There’s a Subway restaurant across the street. The lady next to me is reading a biography of Michael Jordan. The band is playing covers of Lady Gaga songs. The bar patrons are drinking Miller beer. I alone seem to prefer the national cocktail, the caipirinha made from a sugar-cane rum called cachaça, a dangerously good liquor that is hard to find in the US.
I’m in Santa Maria, Brazil, a small town three-hours south of Porto Alegre. What they are eating, however, is much more wonderful than what I’ve found in the US: the best salted beef money can buy. But what you find when you travel the world today is that you are never that far from home. Products and cultures are international. For that matter, I can get a strong dose of Brazilian culture right here in Atlanta, including those extraordinary cheese breads which are a staple of the diet in this huge country.
Politics too are becoming internationalized. As with the United States, Brazil recently went through a gigantic political upheaval. This fall, the Senate impeached President Dilma Rousseff on corruption charges, a blow so devastating that it ended 13 years of control of Brazilian politics by the leftist Workers Party. It has been the defining political event for a generation. Brazilians, then, are naturally curious about events in the US and the extent to which there are parallels.
Check Your Hope
I went on a three-city speaking tour in Brazil. The people who came to my lectures – obviously interested in libertarian ideas – couldn’t stop asking questions about the surprise defeat of Hillary Clinton and the election of Trump. I told them what I could, especially about the under-reported role that the blow up of Obamacare had on the outcome. They were certainly fascinated, and completely comprehending of what this implied.
However, I got the impression that their interpretation of our politics is more sophisticated than what you find in the US. In the US, partisanship is already revealing itself: some think the election is the end of the world while others are finding new hope within the emergent Trump regime. Brazilians, on the other hand, see the US through the lens of their own situation.
They have ended a grim political monopoly as a first step to demonstrating the power of public opinion. But no one imagines that the swamp has been drained. The new boss (Michel Temer) might be more liberal (they still use the word correctly in Brazil) on trade and regulation, but so long as he presides over a gigantic and intrusive state, his rule can be no different from the old boss. The one and only job of a politician should be to reduce his or her own power. That can only come from massive public pressure.
In a similar way, none of the libertarians I spoke to in Brazil imagines that Trump is some savior. Rather, the defeat of Clinton is only the beginning of a long process of reform that involves more than just the replacement of one brand of corruption with another. Corruption will always be present so long as government and politics are tangled up with money and enterprise. The bigger point is the titanic shift taking place in the relationship between society and state, a fundamental change in the institutions themselves.
The impeachment in Brazil, like the U.S. election, was a blow against an oligarchy and the reputation of an annoying and dated ideology: a style of central planning that has little to do with how people live their lives. What comes after is going to depend on a range of factors from education to cultural change to enterprise and technology to politics. And this is where the growing libertarian movement is going to play a huge role in Brazil.
Groundwork for Change
In the events I attended, I found an amazingly well-educated crowd of students, young professionals, professors, media personalities, and digital activists, all dedicated to using the upheaval to the advantage of freedom itself. Organizations like Mises Brazil, and many others that have spun off from Students for Liberty and other organizations, have spent years translating and distributing books and articles, holding seminars, and cultivating young people for a life of activism. Material from FEE is routinely translated and distributed in Portuguese.
Brazilians have a long history of seeing control move from one flavor of despotism to another and back again. It’s been this way in Latin America for the better part of a century. The left wrecks the economy and is replaced by the right, which wrecks civil liberties and inspires the left to rise up in opposition, and so on. This is not an unknown fact in Brazil, so activists are not easily tricked by a change in tone or rhetoric, must less by a few promising state appointments.
The libertarians in Brazil seem to understand that ideological slogans and promises for change mean nothing so long as states are huge, invasive, and offer a bounty to anyone who gains power. It is as F.A. Hayek wrote in 1944: brown and red are different styles of implementing what, in the end, is just socialism, and socialism is just another name for controlling people’s lives and property. The real problem is not which party or candidate is in control but rather what the state itself is permitted to control at all. Here is where the the focus of reform has got to be.
As a result, I found many Brazilian libertarians who were delighted by the shocking outcome of the 2016 election and find Trump to be a fascinating figure of disruption who delightfully confounded many media and political elites. However, I did not find one person who really imagined that the new administration was going to bring about the necessary changes to make the US a freer and more peaceful country, as much as they might like it to be so. What the election represents is a possibility of change, not a change in itself.
It caused me to reflect a bit on why it is that Americans seem strangely naïve about what it will require to bring about a new freedom. Why are we so willing to be duped by the promise of change merely because one bad actor is gone? I suppose it has something to do with the difference in our political history, or Brazilians just have longer memories. As with the US, Brazil’s experiments with the total state begin in the early part of the twentieth century. They have been to hell and back many times, but always under the same model of public policy: the state must rule all things.
The problem is not the particular party or leader but the institutions themselves. This realization is the whole reason for the phenomenal rise of the liberal/libertarian movement in city after city. The street protests of 2016 that led to the impeachment featured a slogan: Menos Marx, Mais Mises (Less Marx, More Mises). These are students who have been force-fed Marxian politics in public school all the way through college. But endless babble about exploitative capitalism does nothing to bring jobs, put food on the table, or provide hope for the future.
In the end, “Marx” reduces to privileges for the ruling class. The word “Mises” in Brazil represents a new hope for freedom itself. Politics provides part of the answer but real change can only come from pressure from below, which in turn comes from the realm of ideas. No one person can make Brazil great again. Only good ideas realized in institutions can do that.
I don’t speak Portuguese, but there is one aspect of the language I felt more comfortable with here than there. Everyone understands what is meant by the term liberal. It means more trade, secure ownership, privatization, an open society, free enterprise, free press, free speech, and free association. They further understand that the politics of reaction can take both right-wing and left-wing forms. They have experienced both and reject both. The light of liberty represents a third way.
After only a few days in Brazil, I discovered not only the luxury of caipirinhas but also of using the terms liberal and reactionary in the proper way. In this sense, Brazil understands English better than we do. Liberal means largely the same thing all over the world. The US is the outlier.