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The omnipotence of the Brazilian state

By Augusto Zimmermann - posted Wednesday, 27 May 2009

If statism is defined 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 very pervasive in Brazilian society. It unites people from all social classes and ideological inclinations.

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 comprises only bureaucrats but rather that the state bureaucracy is the base to which all other groups adhere either through alliance or dependence. Since the state is the ultimate provider of resources, “the citizenry expects to live at government expense and under full protection”.

Consequently, 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 after 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 intrinsic correlation between statism and Brazilian-style corruption, for instance, one needs to consider the reality of a state that has historically been 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 individual freedom and initiative. 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", C.R. Boxer commented, "the merchant was regarded as a parasitic and profiteering middle-man, resolved to enrich himself at the expanse of his fellow-men".

During colonial times, the Portuguese Crown possessed an enormous variety of commercial monopolies, ranging from the importation of sugar to the control of the soap industry. Regional and district monopolies were granted to favoured individuals and courtiers. Even the manufacture and sale of soap was, for centuries, monopolised by the Crown. In 1660, for instance, the white soap monopoly of Lisbon was granted to a Carmelite nun, the Countess of Calheta, on condition she gave a share of the profits to two distinguished general officers, Dom Luís de Menezes and Gil Vaz Lobo. According to Boxer:

It would take too long to enumerate … all the overseas sources of wealth which were exploited by the Crown at one time or another, whether in the form of a (theoretically) rigorous monopoly, or a percentage of the profits, or in the way of Customs duties and export and import dues … Even such trivia as river ferry-crossings and the dues from washermen, limeburners and fishermen were often rented out by the Crown or by its representatives. Perhaps more than any other country, it was a long-established practice in Portugal for the Crown (and its successor republic) to farm out the smallest public offices which might be expected to produce any revenue; and the same procedure was followed in Portuguese India, Ceylon, Africa and Brazil.

Another factor that contributed to the growth of statism was slavery, which lasted longer in Brazil than in any other nation in the Western world, only being abolished in 1888. In his 1879 visit to the country, US historian Herbert H. Smith associated slavery with a “culture of indolence, pride, and selfishness” that, in his opinion, made many Brazilians aspire to live “as parasites on others or on the government”. In brief, slavery left as its heritage a mass trained to be dependent on the government and others. According to the late historian José Honório Rodrigues:

It was not recognised that ... poverty could be overcome by work and saving. Work was scorned; it was reserved exclusively for slaves. No attention was paid to saving, with the result that the capital required for possession and enjoyment of the riches so greatly vaunted in speeches was never accumulated.


Centuries of slavery had indeed the effect of debasing the value of labour and perverting the sense of individual liberty and responsibility. It left “deep prejudices against active life … and disinclination to serious endeavour in the areas of commerce and industry”, thus generating a society with marked contempt for any work other than that of a public position.

The State became, in the words of the great abolitionist (anti-slavery) leader Joaquim Nabuco, “the refuge of the descendents of the rich and noble families who squandered the fortunes acquired through slavery”. Nabuco 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 organisation, 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.

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About the Author

Augusto Zimmermann, LLB, LLM, PhD is a Lecturer in Law at Murdoch University, Western Australia.

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