Bolsonaro, Brazil & the Dangers of Free-Market Myopia

When Jair Bolsonaro became president-elect of Brazil, the reaction from many was as expected: shock, horror, and questions over just how Bolsonaro — a man who openly praised Brazil’s past dictatorship — came to power. 

Less expected was the ringing endorsement of Bolsonaro from The Wall Street Journal (WSJ). Praising Bolsonaro’s ability to give progressives, leftists, and socialists everywhere “an anxiety attack,” the WSJ has since published several articles, all penned by the ‘editorial board’, praising Bolsonaro and his ‘keep the reds off the beds’ approach to politics.

We’ve Been Here Before Folks

This sort of thing — pro-business outlets endorsing candidates who hold pro-market, but hugely authoritarian, borderline fascistic views — isn’t new. And no, I’m not talking about the endorsements of various Republican Party candidates over the years by Fox News and others. While certainly conservative, those like Paul Ryan, Lisa Murkowski. and others are hardly what you would call ‘neo-fascist’ in their political leanings.

Bolsonaro, however, is the closest thing to a neo-fascist to emerge in Latin America in recent years. His endorsement by the WSJ as well as many individual conservative and pro-market economists and commentators is eerily similar to the tacit endorsements and appraisals expressed for murderous authoritarians like Augusto Pinochet, both those in the late seventies and those in the early two-thousands

Friedrich Hayek’s endorsement of Pinochet in particular is rather notorious in economic and political circles. While Milton Friedman is more often cited and criticised by many libertarians and anarchists for praising the “economic miracle” of Pinochet’s Chile, it is Hayek who supported a form of “transitional dictatorship.” Whereby civil liberties and democratic rights to organise would be suspended in the hopes that dictatorship would produce a free-market economy and a freer society. Fellow libertarians and classical liberals, however, such as Murray Rothbard and those at the Cato Institute roundly condemned the horrors of Pinochet’s Chile, seeing Hayek’s “transitional dictatorship” concept as a naïve belief that could lead to a dystopian nightmare.

An Utter Farce

Whether Bolsonaro himself will actually embrace free-market principles remains to be seen. So far he seems more than happy to follow in the not-so-free market shoes of Pinochet and other supposedly ‘free-market’ dictators. His actual economic policy seems to lack any actual (free market) substance, a fact one shouldn’t find too surprising given he spent the best part of three decades supporting the economically interventionist policies of the Workers Party (PT) whilst in the Brazilian Congress.

For example, his plans to privatise certain industries have already been stalled by the military men he has appointed to cabinet and ministerial positions, a worrying intervention by any measure given past Latin American history and the tendency of generals to not simply dictate economic policy, but violently repress those who disagree. Bolsonaro’s trade policy is again both remarkably protectionist and dictated by his cronies in the military, with the Brazilian president-elect taking Trump’s lead by threatening those such as China – whose trade and investment in Brazil has been deemed a national security threat – with higher levels of state interference whilst praising the US and wanting more co-operation and deregulation.

It seems that, far from either liberalising or democratising the sluggish Brazilian economy through empowering things like workers’ co-operatives, Bolsonaro seems set on keeping his friends in the military on-side through the type of cronyism and corruption he was elected to office to remove.

The Turning of Many A Blind Eye

The fact however still remains — economists like Hayek and politicians like Reagan were willing to turn a blind eye to  bloody human rights violations in Chile in exchange for a so-called “free market” and the repression of communists and other leftists.

Those same kinds of voices continue this legacy with Bolsonaro, despite his economic policy lacking any real pro-market substance. The fact that the WSJ and many other conservative and so-called free-market types are beginning to embrace Bolsonaro should be a cause for concern

This is a man who has said:

  • He would rather have a dead son than a gay one
  • That a fellow member of the Brazilian legislature was “too ugly to rape
  • He wants to withdraw funds from news outlets that criticise him
  • He wants to give the police (in his own words) “carte blanche” to shoot and kill any and all potential suspects, innocent or otherwise
  • That the brutal Brazilian dictatorship of the late 20th century didn’t go far enough in its extrajudicial killings.

The fact that the WSJ and others can simply shrug these sorts of comments off and praise Bolsonaro for ‘triggering’ and ‘owning’ the libs — as many conservative and alt-right types put it — is not simply immature, it’s also incredibly worrying. As noted by Emmi Bevensee, there was a spike in attacks on members of the LGBTQ+ community both during and after the election, spurred on by Bolsonaro’s disgusting remarks, some going so far as to chant his name whilst attacking a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

These types of remarks are things to be condemned, not brushed under the carpet as soon as someone begins to throw around the ‘P-word’ and claiming they want to liberalise the economy — even Thatcher realised that in the end.

Concluding Thoughts

The one glimmer of hope is that whilst Bolsonaro has said all of the above and more, whether he gets to actually do any of it is another thing. The Brazilian legislature is notorious for its bureaucracy, infighting, and multitude of crisscrossing inter-party alliances, coalitions, and unofficial deals that help governing parties and presidents push and pass their agendas. Whilst Bolsonaro certainly has allies in the legislature, whether he has enough of them to do anything is another thing entirely.

But there’s something more important to consider here, namely what it means to embrace free-markets and how far we should go to make them a reality. As noted by Steve Horwitz over on Bleeding Heart Libertarians, those who embrace free markets should not embrace reckless authoritarians who just-so-happen to endorse pro-market ideas – more often than not, they turn out to just be plain-old statists donning pro-market clothes in an act of shrewd electioneering.

Free Markets & Capitalism?
Markets Not Capitalism
Organization Theory
Conscience of an Anarchist