In Brazil Work Is a Dirty Word Unless You Hold Public Office

Government palace in Pernambuco state, BrazilIf we define statism as an ideology which provides a preferential role for the state in society, placing the state as the main agent of social action and transformation, this sort of statism is extremely pervasive in Brazilian society. It unites people from all social classes and ideological inclinations.

As law professor Keith S. Rosenn explains, “Brazilians seem to expect just about everything from the state. From jobs, stable prices, credit, subsidies for carnival masquerades, there is hardly anything for which the government is not expected to provide.”

It is not that the ruling elite in Brazil are comprised only of bureaucrats, but rather that the state bureaucracy is the base on which all other social groups adhere by either alliance or dependence.

Since the state is the ultimate provider of resources, statism has been supported in Brazil by old-fashioned socialists, neo-mercantilist businessmen, conservatives who oppose social change, the military, privileged bureaucrats, intellectuals who seek for state subvention, and all sorts of “compassionate” individuals who think the state is the only entity with power to reduce social inequalities.

To understand the correlation between statism and Brazilian-style corruption one needs to consider this reality of a state that is historically above society. Statism in Brazil is a by-product of an old “spoils-system” inherited from Portugal, a country where the monarch granted to his staff and preferred subjects all sorts of graces and favours at the expense of the law.

Statism also finds its early roots in Portugal’s disdain for economic freedom. In Portugal’s Catholic medieval hierarchy, the class of entrepreneurs (traders) was ranked lowest on the social scale. In that country, “as in Communist China and Marxist Russia”, explains C.R. Boxer, “the merchant was regarded as a parasitic and profiteering middle-man, resolved to enrich himself at the expense of his fellow-men”.

Another factor that contributed to statism was the slavery system, which lasted longer in Brazil than in any other nation in the Western world. It was only abolished in 1888. In his 1879 visit to Brazil, U.S. historian Herbert H. Smith associated slavery with a certain “culture of indolence, pride, and selfishness” that, in his opinion, made many Brazilians aspire to live “as parasites on others or on the government”.

Centuries of slavery had the effect of debasing the value of labour and pervert the sense of individual liberty and responsibility. It generated a society with deep contempt for any work other than that of a public job.

As a result, the state became, in the words of the great abolitionist leader Joaquim Nabuco, “the refuge of the descendents of the rich and noble families who squandered the fortunes acquired through slavery”.

He established the intrinsic connection between slavery and statism as follows:

“Among the classes which slavery artificially generates, the largest is that of the public employees. The close relationship between slavery and the epidemic of bureaucratism is not more open to doubt than the relationship between it and the superstition of the All-Providing State. Under that system the government is counted on for everything.

“Being the only active organization, the state covets and absorbs all disposable capital by means of taxation and loans, distributing among its clients by means of public employment, absorbing the savings of the poor through inflation and rendering precarious the fortunes of the well-to-do. Any twenty or thirty Brazilians to be met wherever our most cultivated society gathers can provide the example. All of them either once were, or now are, or will one day be public employees, and if not they themselves, then their sons”.

Complaints over excessive statism were commonplace throughout the constitutional monarchy (1822-89). Back in 1870, prominent politician A.C. Tavares Bastos argued that there existed in Brazil a certain “fear of companies”, which he directly associated with an “anachronistic tradition of despotism that denies the modern spirit of liberty”.

As early as 1853, entrepreneurs like the Viscount of Mauá complained that “everything is expected from the government and that individual initiative does not exist”. He argued that any economic activity depended on “official sensibilities” to continue existing, and that people were much inclined to consider the state as the “tutor” of society. As a result, the most successful businesspeople were “clients” of the landed gentry who controlled the state machinery and who expected to receive “unbearable tutelage of the government”.

This reality of statism hasn’t changed over the years, as Brazil’s most successful businesspeople are still neo-mercantilists who practice any sort of “cartel capitalism” with the state. Under the pretext of protecting “national interest”, they normally request privileges such as preferential interest rates and special loans from state banks and other governmental agencies, which they often do not have to repay.

As a result, explains law professor William Prillaman, “aspiring entrepreneurs are unable to seek relief, because economic decision-making is based on political concerns rather than rational dictates of the rule of law”.

The deleterious effects of statism were aggravated in the 1960s, with the ascension to power of highly nationalistic military officers. By the end of their long authoritarian regime, in March 1985, these army rulers left behind more than 600 state-owned companies.

The bureaucratic sector that managed this huge and notoriously inefficient state machinery resembled in many respects the nomenklatura of the former communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Some state employees worked only nine months per year but received a salary that was the equivalent of sixteen working months. In an attempt to finance their numerous privileges, Brazil became one of most heavily taxed countries in the world.

The state bureaucracy, however, has managed to retain its traditional power and prestige, convincing Brazilians that the archaic model of national-statism is still a valid option in terms of “national development”. This is so even though a May 2001 document of Transparency International reveals that a sound process of privatisation would “significantly reduce the amount of resources and positions subjected to political bargain.”

Despite its would-be federal organization, the collective fancy in Brazil is deeply dominated by the idea of the “omnipotence” of the state as the ultimately protector of the people. Thus, despite the end of the military period (1964-85), statist traditions still survive in a population invariably “colonized” by the bureaucratisation of the social phenomena.

We see that all attempts to find a solution to the country’s complex social problems by increasing government interference have brought about a clear reduction of its legal accountability. It is a basic fact that much of the abuses of power in Brazil are masqueraded as guaranteeing top-to-bottom rights to the people, although this practice has produced ominous consequences for the country.

There has been in Brazil a notable increase over the years of a huge state bureaucracy ineffectively conducting the country’s public affairs, wasting its own resources, and watching out for private and corporate interests; which in turn reap immense, often illegal benefits from a notoriously corrupt government.

Hence, we also witness abnormally ineffective governmental action in areas where its constitutional obligation would be to exercise its power much more effectively, such as with public security, healthcare, and education.

As a matter of empirical fact, the value of statism has not assisted Brazilians in developing a democratic culture of equality before the law. Instead, statism in Brazil has always provided numerous incentives for widespread corruption, influence-peddling, and red tape.

The value of statism needs therefore to be seriously rethought, as it seems to benefit only a minority of privileged individuals at the expense of society as a whole.

Augusto Zimmermann is a Brazilian Law Professor and the author of the well-known books Teoria Geral do Federalismo Democrático (General Theory of Democratic Federalism – Second Edition, 2005) and Curso de Direito Constitucional (Course on Constitutional Law, Fourth Edition – 2005). His e-mail is:


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