In Brazil, Free-Market Ideas Rise as the Economy Falls
The Mises Institute spoke with Associated Scholar Antony Mueller last week about recent economic and ideological trends in Brazil. Prof. Mueller teaches economics at Federal University of Sergipe (UFS) in Brazil.
Mises Institute: For those of us not in Brazil, it is hard to interpret the commentary on Brazil’s economy right now. Brazil’s debt was recently reduced to junk status, and we can see that Brazil’s economy is not doing well. But how severe is the crisis?
Antony Mueller: Part of the explanation is that for a large part of the population and for the government itself, the crisis came as a shock. At first, the Brazilian government ignored the coming of the crisis and when it arrived, the government ignored its existence.
Imagine Brazil like a family with a lot of inherited wealth that spends as if there were no tomorrow. Yet someday this family wakes up to the fact that its wealth has been squandered and its financial accounts are in the red. The government did not recognize that the boom would be temporary. The Brazilian economy began to sputter as commodity prices fell and the demand from China decreased. Yet in order to adapt to the new situation and cut expenditures, the Brazilian government spent even more.
Incumbent President Dilma Rousseff from the Workers Party, which has been in power since 2003, won a second term in 2014 with a campaign that deceived the population about the true state of the economy. The government implemented a series of cheap financial tricks such as delaying the rise of the prices for fuel and electricity and of other items in the large list of administered prices.
After the election, hell broke loose and the true state of the economy became visible for the broad public. The popularity of the president began to fall to single-digit approval ratings. The crisis is serious in itself, yet its psychological impact becomes more severe because of the shock of disillusion. In part, this shock also applies to foreign observers and investors who bought into government propaganda or based their outlook on the projections of the International Monetary Fund whose prognosis in 2013 said that Brazil would maintain economic growth rates of at least over 4 percent for each of the years to come up to 2018.
MI: Ambrose Evans-Pritchard is writing off Brazil as if it’s a total disaster area, and he quotes one observer who says “things will get much worse before they get better.” Is this true, and if so, what are the obstacles to improvement?
AM: Evans-Pritchard’s remarks reflect the consensus among foreign observers and there is indeed little doubt that the crisis will deteriorate before it gets better. Even worse, the recuperation could take much longer than is generally assumed. The reason for a pessimistic outlook comes from the fact that the crisis is not only economic, but also political in character. Not only members of the present government, but also figures of the opposition parties are under investigation about massive corruption linked to the major Brazilian oil company Petrobras. There is much frustration in the country because there is no promising alternative in sight.
MI: Assuming we are looking at real declines in standards of living, how long will it take the country to get back to where it was at the height of the boom?
AM: This is a difficult question for a specific answer. So let me answer in a more fundamental way. Brazil’s economic development has been on a roller coaster ride for centuries. Phases of extraordinary booms were followed by long periods of busts and stagnation.
In the second half of the twentieth century, the boom of the 1950s, with the promise that Brazil would achieve growth and development of “fifty years in five years” ended in economic disaster and the military dictatorship that lasted from 1964 to 1985, which in turn ended with Brazil’s catastrophic foreign debt crisis. It took a “lost decade” for the country to recuperate.
The 1990s saw a series of reforms that put the country back on the track. In 2003, when the newly elected president, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva from the Workers Party took over the government, the economy was already on a growth path. Then came the commodity boom with a seemingly insatiable appetite for Brazilian natural and agricultural products. Yet, instead of using the good times that filled the coffers of the Brazilian treasury to carry out highly necessary reforms, the Labor government pursued a populist policy of generous social spending, particularly for the poor parts of the population.
Now, these achievements of reducing poverty and inequality have come under threat because of the lack of financial funds. This means that Brazil must face not only an economic and a political crisis, but also a social crisis. The confluence of such a triple crisis increases the risks that any one of them gets worse because each individual crisis affects negatively the other crises. The consequential chain from the economic to the political and from there to the social crisis then goes into reverse and the social crisis worsens the outlook to get out of the political and the economic crisis.
MI: Brazil was a big part of the BRICS effort to create a group of up-and-coming economies that could rival the big economies like the US and Germany. Is that idea totally dead, or is the demise of BRICS overstated?
AM: The BRICS never managed to operate as a coherent group. Now, that not only Brazil is in crisis, but also Russia, and that China is in troubled waters, the outlook for the BRICS as a group of playing a major role in global affairs has diminished even more.
It is similar with MERCOSUL, the common market project in South America. Instead of achieving free exchange, trade conflicts are on the rise and not a single supranational institution has become effective. From my observations of Latin America and of Brazil in particular, I conclude that there are still vast mental and ideological barriers in place that work against sustained prosperity. The ideological dominance of statism, socialism, and interventionism is present in every layer of the Brazilian society — not only in politics or academia, but also in the business community itself.
Bureaucracy is a nightmare without end. Taxation is high and brings little return. The public educational system is in shambles. The legal system is unable to cope with an enormous backlog of unresolved cases, while at the same time, judges and other legal authorities enjoy grandiose privileges. Salaries in the judiciary are astronomical compared to what the average person or the poorer parts of the Brazilian society earn.
The public sector in general is extremely inefficient and is an El Dorado of rent-seekers. I do not expect that any of these obstacles will be resolved in the coming years. I fear that it is not much different in some other BRICS countries. They are all stuck in the “middle income trap,” as they are apparently unable to change from a statist to a free market system. There are many vested interests in place, in both politics and in established business, preventing change from state capitalism to an entrepreneurial capitalism. Only based on a fundamental change of ideology in favor of markets and individual and entrepreneurial liberty, will countries like Brazil gain long-term prosperity. I would also say that the same holds for China and the other members of the BRICS and emerging markets in general.
MI: Ideologically, is there any hope of a shift in Brazilian ideology? Some in the US media have featured libertarian free market groups in Brazil and suggested there is a change going on. Do you see any of that?
AM: Well, there is hope, yet it is a long way down the road. The Brazilian libertarian movement is gaining strength, particularly among students and young people in general. In fact, the spread of libertarian ideas among young Brazilians is amazing. The Brazilian Mises Institute is overwhelmed by visits to its site and the Institute’s events are grandiose. There is much good will, high hopes, a lot of serious dedication and extreme diligence at work in the libertarian movement of Brazil. If this trend continues, the walls that surround the established ideology will finally crumble. Anybody with an alert mind must see that statism has failed; that the ideas of socialism and interventionism are sterile and that they produce mainly frustration, stagnation, and crises. The libertarian movement in Brazil is the new avant-garde; its members are the true “progressives.”
The modern electronic media help to accelerate their ascendancy to influence and recognition. The current crisis will be a further wake-up call for young people to recognize that it is their future which is at stake if Brazil should continue in its old ways. With ever more young people joining the libertarian movement, I am sure that sometime in the future a critical mass will be reached and things will change.