free. It is most likely that this census doesn’t reflect the reality of the whole monarchical period, as successive laws against slavery, immigration, and other factors moved these percentages over time.

José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva, a major figure in Brazilian politics of the time, praised freedom in his writings, but kept slavery in place, even with British pressure to abolish it and subsequent promises to help. He did that because he needed the slave owners’ money and thought that abolition wasn’t politically wise. Bernardo Pereira de Vasconcelos, founder of the Conservative Party, was a slave owner and even rented his slaves for public works. Many subsequent leaders of the Conservative Party, such as Paulino José Soares de Sousa, were part of the Fluminense slave-owning aristocracy either by birth or by marriage. Anyway, the Conservative Party wasn’t in a hurry to abolish slavery. The lack of revenue and the political implications were matters of much greater concern than the humanitarian cause. When they finally passed the gradual laws for abolition (and ironically they passed them all) it was to appease the liberal opposition, not for the sake of the cause. Conservatives were also unwilling to employ the Africans as free workers or to treat immigrants as free individuals: their plan was to gradually abolish slavery and to substitute it with a cheap immigrant labor force in large estates through laws restricting access to land. To their surprise, this plan never succeeded. Their last effort, to bring supposedly naïve Chinese in to substitute slaves, was barred by the liberals.

The legacy is that the country of slavery yesterday is the country of socialism today. As Herbert Spencer once said, “All socialism involves slavery.” Even better, Alexis de Tocqueville said that “Socialism is a new form of slavery.” Both share the same thought: slavery is forced labor of one individual to another. Socialism is forced labor of everyone to everyone else. When “rights” abound, it’s worth asking how they will be paid. Brazil is a country of rights, but not of duties or responsibilities. Just as it was the right of the elites of the past to have the slaves working for them, it’s the right of people today to receive social benefits from everyone else. People can (maybe naïvely) defend socialism as much as people in the past defended slavery, but to treat adults as infants is neither moral nor wise. Sure, Brazil still has a population that suffers from the mistakes of the past. But two wrongs don’t make a right.