The last four years of political activism in the libertarian movement in Brazil confirm Hoppe’s thesis in his “What Must Be Done” and may serve as a lesson to libertarians worldwide. As we gear up for the US elections, and for local elections in Brazil, it is important to make those lessons explicit, to better understand how to use elections and how effectively they can be used to protect private property—what Hoppe calls the defensive use of democracy.
The first lesson is about principles: in selecting candidates to support, it needs to be considered a must that a candidate defend freedom, private property, and the right to associate and not associate as core values, and not as good general economic proposals.
President Bolsonaro has illustrated this point on numerous occasions. Yes, he had some free market proposals and took some stands that pleased libertarians, such as defending the right to freely buy and bear arms. His core values, however, do not include liberty. He just believes that people should have more liberties than they have today; that is his vision for country and nation. When liberty came in conflict with his core views and personal history, he tossed it aside.
On many occasions he interfered with reforms to avoid spending cuts on the military and on security forces in general. Such actions maintained large amounts of state spending and seriously crippled hope for deep reforms in Brazil. He is also adamantly opposed to ending the drug war and has put his and his family’s political future front and center.
Bolsonaro’s presidency also illustrates the importance of Hoppe’s insistence on a bottom-up revolution and a strategic focus on the legislative branch, as opposed to aiming resources at high executive offices such as the presidency or governors. Yes, it would be nice to have them, but it is insufficient and very cost ineffective.
On the occasions when Bolsonaro did march toward reforms that would reduce the state and protect private property, he faced strong opposition in the legislative branch. In part this is due to his total inability to win political battles, but it is also because congressmen in Brazil remain very statist. Long story short, only a handful among 513 congressmen and 81 senators defended liberty and pitched it to other people. Most of Bolsonaro’s base were career public employees or people who simply climbed on his name while having no comprehension of liberty beyond some slogans.
This is not to say that his presidency is a complete disaster. Some reforms did go through, and we expect some more victories to come. Brazil is freer now than it was in 2018 and will likely continue taking baby steps in this direction. But this is only a small fraction of what could be done and needs to be done to get Brazil from being a dumpster fire to just average.
These results contrast with the achievements we’ve seen at the state and local level. Twenty sixteen saw the election of a handful of libertarians to city council in three cities and a larger handful were elected to the state legislature in six states out of twenty-seven.
To clarify, my use of “libertarian” in this article includes the roughly 30 percent of candidates whom some would describe as anarcho-capitalists, but it also includes the other 70 percent whose position can be summarized as “I’m not quite sure how privatizing everything would go or how to do it, and I haven’t studied it much nor would know how to make the argument for it if pressed on it. But I’d rather focus on the more immediate problems. I would vote in favor of any state reduction if it came to it, but right now I am more focused on stopping the next tax increase and legalizing homeschooling. So, let us get these things done.”
These groups all together represent something between 2 and 4 percent of the chambers but have many asymmetries working in their favor, which I believe are not unique to Brazil.
They are far better versed in and more motivated for their causes than the average politician; they can attack and expose monopolies, privileges, and absurd legislation in general, since they get no benefits from them; and since Brazil is going broke, they have the advantage of the reality of the numbers on their side. Reducing the state would be far more difficult if we were in a commodities boom, with state coffers filled. Since the opposite is the case, ideas for reform, spending cuts, and increasing economic activity are in demand, and only libertarians have them to supply.
This scenario has led to many victories.
In three states, legislation to legalize homeschooling is advancing and is expected to be successful. The other three states should follow soon, and other states with no libertarian representatives are starting to pick up on the idea.
Just last week, two libertarian state congressmen out of fifty-five in Rio Grande do Sul stopped a tax increase that would have expanded state revenue by about 5 percent. This blocking may also force spending cuts and privatization, since the state will have to find a way to balance its budget.
Over the last four years, significant tax increases have been blocked on at least seven occasions in the states and cities where we have representatives to defend private property. The story is always the same: the executive had the votes to pass the bill, the libertarians rose, dissected the law, exposed the explicit or hidden increases, pointed to various problems, gathered public support, and flipped votes.
It is important to note that this might be easier in Brazil because we do not suffer the “Republicrat” duopoly of the US. Instead, we often find a dozen or more parties in power at the state level. That makes it easier for politicians in general to switch positions and not support the executive, since it cannot use the “vote with the governor/mayor or we will end your political career” threat.
Legislation to reduce bureaucracy, paperwork, licensing fees, authorizations in general, and to limit the capacity of the state to regulate at the state and local levels has also been introduced. Four states and a few dozen cities have been pressed into enacting an “economic freedom law,” which not only cuts back on state shenanigans required to open and run a business, but has dealt a death blow to corrupt public officials who used those shenanigans to demand bribes, persecute opponents, and wield power.
There numerous other small victories, too many to list exhaustively, such as handing over the administration of parks and squares to the private sector, exposing local corruption scandals and removing the politicians involved in them from power, privatization or dissolution of branches of the administrative state, etc. In short, the opportunistic strategy outlined by Joseph Salerno is paying dividends.
This proves the effectiveness of the local focus, but it also brings us to the next lesson: it is easy to elect a representative at the state and local level, provided that libertarians work for it as a team.
Again, this is easier under the Brazilian voting system. Long story short, a city with around a 2 percent proportion of people who strongly believe in liberty can end up having 10 percent of the votes in the legislature. Now, in 2020, there are cities where we expect to win more than 10 percent control, which is enough to significantly swing the direction of a city.
The costs? Ten to fifty thousand dollars per campaign. Sometimes less, rarely more. The total cost of those campaigns so far is around $1.5 million. Total effect? Roughly $20–30 billion in new taxes avoided over the next ten years, plus many intangibles.
The fact, demonstrated many times over in Brazil, is that if a core network of libertarians is established and puts in a fair bit of work planning a campaign, a libertarian can make it into office and do serious damage to the state. This is the practical demonstration of Hoppe’s conjecture about focusing on the local.
And here lies our last lesson: it is absolutely crucial that we organize, set up institutes, groups, or structures of any kind, and create constructive communities that grow, produce new leadership, and demonstrate and celebrate freedom. This is, after all, what a libertarian society comes down to and is necessary even if one does not have interest in electing people. Such communities are fundamental, and although this article focuses on the use of elections, building such communities is even more important and should take priority.
But the fact is that our success in electing libertarians and winning legislative battles comes down to the success of the bond between libertarians of a given place. We cannot hope to win by simply reading books, expecting people to do the same, and then complaining when they do not, and believing in such a strategy is childish at best.
It is those kinds of communities that ultimately cause what we are seeing as a snowball effect for liberty. I believe that people who have never tasted freedom can be more dismissive of it, but once they are set free and realize how much they have been held back in some fields, this becomes addictive and creates a demand for less and less state.
This requires a community of libertarians who not only point to those victories and explain them to the passerby, but who continue to put pressure upon those cracks made in the fortress of the state, showing the true potential of human capacity in freedom. In doing so, they build a libertarian society.
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