In recent weeks, protestors have filled the streets of Brazil, carrying banners and signs that denounce political corruption and demand subsidized bus fares. Amidst the throng, one sign stands out. It simply reads: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” This slogan will be familiar to many libertarians, but it’s startlingly different from most of Brazil’s protest rhetoric.
The man carrying this sign is Juliano Torres, executive director of Students for Liberty in Brazil. His country isn’t exactly known as a hotbed of free-market thinking. How did he even discover such ideas existed? “My first contact with the ideas of liberty came by reading about Carl Menger on Wikipedia in 2004 or 2005. I then got some old books about economics by him and Friedman,” he says. A few years later, he read Human Action in Portuguese and finished it in two weeks.
Torres began connecting with fellow libertarians via social media. Eventually, he set up IDEIAS, the Instituto para o Desenvolvimento Econômico, Institucional e Social (Institute for Economic, Institutional and Social Development). The group translates videos, runs an aggregator for libertarian blogs, and developed an app that shows Brazilians how much tax they’re paying on a product by scanning its barcode. “Brazilians only think of income tax. They don’t realize how many other taxes they pay,” Torres says.
Today, he works full-time for Students for Liberty in Brazil. He also serves on SFL’s international board. He earned a BA in advertising from Pitágoras, a private college in Belo Horizonte, the city where he still lives.
If free-market ideas can be said to have a “home” somewhere in Brazil, it would be Belo Horizonte. Located in the southeast of Brazil, Belo Horizonte is “like Washington, DC, for Brazil’s liberty movement,” says Torres. Several liberty-advancing organizations are based there, and a recent survey showed that 20,000 of its residents self-identify as libertarians. According to Torres, most of the hits Mises.org gets from Brazil are in Belo Horizonte.
The recent protests in Brazil started for reasons antithetical to the free market. Protestors were angered at an increase in bus fares and demanded greater government subsidies, but this quickly evolved into a much broader expression of discontent with the status quo. Ultimately, Torres believes the protests will be a boon for the liberty movement. He was surprised at the positive response to his “free lunch” banner. He says, “People kept approaching me to ask what it meant. They were much more open to the ideas than I thought.”
Torres believes the younger generation of Brazilians is particularly interested in learning about the free market. “We had a dictatorship in Brazil and young people know about that, but they also see the current left-wing government is not a good answer,” he says.
Via the internet, young Brazilians have access to limitless information, and they are reading about alternatives to the way their country is run. “We get a ton of government propaganda in the middle schools and high schools. We’re taught that Cuba is the best country in the world,” he says. “But young people use the internet and read about Hong Kong, Singapore, and the United States. They see the free market is much better. Even if Brazil’s system makes us totally equal, we need freedom to grow and develop.”
That interest in free-market ideas is bringing young Brazilians to groups like Students for Liberty. “Last year, I didn’t think Students for Liberty in Brazil would grow as much as it has. We’re not even doing that much. We give a talk at a university and afterward half the attendees come talk to us to say they want to join. It’s unbelievable. We’re growing without a lot of money or a big organization. We have students who work for free, and they’re learning to become future leaders,” he says.
Torres believes part of the reason the liberty movement is growing so fast is that Brazil’s left-wing has grown complacent in recent years. Thus, it makes no effort to compete. “On the left, it’s all political organizations. They think they have money and government, so they don’t need to do anything else,” he says.
At this point in time, Torres hopes the protests will wind down. The government has taken a few helpful steps to tackle problems like corruption, but other ideas under discussion could wind up curbing liberty. “If politicians try to change things quickly in the current climate, all the changes will turn out very badly,” Torres explains. Some of the government’s proposals include banning private campaign donations and moving to a first-past-the-post electoral system, which typically favors larger parties over small or new ones.
Such changes would impact Torres directly as he helps manage a new political party called Novo. He has helped introduce free-market ideas into the party’s platform. “Initially, we focused a lot on government inefficiency and corruption,” he says. “The party now sees the free market and entrepreneurs as the way to create wealth. We are also putting more emphasis on individual rights.”
Torres also helped found a Brazilian libertarian party called Liber with which he’s still involved, but starting a party is a very bureaucratic and complex process. Novo has more resources to take on the challenge on Brazil’s legendary red tape.
Does Torres ever see himself running for office? “Oh no!” he laughs. “I’d need to tell lots of lies. So I prefer to stick to helping others.”