Everyone was waiting for me in a delightful restaurant in Sao Paulo, Brazil, but I got delayed because there was a market on the way there. So many beautiful fruits and vegetables, and – my goodness! – the selection of fresh fish off the boat, sold by the fishermen themselves, was outrageously delightful.
Just to be in the midst of all this plenty, all this choice, all this action and energy, with money changing hands and people’s needs being met, was more fun than an amusement park. It might have been rude, but at that moment I just thought: my gang will just have to wait.
I adore Brazil, now more than ever. Seven years ago, I took my first trip. It was a serious turning point for me in my thinking and life. Of course, this beautiful country and people reveal another dimension of the world that is unimaginably magical, from the food to the music to the spirit alive in the country.
In addition, I discovered the real meaning of the Hayekian knowledge problem via Sao Paulo: there is simply no way that a city this awesome, complex, and heavily populated can be managed from the top down. But the ruling class was attempting to do just that, and the results were disastrous.
Seven years ago, economic growth was not in anyone’s living memory. I was picked up in an armored car because the city had recently developed a terrible crime problem. Motorcyclists would drive up to cars, throw a brick through the window, demand the driver exit, and then steal the car. For pedestrians, it was normal that you would get your smartphone stolen just by walking along the street. The place was strangely unsafe and so my hosts shepherded me from one heavily guarded private to another.
More discernable was the sense of sadness, even hopelessness, of a people toward their politicians and the political establishment. The situation seemed to so many people to be intractable. So much control. So much socialism. So little growth. So few opportunities. And so little passion among the population to do anything about it. There were sad faces all around.
As the years have gone on, economic conditions deteriorated further, culminating in a brutal recession in 2015 and 2016 – and a dramatic series of political trials and mass protests against the ruling class as organized by Students for Liberty Brazil.
So much has happened in the meantime. It can nearly be described as the beginnings of a peaceful revolution. The old ruling class is disrupted. New people have taken their place, not just at the center but in all the states and localities. Change is in the air. People who were on the outs because of their views on commercial freedom are now in positions to make a difference. You can tell that things are changing in a way that hardly anyone years ago could have imagined possible.
The first quarter of 2019 saw a small contradiction in GDP that everyone hopes is temporary and transitional. We are seeing evidence that government is reducing in its consumption expenditures and economic growth is in evidence in the last year, despite the latest downturn. The urgency to increase the pace of reform is obvious. More privatization, more cuts in bureaucracy, more free trade. It’s all needed now.
Every political movement with a leader is bound to disappoint, and that is certainly true with the new leadership in Brazil. Still, that change could happen at all is encouraging. More impressive is the incredible potential: once the boot is off the next of this enterprising country, industries are privatized, trade protection is stopped, and the bureaucracy fades, Brazil – if it follows the right path – could be on the way to becoming one of most prosperous countries in the world within only a few years.
Ideas and Change
You know what has made the difference? The spread of ideas, the right ideas. The Mises Institute Brazil has worked so hard with non-stop events and publishing. Many sister organizations have too. There is a genuine movement for freedom here. It has even manifested itself in mass protests where people on the streets carry signs that say “Menos Marx, Mais Mises.” It’s an ideas-based revolution in which the political changing is occurring downstream.
There was a discernable hope in the attitudes of the 600 people who attended a conference on Austrian economics sponsored by Mises Brazil. They proudly wore their Mises ties. Books on free-market economics were everywhere and people were buying them and reading them. There was even exuberance at the event. History is moving forward.
I was able to travel anywhere in recently-liberated Uber. Uber had been heavily regulated for the longest time because of union pressure and lobbying by the municipal taxi industry. That is now over. People are making money just by driving. Now it is possible to jettison car ownership in the city, and rely completely on Uber and the excellent train system. This, plus scooter and bike rentals from via the app market just as in the U.S., has helped to unclog catastrophic traffic problems and generally brightened up the whole city.
Crime and Guns
What about the crime problem? It seems to have gone away in the public places of the city that I was in – or rather seems about like you have in most major cities. Nothing outrageous or terrifying; manageable and getting better. The streets were safe and lovely. No threats anywhere that I could tell. I asked a number of people: why?
The crime problem really traces to an executive government decision in 2004 that really did amount to a war on private gun ownership. The crime problem grew over the years when citizens were not allowed to defend themselves. Finally, people began to fight back through every precaution and technique you can imagine. And people began to be more bold about stretching Brazil’s pretty tight laws on guns as far as they could go. Sometime in the last few years, criminals and thugs could no longer be certain that they could prey on an unarmed population.
The liberalization of gun ownership was a factor in the victory of President Jair Bolsonaro who strongly favors much more liberal laws. But already earlier this year, he has lengthened the period of a valid possession license and made it easier to purchase guns. This month, he signed an executive order making it easier to transfer ownership and import, and increased the amount of ammunition people can have. There are more changes coming but what’s crucial here is the flipping of the psychology of the people: they will no longer be helpless in the face crime, whether from street thugs or public officials.
A word on the politics of this country: if all you have read about the recent election is from English-language newspapers, you would be sure that the “Brazilian Trump” has taken over in a general ascendence of the “far right,” and everyone pretends like we know what that means. But the situation is far more complex.
Bolsonaro shares with Trump the ability to drive mainstream media commentators and legacy ruling-class intellectuals into fits of sputtering rage, much to the delight of his supporters. There is indeed that parallel. Still, there are discernable elements of liberalism in him that seem lacking in Trump.
Despite a history of saying many silly and offensive things, Bolsonaro has defended the free speech rights of a recently harassed comedian, has pushed an economic bill of rights, advocated privatizing every one of Brazil’s 138 federally owned companies, is more favorable to trade than Trump, and is working to cut government spending (again, unlike Trump), in addition to having many advisors who are friendly to libertarian ideas. And it’s not just about the center. In many states, genuine liberalism is making advances at all levels.
My own book titled Collectivism of the Right has been published by Mises Brazil (my second book in Portuguese), as a clear declaration that the rising intellectual movement in Brazil rejects the statism/authoritarianism of both the left and right, favor of commercial liberalism and human rights for all. This is the trajectory, with or without the new president. Bolsonaro might, in the end, prove either good for bad for liberty; what matters is that he is not the driving force but only a temporary actor in a larger drama.
Finally, there is the prospect for improved trade relations between Brazil and the U.S., due to the friendship between the two countries and the growing isolation of the US from Asian-Pacific trade diplomacy. This could be a huge benefit to Brazil and the US, and put an end to a decade and a half of protectionist/socialist rule in Brazil.
Not all things are right with the world here yet. There is a very long way to go. The point is that people in this country now know that change can happen. The path of progress towards freedom is always messier and intermittent than it needs to be, given the reality of politics and the vicissitudes of democracy. But such problems can be overcome in time with the right kind of intelligence, reasonable argument, and moral courage. The Brazilian movement for genuine freedom has all three in place today.
A visit to Brazil and back takes an adjustment. I just returned from the local grocery in the US. No passion fruits. I’m not in Brazil anymore and part of me is sad for it.