In the first week of January, Tho Bishop of the Mises Institute published an article titled “Cleaning Up “Marxist Trash” is the Best Way for Bolsonaro to Build a Better Brazil” that painted newly-elected President Jair Bolsonaro as a sort of champion of liberty for the South American country. Not only is this a false impression, but it also echoes previous gaffs made by libertarian thinkers and South American elected officials.
For those who may not be familiar, Jair Bolsonaro was a controversial “ultra-conservative” congressman whose campaign for the presidency was marked with much negative press and resulted in him being stabbed at a campaign rally with a life-threatening wound. The politician was referred to as the “Brazilian Trump” and like the US President, he was met with accusations of racism, sexism, and homophobia with the difference being that Bolsonaro’s was much more obvious.
The Brazilian said to a female representative that he would not rape her because “you’re very ugly”, and in a speech said that, “I’d rather have my son die in a car accident than have him show up dating some guy.”
Bolsonaro repeatedly praised leaders of Brazil’s military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, and in one instance dedicated his vote to impeach the then-president in 2016 to the memory of Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the head of army intelligence during this dictatorship. Ustra was described as “the master of life and death, the man who decided who was going to live and who was going to die,” and allegedly oversaw the illegal arrest and torture of 500 Brazilians.
One may ask, then, why any libertarian would praise this man?
Bishop thought that though his campaign was reported as “a sinister threat to Brazilian democracy” and a “hostile threat to minority rights”, that, in fact:
“The real story, however, is Bolsonaro’s apparent commitment to the sort of ideological revolution that is desperately needed for his country to thrive. While history shows we should never trust a politician to deliver on lofty promises of liberty and freedom, the initial days of his presidency have moves deserving of praise.”
The early moves that are apparently deserving of praise are Bolsonaro’s commitment to “[Liberating Brazil] from Socialism” and reforming education in order to “tackle the Marxist garbage in our schools head on.” Bishop believes that this is ultimately a good thing because the true cure to Brazil’s woes is to change the ideas of the country, and he even quotes Mises’ Economic Policy as justification where the economist stated, “We must substitute better ideas for wrong ideas. … Ideas and only ideas can light the darkness.”
One of our strategies to get Brazil to climb from the lowest spots of the educational rankings is to tackle the Marxist garbage in our schools head on. We shall succeed in forming citizens and not political militants.
— Jair M. Bolsonaro (@jairbolsonaro) January 2, 2019
What the author fails to explain is that the Marxist trashman plans on enacting this by supporting initiatives to silence his opponents. Days after his election, a representative from Bolsonaro’s party encouraged students to film and report any teacher reacting negatively to the President’s victory, setting up a hotline to send the content with Bolsonaro’s full support.
The Nation describes it as such:
“At universities across Brazil, the atmosphere may appear normal on the surface, but many are worried. ‘There is a climate of tension and of fear,’ said Adriana D’Agostini, an education professor at the Santa Catarina Federal University (UFSC).
Several teachers from different universities say they have changed the way they conduct their classes. ‘In the center where I teach, the rule is that we should now police ourselves a lot. We know that there are Bolsonaro supporters in the course, so we try to control what we say,’ says Lais Donida, a young Ph.D. student who teaches an undergraduate linguistics class at UFSC. “We are censored, even without there being censorship.”
Frankly, this is a backhand to the libertarian ideal of free speech, and a twisting of Mises’ views as justification. The Austrian clearly stated in Liberalism:
“Liberalism, however, must be intolerant of every kind of intolerance. If one considers the peaceful cooperation of all men as the goal of social evolution, one cannot permit the peace to be disturbed by priests and fanatics. Liberalism proclaims tolerance for every religious faith and every metaphysical belief, not out of indifference for these “higher” things, but from the conviction that the assurance of peace within society must take precedence over everything and everyone.” [emphasis added]
Censorship of an opposing idea is neither tolerant nor is it promoting peaceful interaction, making Bishop’s use of Mises to justify one that is, in my opinion, a definite fanatic disingenuous. The question begged is still the reason for supporting Bolsonaro, but Bishop does explain.
Due to Bolsonaro’s tapping of free market-minded thinkers, including those of the Mises Institute’s Brazilian affiliate, and the fact that the President was photographed with Portuguese copies of Frederic Bastiat’s The Law and Mises’ Economic Policy, the author assumes that the President’s term will be full of libertarian economic policy saving the country from its previous socialist government. The author states:
“This is important not only because it highlights the growth of these ideas beyond the narrow lens of politics, but also because it demonstrates that Bolsonaro has a talent pool to be able to tap into for his administration.”
Despite Bishop’s dismissal of comparisons with previous right-wing dictators, the obvious conflict of interest in the article reminds one of Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys’ assistance and subsequent praise of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Friedman’s lack of recognition for Pinochet’s horrendous crimes of jailing and executing leftists and interning political dissidents was dismissed because he later enacted tariff removals and privatization of government agencies at the behest of Chicago economists.
It seems a similar situation has emerged in the Mises Institute through the President’s use of Mises Brasil members, and ironically, a University of Chicago economist named Paolo Guedes. Obviously, with the President having been inaugurated just this month, it is too early to criticize any policy. But if his term follows a trend akin to President Trump, there may not be as much libertarian economics as one would hope.
Bishop continues by explaining Bolsonaro’s march to remove communists from the government:
“Naturally, when taking over a huge government bureaucracy that has long been under socialist control, removing bad actors is every bit as important as bringing in new talent. While Donald Trump brought the term ‘the Deep State’ into the American mainstream, his administration has been damaged by failing to truly drain the swamp of its long-standing political professional class. Here too is another area where Bolsonaro’s administration is showing true promise.
On January 3, Chief of Staff of the Presidency, Onyx Lorenzoni, announced that the Bolsonaro government will be removing communist-sympathetic officials from positions of public administration.”
This is also worrisome, as the McCarthyist tones cannot be dismissed. While a president can appoint those who align with their views into their administration, US history shows that such witch hunts can set a precedent for corruption against anyone who disagrees with current policy.
Senator Joe McCarthy would lead the charge during the 1950s when he delivered a speech claiming that there were Communist Party members working in the State Department. This launched a decade-long McCarthy era full of aggressive investigations into American citizens and blacklisting by companies of any individual known or suspected to be a communist sympathizer. The McCarran Internal Security Act was also passed in 1950 requiring all communist organizations to register with the Attorney General until it was declared unconstitutional in 1965.
I will give credit where it is due, though, as Bishop does state, “it would be a mistake to confuse anti-Marxist rhetoric for a genuine embrace of liberty and free markets.” But the generally positive portrayal of Bolsonaro in the article still leaves me worried.
I hope that those in the Institute will take a lesson from history and will denounce Bolsonaro if he becomes tyrannical, and not excuse his actions for the sake of economic policy they agree with. A good number of US libertarians have been disappointing in this same vein by ignoring President Trump’s own agenda because he slashed tax rates and “triggers leftists.” It is still a great possibility to enact countless horrors on a populace while lowering taxes and deregulating industry, and I hope to not have history repeat itself.
You can read more from Luke Henderson on Think Liberty here.