How will change come?


Presentation at the 17th Week of the Center for Applied Social Sciences of the Mackenzie Presbyterian University, May 8, 2018 (anniversary of the birth of F. A. Hayek, 1899-1992)

There are two aspects of the struggle for a freer, fairer, and prosperous Brazil that demand more attention than they have received.

(1) The direction of change must be from the bottom up

(2) Change will be preceded by a battle of ideas

One of the most well-known themes about F. A. Hayek's social and economic work is the dispersion of knowledge. Knowledge, says Hayek (1945, pp. 519-20), is scattered and incomplete. It is no use having a hypercentralized system like the current one, and thinking only about how good it would be to have the right people at the top.

First, our country's recent experience shows that the person at the top is not necessarily well-meaning. Second, in a hypercentralized system like ours, there is less control over this person to seek freedom, justice, and prosperity - the common good of the nation. Third, and this is the argument we can make here from Hayek, that person or group of people, even if they were a group of charitable and benevolent people who only wished the best for us, would not be able to make the best decisions because of ignorance. A bureaucrat from the MEC in Brasília or a federal deputy does not know how I wish my family should be educated. Also do not know what the actual demand for food in the village is right next to mine. Knowledge of what the problem is, what solutions are available, at what prices, if any, is knowledge at the local level and is a knowledge dispersed by society. The market and other forms of voluntary organization of cooperation among various individuals are more effective tools than central planning, precisely because of this problem of knowledge (Hayek, 1945: 528).

For that reason, it seems to me more productive to bet that the change that must occur happens from the bottom up. Instead of thinking about keeping the current tyrannical system and putting a benevolent leader on top, we need to think more about the knowledge we have about local problems and solutions. We need to think about organizing and associating people here and now, to aggregate some of the dispersed knowledge so that it is possible to solve problems without going through Brasilia. We need to think more about actions that are not necessarily government actions - not even market, if any - but that can be done with better results if they are done here and now. To assume that the change will come from the bottom up is to understand that you and I have much more weight than we imagine in this process. Strictly speaking, as Anthony Downs recalls (1957, pp. 260-76), your vote and mine probably do not make a difference. Nor is it to vote to put the right person on top and then to cross the arms that will produce a Brazil freer, fairer and more prosperous. On the contrary, it is local action, in cooperation with other people, whether in the market or in voluntary organizations of mutual aid, which will help to show how we need not invoke the solution of the Almighty State and Provider and Maintainer of all things on the face of the earth.

Understanding that change starts at the local level and goes up does completely change the agenda of priorities. If we come to think about the vote, we will think about who we will vote for councilor or mayor. We will now think of the neighborhood or the neighborhood. What can be done about garbage collection. In creative solutions to plug the hole in the street that the municipality does not cover. On how to make the block where we live most beautiful. On how to organize a collection of money to get a poor person out of an emergency situation. And, why not, think of programs of mutual aid, whether by microcredit financing or by social enterprise, or even charity? We can thus use local knowledge and aggregate the dispersed by the voluntary association of people to solve problems that we experience more concretely at the local level.


In addition to this first point that the direction of change will be from the bottom up, we can also speak of a second point, also linked to knowledge, but which operates in another way. This is the battle of ideas. The change we wish for Brazil will be preceded by a battle of ideas. That means we need a cultural shift.


We have seen manifestations of this battle throughout our history. In fact, it never ceased to occur. Olavo de Carvalho says that few people have an original opinion and that, after all, what matters is that the opinion is true. It is not from now on that we have a certain polarization in the assumptions we hold about how society should be organized or how the economy should work. But from one side or the other, these opinions have a deeper root in traditions of thought - they are not original.


Hayek, noting the predominance of the opinions that celebrate statism as the panacea that cures all social problems, sees very well that politicians in a democracy talk about ideas that seem to have more popularity with the electorate. What makes certain schemes more popular is the kind of access these ideas hold to the general public. For Hayek (1960: 379), socialists have best articulated a way of transforming their ideas into public opinion-better than liberals or conservatives. It is that socialists have a better understanding of the role that intellectuals play in politics.

Hayek has a very critical view of the intellectuals. He calls them "professional traders of second-hand ideas" (1960: 371). Intellectuals are not people with original thinking or innovative ideas of content. His innovation comes in form, in language, in the medium of communication. They convey well the ideas they borrow from another source. They are journalists, artists, advertisers, writers, cartoonists, and so on. They are excellent communicators, but they are not academics. Hayek finds it incredible, for example, that the economists who favor the folly of socialism have always been a minority, but that this idea, however, has gained political traction in various corners of the world. For him, the key to the statist strategy was to win the intellectual class first. In turn, this class has won public opinion. It served as the transmission chain of ideas from the Ivory Tower to the street. Intellectuals have privileged access to the media and exercise a filtering power of which academic ideas will reach the general public and which will be left behind, forgotten in scientific publications. They label and simplify and thus determine to the public which idea lends and which it does not. In the long run, says Hayek (1960: 377), public opinion is shaped in this way by the intellectual class.


Politicians, knowing that in a democracy public opinion is what signals the direction that the votes will take, have a certain facility, then, to propose measures that consolidate what is demanded by the public opinion. In the current situation, this opinion is still favorable to statism. But that started to change. When change moves further in Brazil, it will be preceded by a battle of ideas. The fact that some Brazilian politicians who have never had any tangible commitment to civil or economic freedom are now using the liberal vocabulary is already a symptom of a change of course in public opinion. But the battle is not over yet, and there is much to be done on the level of ideas.


What will have the greatest long-term impact will be the cultural shift that will occur when people drop their preferred option for statism.

Combining the first point with the second point: this change in the battle of ideas will happen from the bottom up. It's already happening. Families have realized the need to educate their children differently. There has been a small, but growing, rescue of a civic culture in Brazil. Some schools do not care to train for the entrance examination of content dictated by the intellectuals, and prefer to give real education. They are few, but the number can grow very rapidly if they realize that quality education pays off. Some universities have already given more openness to the dissemination of alternative schools of thought, which differ from the statist creed. And, slightly disagreeing with Hayek, who had a very negative view of the role of intellectuals, I must mention how important it is to have spaces being occupied by alternative ideas in the publishing market, in scholarly and popular journals, and how the democratization of digital content production has aided by freedom, breaking the monopoly of intellectuals on the channels of influence of public opinion.


What Hayek complained about conservative and liberal academics having less influence with the public is an alert and an invitation especially to teachers and researchers. While it is interesting to cultivate a class of "freedom-loving" second-hand marketers of ideas, however skillful they may be in this trade, it is academics themselves who are responsible for becoming better communicators and disseminators of sound, concrete and workable ideas. Society in general and the economy in particular are complex phenomena that require complex studies. However, the results of a detailed approach should be translated into more accessible language.


Because of all that has been said, it is good to be cautious in the short term and have some optimism in the long run. The change will come from the bottom up, and will be preceded by a battle in the field of ideas.



Downs, Anthony (1957). An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper & Row.


Hayek, F. A. (1945) “The use of knowledge in society,” The Amercian Economic Review, 35(4): 519—30.


Hayek, F. A. (1960) “The intellectuals and Socialism.” In: George B. de Huszar (ed.) The Intellectuals: A Controversial Portrait. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, pp. 371—84.


Carvalho, Olavo de. O Jardim das Aflições. Dirigido por Josias Teófilo. 2017; Cotia, SP, Brasil: Lavra Filmes. Documentário.