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A Growing Libertarian Revolution in Brazil

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10/31/2018

In the wake of this week's widespread repudiation of interventionist and socialist political parties in Brazil — and a sudden surge in widespread support for market-friendly candidates — I've received many questions: How did Brazil do this? How do you guys have so many libertarians? How did you guys get all of this done? How did you elect these people? How did this happen?

These questions are asked to me and other Brazilian libertarians by every non-Brazilian libertarian I meet.

If you are not aware of the growth of the libertarian movement in Brazil, then consider visiting one of our events. Nothing beats the experience. More and more, they draw hundreds of people, many of them charging for attendance and at a not-very-friendly price. They must do this because we can only fit so many people in the rooms we can rent.

Or you can go to schools or universities and see students reading and quoting Mises, Rothbard and Hoppe, standing up to left-wing teachers preaching the gospel of the state, and organizing student groups. I’ve launched a website where you can check-in as a libertarian and start a libertarian-oriented group, and every person registered in a 50-kilometer radius gets an email notification. With little effort and promotion, we have now over 200 registered groups, most of them in schools or universities.

You could also do the opposite: go to left-wing meetings and ask what they despise, what they are concerned with. Apart from the rising of a new right wing and your average socialist patter, you’ll hear about the “ultraliberals”, you’ll hear lamentations on how people no longer adhere to allowable opinion and dare defy statist dogma, wielding such lowly things as the internet and “neoliberal” authors such as Mises to argue in favor of the free market, deregulation and even ending the state.

But perhaps one of the most intriguing examples I can tell is of a city councilman from a fifty-thousand-population city in the south of Brazil. He was elected almost unintentionally, having run only to support his party. After being sworn in, he started to look into public administration and economics. He found the Mises Institute Brazil, my channel, read a few books and a little over one year later, he finally realized that what the city chamber did was a waste of time and money.

Much can also be seen without having to board a plane to Brazil. A stroll through the best selling books on Amazon Brazil will likely raise some eyebrows. As of this writing, Six Lessons1 by Mises is third-place in economics, with The Anticapitalist Mentality coming in at sixth and The Free Market and its Enemies at eleventh. Fernando Ulrich’s book on Bitcoin comes in at fourteenth, Rothbard's What has Government Done to Our Money in fifteenth, Human Action at seventeenth, with Hoppe’s What Must Be Done in nineteenth. Twenty-two of the fifty best selling books are related to free-market economics, with some Adam Smith in the middle of it.

Six of the fifty best selling books in politics also have a liberty touch to them, one of them being Hoppe’s Democracy, the God that Failed, clocking in at forty-first. I suspect this is distorted downwards as due to the election any book with “fascism” on the title has sold well, since the left has made a huge storm around it.

Another simple number is my YouTube channel about libertarianism. Just under half a million subscribers, 76 million views and growing.

The fact is that people are changing in their minds.

Statistics seem to support this. A study done in March of this year tried to show that the majority of Brazilians still support a large state. That in itself is already proof that libertarianism is growing: people felt compelled to try and find data to say otherwise, they felt threatened and needed reassurance.

At any rate, the study backfired in a way few people realized: 3.6% of people stated that the state should be completely out of welfare, education, health, old age care and pensions, and inequality of income. They said the state should get out of matters in relations between the sexes and minority groups. Adding to that, 10.5%, or 22 million people, were in favor of complete freedom to the markets.

A Brief History of the Brazilian Liberty Movement

What’s also impressive is how fast we got here. Just four years ago it would be pants-on-head insane to propose that this would happen in Brazil. Hard-left candidate and president Dilma Rousseff had just been re-elected despite her painfully obvious incompetence and a brewing corruption scandal. No opposition party existed, and her government would clearly take a hard line in favor of a multitude of pro-tax, pro-regulation interventionist policies, coupled with seemingly endless government spending.

All was lost, it seemed to us. Many lovers of liberty were planning their escape from the country, and the path to Venezuela was all but a statistical inevitability.

No more than five or six years ago a liberty-related event would hardly draw more than fifty people in large cities, and before that, people who defended libertarianism had good reason to be concerned with political persecution, since the left-wing government seemed undefeatable. And yet, it was all soundly defeated in this week's election. 

But who are these new candidates who won, replacing the old regime?

Only a few candidates adhered to a consistent libertarian platform. Many adhered largely to the economic points, while being distinctly non-libertarian on issues like decriminalizing drugs, adoption by homosexual couples, or homeschooling — which is illegal in Brazil. Nevertheless, the overall discussion has turned towards much less state meddling in the economy, balancing the budget and radical privatization and deregulation.

One of the most impressive feats was done by Romeu Zema, a very successful businessman and one of those I call “libertarians that don’t know they are libertarian” who decided to run for governor of Minas Gerais, under the NOVO party. He and the party sported the most heavily free-market platform in the election and brought in a whopping 72% of the vote in the run-offs. NOVO also elected 8 people to the house of representatives, one of which I supported as a “full” libertarian, and twelve representatives at state level, four of which I supported. Add to that Bruno Souza, a bona fide libertarian elected for the state legislation of Santa Catarina by another party, and a senator elected by Livres, a liberal-in-the-original-sense-of-the-word group linked to many different parties, and we have an impressive show for the first federal elections where libertarians ran.

Adding to that, there are many candidates in both federal chambers and state legislatures that ran on a clearly much more free-market line than ever imaginable. Many of them may be lying, spewing whatever they think will stick, but even that would be something of a victory. If politicians are defending free markets out of electoral convenience, it means the ideas are spreading and they can do naught but surrender to the wave.

But many of them are likely sincere, even though contradictory in some points, which is what you would expect from people who are brand new to the movement. Many parties elected representatives that have truly woken up to realize that socialism and state meddling are burdens, and that people are better off free. How many? It’s interesting to say that we simply don’t know for sure. That’s how many of them there are. Only their voting will truly tell.

Finally, we have the case of president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro. It’s difficult to find an article in English about him that doesn’t simply repeat the smears and distortions heaved at him by the Brazilian media. It doesn’t help that only in the last year he learned how to not say unclear and confused statements that can easily be distorted into anything by his opponents.

Proper criticism of him should be centered on inconsistencies, fumbles and mistakes, and portraying him as an authoritarian threat is misleading at best. While he has made statements that can be interpreted as authoritarian, he’s not more so than the average Brazilian, and far less of a menace than anything the leftists have fielded in the last thirty years. His first speech after the victory featured a table with four books: the constitution, the bible, a biography of Churchhill, and a book by Olavo de Carvalho, a leading and famous Brazilian conservative philosopher.

But he’s no libertarian. If one had to put a name to it, he’s a market-friendly conservative, but don’t get hung up on titles. A notable red flag is his complete opposition to decriminalization of drugs, and an education plan that is considerably centralizing. His economic proposals are by far the most free-market to ever win an election in Brazil and he has made extensive and ample declarations in favor of the defense of private property, there are flaws in the details. He still defends a central bank, has not exhibited opposition to the income tax, is reluctant on privatizing companies he deems “strategic,” whatever that may mean, and while there are economists of Austrian inclination around him, the bulk of them are monetarists, with all that this entails. Paulo Guedes, his economist-in-chief is a well-known Chicago School lover of the free-market, and one can have hope this will mean far more good things than bad. Lastly, he defends increasing decentralization of power, which is welcome.

Yet we will only truly know when the tests come around. Brazil is in urgent need of deep reforms, and after three and a half presidential mandates from the Workers Party, there is much do be undone. Many of the measures necessary will be deeply unpopular, easy to be twisted by the Left, and complicated. The speech and promise part are done, now is the time to act and see what comes of it, but if he manages to score a third of what he has planned, we’re in for a lot more freedom than we could possibly imagine just a few years ago.

And yet what really should get our hopes up is not what we have achieved so far, but that we are only in the beginning of something deeper. Libertarianism is on the rise, bringing people from all political positions into realizing that it is ethical and better to let people leave their lives peacefully. In the long run, it’s not this or that election that matters, but the tendency, the intellectual path being taken by the minds of the people. And that path is going towards liberty.

Pro-market organizations are springing up all over the place, new books are being translated and written, and students are organizing more and more. Entrepreneurs of the country are increasingly realizing that protectionism, subsidies, and artificially lowered interest rates are forces of destruction. People are realizing that business regulations, taxes and bureaucracy hurt the poor disproportionally, keeping them from taking their first steps. Further, reforms and the breathing spaces for freedom that they will open will create some breeding ground for liberty to show in practice what it preaches. Once people experience its effect in their lives and see the results, it’s hard to think they will give it up easily.

Which brings us back to the question of how we got here. The short answer is that we don’t really know for sure, we are just as stupefied as everyone else. We just got used to feeling like that all the time and got on with spreading liberty all the same.

Yet some names are unavoidable. Dilma Rousseff’s incompetent government, the economic crisis she and her party brought about, plus two enormous corruption scandals were undeniably fundamental for this libertarian awakening. Few things help the libertarian arguments as having people in government who are so clearly a band of thieves writ large, and government services are so clearly an unsalvageable disaster.

But that alone doesn’t do it. There are many people who brought the ideas of liberty to the people. One cannot pass up Henry Maksoud, who in the seventies and eighties was translating Mises and Hayek on his typewriter and running his “Visão” magazine, dedicated to promoting freedom. Since he wasn’t a journalist, the law and the journalists union held that he couldn’t be the head editor of the magazine, so he paid the fine every month and got on with it.

And there are many others, too many to name completely, who spent the last decade running up and down the country doing lectures, talks, classes and fomenting study groups. Most if not all of them did so at a personal and financial loss, in times where the eternal victory of socialism in Brazil was all but a matter of time, in completely hostile places such as left-wing dominated universities, almost always gathering a handful of people willing to listen.

The Mises Institute Brazil has also been fundamental to this process. By translating dozens of books and spreading them all over the country, and holding strong, clear and deep articles predicting the economic crises in Brazil as early as 2011, they set up an intellectual foundation that even the Left dares only to take careful swipes at.

Another cornerstone were entrepreneurial associations such as the Instituto de Estudos Empresariais in Rio Grande do Sul or the many Institutos de Formação de Lideres, spread all over the country. They brought in entrepreneurs from many different paths to learn about Mises, Hayek, liberty, economics and politics, and were fundamental in sowing the many types of seeds a movement such as ours needs.

Lastly, we have the internet and all its wonders. With my simple YouTube channel I can reach a hundred thousand people a day, and many other channels, Facebook pages, twitter accounts, blogs and all form an ecosystem of ideas that help us get the ideas of liberty into all corners of this country.

If you are interested in finding out more, then by all means come to Brazil and see it for yourself. We’d love to figure out how to package it and export it to the world.

  • 1. Published in English as Economic Policy. 

Raphaël Lima is a popular media commentator and author in Brazil. His Youtube channel is one of the largest and most closely watched in the country.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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