Two years ago in Brazil, when I first addressed the Forum da Liberdad in Porto Alegre, the conference was already huge (3,500 people, as I recall) but spirits were low. The political system seemed hopelessly mired in corruption. Liberty-minded people did not see themselves as making progress. The country seemed stuck in an impoverishing socialism forever, an entrenched despotism as far as the eye could see, and people were asking: is there nothing we can do?
Opportunity is in the air, and the realization feeds on itself.
What a difference two years have made! Corruption hit the papers. Everything opened up, and suddenly. Street protests broke out. A president was impeached. New political leaders have emerged. The press is paying careful attention to the huge and diverse movement for liberty in that country.
Everyone today is energized, optimistic, and dedicated at every level. It’s not just about politics. It’s among professors, students, bloggers and YouTubers, and local organizations of every sort. Everyone is jumping in, ready to contribute.
Opportunity is in the air, and the realization feeds on itself. You create the future that you believe is possible.
What a Change
And sure enough, the liberty movement seems poised to make a gigantic difference. The same conference this year drew 5,500 people, making it by far the largest liberty-oriented event in the world. Speakers included business people, statesmen, media figures, intellectuals, publishers, and huge numbers sat with rapt attention as they spoke about the great liberal tradition of peace, enterprise, freedom, and the adaptability of history in light of new ideas.
Every book is a gift to the ages.
On the tables outside the large conference room, books were selling like crazy, with authors like Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, and Brazilian intellectuals like Helio Beltrao and Fernando Ulrich. They covered philosophy, politics, economics, law, ethics, and technology. The entire liberal worldview is spreading in exactly the right way: intense education in ideas.
I’m in awe of the publishers and translators and the work they have put in to make this possible. Every book is a gift to the ages. Each work drives home the point in a different way: society thrives when it is not managed from the top but rather defers to the creative decision making of its members and their personal choices and associations. It’s a point that has been mostly rejected for 100 years in most parts of the world.
This rejection was nothing but tragedy. Nearly every country on earth is saddled with a huge government overhang that is ruining the potential for unlimited wealth creation. Dreams are being destroyed by the day, sucked away by bureaucracy and unworkable plans imposed by the center. Political parties are struggling to control the machinery of power, but there is nothing to be gained by this trajectory. What is needed is rather simple: powerful elites must relinquish control and permit the social order on its own to work its magic.
Brazil has tried everything else. Now it seems ready to try liberty. Nothing ever goes in a straight line but the chances for real victories – privatization, tax cuts, trade reform, liberalization of health care and education and business enterprise – actually seem possible. And if not immediately, it is also clear that this movement is not going away. It is growing, even exponentially.
Why Not Try Liberty?
I can tell you this much: it is a beautiful thing to see. Every country in the world has a liberty movement, but many people worry that they might be wasting their time. They struggle, they blog, they broadcast, they organize but nothing ever changes. But giving up is not the Brazilian way. Instead of retreat, they took a different route, working ever harder, pushing out at the edges, and diversifying their ranks, applying ever more intellectual and moral energy to the cause.
Brazil has set the bar much higher, as an example to the world.
The difference in Brazil is that the leaders of this movement refused to believe that the idea that made life beautiful all over the world – the idea of human liberty – would be permanently marginalized. They had faith that it could be a mainstream driver of events. They have worked to make it happen. And, sure enough, they are now watching history conform to the dream.
Brazil has set the bar much higher, as an example to the world. There is no country on earth that could not reproduce this success, with enough passion, work, and energy. I’m not even sure I fully realized until this event just what is possible. It changed my own outlook.
Part of the problem is that many liberty movements around the world have become acculturated to their own marginalization. They’ve dealt so long with a sense of defeat they’ve come to accept it as their fate. They begin to think of themselves as a faction with a special interest, rather than the voice for the common good of all.
A tell-tale sign of implicit despair you find in the US case is hyper-factionalism. The more a movement is convinced it must lose, the more it turns inward, with splits within splits, vituperative claims of heresy, backstabbing intolerance toward different points of view. It's a reflection of despair. If we can't win, we might as well troll each other through purges, denunciations, and personal breaks.
This tendency is almost entirely absent in Brazil. People do have different callings, interests, and points of view, but the kind of bitter factionalism you find in other countries is almost entirely absent. On the contrary, the liberty movement in Brazil embraces everyone and anyone who is working for the good.
Civility Is a Feature
One feature of the movement that struck me this visit is its unfailing civility. People in this liberty movement are happy, courteous, kind, complimentary of each other, and excited to be part of the right side of history. I suspect that this is due to the confidence they have in the rightness of their cause, together with a beautiful and awesome culture of kindness toward others.
I realized only at that moment how much I had been the benefactor of unfailing courtesy for so many days, and I hadn’t even realized it.
More so than in the US, the culture of Brazil is deeply infused with a delicate social liturgy of custom, social signaling, and subtle cues. You can see it in the manners, the tone of the voice, the attitudes of deference based on mutual respect.
I’ve wondered why these informal traditions are so rich and robust in this country, and speculated that it is due to a variety of factors. No country in the world is more racially and ethnically diverse, so much so that the very words race and ethnicity have all-but lost their meaning, and mercifully so. People encounter each other as people first and foremost, and the very brutality of the political sphere has underscored the absolute need for civility to be created and preserved in other ways.
Let me provide just one example. After a few days, I began to notice that in all these social circles, in discussions with so many people, I had taken for granted that I would speak English. And when people were around me, even talking amongst themselves, they would speak English too, just as a matter of being polite to me. I only became aware of this on the last evening when I was with a group and someone started speaking Portuguese to his neighbor, and a friend whispered quietly: “please speak English.”
I realized only at that moment how much I had been the benefactor of unfailing courtesy for so many days, and I hadn’t even realized it. And this courtesy extended to every area of life: people would help me with directions, with ordering food, with speaking to clerks, with every tool I needed to come to appreciate and love this wonderful place. I pray that Americans could someday learn to be so courteous.
The liberty movement has created a kind of nation within a nation, as an inspiration for the entire country.
Build the Liberty You Love
One thing you notice in the history of liberty is that it is never created by politics alone. Just as society is not created from the top down, social change doesn’t emerge this way either. Politics adapts to social realities that are already in existence. If you want liberty, you must create it first as a social, intellectual, and cultural movement. That’s where the hard work comes in, and it is precisely where people tend to falter. Instead, they want the world they dream of to be granted unto them but it never is.
But in Brazil, you find a different determination, and moral and intellectual passion to live the dream you want to see realized in the world. The organizers of the Forum da Liberdad have been at it for thirty years. Only on this great anniversary did it become apparent: the liberty movement has created a kind of nation within a nation, as an inspiration for the entire country.
And now it has become a gift to the world. As Americans, we can look upon it and realize, perhaps for the first time: the rest of us have set the bar too low. If this can happen in Brazil, it can happen where you are too. It’s awesome to consider the debt the 21st century will owe to this beautiful country and its beautiful people.