O que é este blog?

Este blog trata basicamente de ideias, se possível inteligentes, para pessoas inteligentes. Ele também se ocupa de ideias aplicadas à política, em especial à política econômica. Ele constitui uma tentativa de manter um pensamento crítico e independente sobre livros, sobre questões culturais em geral, focando numa discussão bem informada sobre temas de relações internacionais e de política externa do Brasil. Para meus livros e ensaios ver o website: www.pralmeida.org. Para a maior parte de meus textos, ver minha página na plataforma Academia.edu, link: https://itamaraty.academia.edu/PauloRobertodeAlmeida;

Meu Twitter: https://twitter.com/PauloAlmeida53

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/paulobooks

domingo, 2 de agosto de 2020

A few inconvenient truths about Africa, race and slavery - Philip Vander Elst

For BLM protesters, a few inconvenient truths about Africa, race and slavery

The Conservative Woman (UK), August 1, 2020

AT a time when Black Lives Matter and Left-wing ‘anti-racist’ activists are seeking to remove statues of Cecil Rhodes and other historical figures associated with what they deem to be the shameful colonial past of Western democracies such as Britain, there is a need to set the record straight and challenge the ignorance and double standards fuelling this movement.

Open-minded readers willing to study the controversial issues I raise in more detail should get hold of the books I mention. And to that list should be added Ghanaian economist George Ayittey’s seminal Africa Betrayed, an excoriating and copiously documented indictment of post-colonial African tyrannies.

As a classical liberal who is distrustful of government, I am the last person to take a rosy and uncritical view of Western colonialism. All too often it has been associated with the worst abuses of state power. But it is a disservice to historical truth to dismiss the entire colonial era as an unrelieved tale of imperial greed, racism and exploitation with no compensating achievements or benefits.

BLM supporters willing to consider a more balanced view of the Western colonial era and its impact on the Third World should study the writings of the late Professor Peter Thomas Bauer, one of the great development economists of the 20th century according to contemporary Asian scholars such as Deepak Lal, Parth Shah, and Razeen Sally.

They should also read the works of the African-American economist Thomas Sowell, particularly his books The Economics and Politics of Race and more recently, Conquests and Cultures: An International History. 

If they do this, they will find that whilst both Bauer and Sowell are often extremely critical of the colonial authorities, they emphasise two basic historical facts: the material backwardness and barbarism of much of the pre-colonial Third World and the role of the Western colonial powers – especially the British – in establishing peace and order, and with it, the material and organisational infrastructure of modern economies and societies – roads, railways, ports, factories, schools, hospitals and universities.

Sub-Saharan Africa offers the clearest illustration of these truths. According to Sowell, the development of pre-colonial sub-Saharan Africa was gravely handicapped by the lack of navigable rivers and natural harbours, the ravages of the tsetse fly (whose parasites are fatal to draught animals) and numerous tropical diseases which debilitated and killed humans.

As a result, almost no pre-colonial African community south of the Sahara managed to harness animals to pull ploughs and wagons. ‘The pre-colonial technology of the region,’ writes Sowell,‘was incapable of using wind or water power for milling grain. Tribal warfare, military raids, slavery and serfdom were widespread throughout the area.’

Western colonialism brought progress. To quote Bauer, who spent many years living and working in Asia and Africa:‘The basic ingredients of modern social and economic life, including public security and health, wheeled transport, modern forms of money and scientific agriculture, were brought to sub-Saharan Africa by Westerners in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

‘They were introduced by the colonial administrations, or by foreign private organisations or persons, under the comparative security of colonial rule and usually in the face of formidable obstacles.

‘The coercion and the hardships, though far from negligible, seem slight when we think of both pre-colonialand post-colonial Africa . . .  the number of Africans who lived longer, more securely, in materially better conditions and in peaceful contact with their fellow men was much greater, probably by several orders of magnitude, than the numbers who were harmed.’

Sowell reaches a similar conclusion to Bauer. Whilst acknowledging that not all parts of the colonised world were primitive, and that the coming of Western civilisation did not always represent progress in all aspects of life, he concludes that, by and large, European colonialism brought to the Third World what Roman imperialism had brought to Britain:

1. A reduction or cessation of internal fighting that had plagued these regions for centuries, holding back economic and social progress;

2. A unified system of law as a framework for stable expectations and the security and individual planning that law makes possible;

3. Features of a more advanced system of technology and organisation;

4. Contact with a wider world, enabling creative potential to emerge from the restrictions of insularity.

The current politically correct demand for Western reparations is not only based on a distorted and one-sided evaluation of Western colonialism. It is also morally compromised by double standards, as well as being backward-looking and unfair to contemporary Western taxpayers.

It involves double standards because it overlooks the fact that nearly all ethnic groups, tribes and nations have engaged, at one time or another, in wars of conquest, land seizures, slavery and genocide.

If Western taxpayers are expected to pay for the sins of previous generations of Western colonialists, for which they were not responsible, should modern-day Zulus and Apaches pick up the bill for the tribal wars and massacres perpetrated by their ancestors in southern Africa and North America?

Should the present-day inhabitants of Mongolia and the Arabian Peninsula offer financial compensation for the wars of conquest waged by Genghis Kahn and Arab-Islamic rulers in Asia and the Mediterranean?

Anti-Western double standards about the past are particularly absurd when it comes to the subject of slavery. 

As Asian-American scholar Dinesh D’Souza points out in his massively documented 700-page critique of politically correct multiculturalism, The End of Racism, ‘slavery was widespread in Africa from antiquity’ and also existed among the native Indian tribes of North America, many of whom also owned black slaves.

‘The three powerful medieval kingdoms of Ghana, Songhai and Mali all relied on slave labour. Nor were these slaves exclusively black Africans . . . the Ashanti of West Africa customarily enslaved all foreigners.’ 

African complicity in the slave trade, states D’Souza,was ‘epitomised in the proposition advanced to Europeans by an African chief in the early 19th century: “We want three things: powder, ball and brandy; and we have three things to sell: men, women and children”.’

Perhaps the most poignant comment on African participation in the slave trade are these words of Zora Neale Hurston, the great American black feminist writer of the Harlem Renaissance in the early 20th century: ‘The white people held my people in slavery here in America. They had bought us, it is true, and exploited us.

‘But the inescapable fact that stuck in my craw was: My people had sold me . . . my own people had exterminated whole nations and torn families apart for a profit before the strangers got their chance at acut.’

By contrast, what is important to note about the West is that principled opposition to the historically universal institution of slavery primarily emerged from within Western culture.

Starting with the Quakers and the Methodists, and continuing with the great anti-slavery campaign of William Wilberforce and his evangelical friends, a vast humanitarian movement came into existence in the 18th and 19th centuries, which not only stamped out slavery in most places, but established the foundations of that very concern for human rights and national self-determination to which everyone pays at least lip service today.

To quote Thomas Sowell’s tribute to what he describes as Britain’s leading role in the destruction of the international slave trade, and then of slavery itself: ‘The magnitude of this achievement is hard to appreciate without first recognising that slavery was a worldwide institution, entrenched on every inhabited continent, subjugating people of every colour, language, and religion, and going back thousands of years.’

And before we leave the subject of the slave trade, it should be noted that it was particularly destructive in East and Central Africa. There, its cruelties and massacres, mainly the work of Arab slavers and their Muslim African allies – and exposed to international opinion by Dr David Livingstone and other eyewitnesses – depopulated whole regions of the Congo.

It is estimated, according to Dinesh D’Souza, that between the 7th and 19th centuries, Arab traders transported about 14million black slaves across the Sahara and the Red Sea, to supply the slave markets of the Muslim world.

Nor were black Africans the only victims of the Arab and Islamic slave trade. As Thomas Sowell points out in The Real History of Slavery, the third chapter of his book, Black Rednecks and White Liberals: ‘At least a million Europeans were enslaved by North African pirates alone from 1500 to 1800. And some European slaves were still being sold on the auction block in Egypt years after the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) freed blacks in the United States.’

Sowell further underlines the involvement of non-white societies in the slave trade by emphasising that: ‘Slavery was also common in India, where it has been estimated that there were more slaves than in the entire Western hemisphere.’

Exaggerating the evils of colonialism also evades the glaringly obvious fact that so much of what has gone wrong in the Third World since the 1960s has been due not to Western exploitation, but to the aggrandisement and abuse of state power by corrupt and frequently incompetent post-colonial ruling elites. This has been true of countries such as Algeria, Burma, and others in Asia and the Middle East. Above all, it has been true of Africa.

To quote George Ayittey:‘One word, power, explains why Africa is in the grip of a n

ever-ending cycle of wanton chaos, horrific carnage, senseless civil wars and collapsing economies; the struggle for power, its monopolisation by one individual or group, and the subsequent refusal to relinquish or share it.’

That is why, as Ayittey, points out, more than 13million Africans have been killed by their own leaders since 1960.That is why, of the 180 African heads of state who held power between 1960 and 1998, only 20 relinquished it or retired voluntarily. That, too, is why the African Union itself estimated in 2007, that Africa loses $148billion (£114billion) a year – a quarter of its entire GDP– to corruption.

Some years ago, the distinguished Guinean novelist Camara Laye lamented that all too many African leaders ‘do not serve Africa. They make Africa serve themselves. They are far from being builders, organisers, city administrators, but are rather jailers who deal with the men, women and children of our people as if they were cattle’.

As you ponder these words and reflect on the way dictators such as Robert Mugabe and his successors have used and continue to use anti-colonialist rhetoric as an excuse for their crimes against their own people, ask yourselves whether giving credence to the demand for Western reparations would really help the poor and the oppressed of the Third World.

sábado, 1 de agosto de 2020

Meu dever de lealdade para com a instituição à qual pertenço: o Itamaraty - Paulo Roberto de Almeida

Meu dever de lealdade para com a instituição à qual pertenço: o Itamaraty 

Paulo Roberto de Almeida

Brasília, 1/08/2020

O governo dos novos bárbaros se prepara, aparentemente, para introduzir uma legislação destinada a punir funcionários públicos que se revelem, pelos seus critérios, “desleais” para com a instituição à qual pertencem, segundo a matéria que transcrevo abaixo de Ricardo Noblat. 

Uma Nota Técnica da CGU (1556/2020) já foi publicada a esse respeito, que eu já comentei neste mesmo espaço.

Eu DESAFIEI, no mesmo momento, o sentido da abjeta nota, ao demonstrar como os verdadeiros desleais para com os objetivos estatutários da minha instituição são aqueles mesmos que a estão deliberadamente conspurcando e violando, ao fazê-la enveredar por caminhos espúrios, inclusive inconstitucionais e anti-constitucionais (as duas coisas se aplicam).

Essa legislação provavelmente não vai passar pelo Congresso, e se passar, será vetada como inconstitucional pelo STF.

Em qualquer hipótese, eu continuarei denunciando os novos bárbaros como DESLEAIS aos princípios e valores do Itamaraty histórico de quase dois séculos e respeitador de nossas mais altas tradições de defesa da nação e de acatamento estrito aos interesse nacionais.

Pois é EVIDENTE que SUBORDINAR nossa política externa e os altos interesses da nação a um dirigente estrangeiro representa deslealdade não só à instituição, mas ao país como um todo. Antigamente isso se chamava traição à pátria: é o que fazem alguns desses novos bárbaros, que pretendem determinar nossa diplomacia e que envergam o boné de reeleição desse dirigente que já demonstrou desprezo por todos os demais países da comunidade internacional.

É EVIDENTE que abandonar os caminhos e métodos do MULTILATERALISMO - pelos quais o Brasil se bate desde os tempos do Barão e de Rui Barbosa na II conferência da Paz de 1907 -, na igualdade soberana das nações, representa uma violação e uma deslealdade em relação às nossas principais ferramentas de atuação externa, método que aliás é conforme à evolução do sistema contemporâneo de relações internacionais, cada vez mais marcado pela interdependência geral dos Estados na busca do bem comum, em lugar do velho nacionalismo bilateralista, fautor de conflitos e de guerras.

É EVIDENTE que apoiar moções de potências estrangeiras que tendem a legitimar ações UNILATERAIS são contrárias ao Direito Internacional - um conceito desprezado pelos novos bárbaros - e absolutamente contrárias aos interesses nacionais, pois que se está admitindo que elas possam ser utilizadas contra o nosso próprio país. 

É EVIDENTE que a intromissão de critérios IDEOLÓGICOS ou RELIGIOSOS na avaliação de políticas ou propostas inseridas na agenda internacional ou externa, com que tem de lidar o Itamaraty, representa uma violação das bases técnicas, isentas, desprovidas de preconceitos ou vieses com as quais trabalha a diplomacia profissional, atualmente constrangida pela ação deletéria dos novos bárbaros.

É EVIDENTE que SUBORDINAR toda uma instituição, dotada de altos padrões de isenção profissional e de cuidadoso trabalho de análise técnica de todas as propostas de ação externa em benefício da nação, aos preconceitos ignaros de um bando de amadores despreparados e incapazes de um julgamento abalizado sobre o cenário internacional representa uma SUPREMA DESLEALDADE para com essa instituição, e como tal deve ser denunciada e combatida por todos aqueles que se comprometeram com a defesa de seus altos princípios de atuação e de seus nobres valores morais ao nela ingressar. 

É EVIDENTE que eu continuarei a defender lealdade à instituição à qual pertenço, CONTRA A DESLEALDADE dos novos bárbaros que a estão destruindo em seus fundamentos de atuação, mas sobretudo em seus tradicionais princípios e valores.

Paulo Roberto de Almeida

Livre expressão de pensamento, desde que a favor do governo, por Ricardo Noblat


O direito à livre expressão de pensamento é sempre invocado pelo presidente Jair Bolsonaro toda vez que seus seguidores nas redes sociais sentem-se ameaçados ou tolhidos. Mas é bom saber que o que ele defende para sua gente não vale para os que possam criticá-lo. Nos últimos dias, acumula-se uma série de fatos de que o negócio é diferente para uso interno do governo.

O Gabinete de Segurança Institucional da presidência da República, segundo o GLOBO, prepara norma que permitirá ao governo processar servidores públicos pelo que eles publicarem nas redes sociais em sua vida privada. Minuta da norma diz que servidores e prestadores de serviços devem compreender “que suas atividades nas redes podem impactar a imagem da organização”.

O servidor público federal poderá ser processado desde que os atos ou comportamentos praticados nas redes guardem “relação direta ou indireta com o cargo que ocupa, com suas atribuições ou com a instituição à qual esteja vinculado”. Na mesma linha, a Controladoria Geral da República baixou uma norma em que defende a punição do servidor que critique o governo nas redes.

Se o fizer, de acordo com a norma, ele terá descumprido o “dever de lealdade”, uma vez que o que disse atingiu a imagem e feriu a credibilidade da instituição que integra. Em meados do mês passado, servidores do Ministério da Saúde foram obrigados a assinar um documento em que se tornam sujeitos à Lei de Segurança Nacional caso vazem informações sensíveis.

O ministro André Mendonça jura que não sabia que a Secretaria de Operações Integradas do Ministério da Justiça monitora 579 funcionários públicos federais da área de segurança que se declararam antifascistas nas redes sociais. Não soube explicar, ou então não lhe perguntaram, por que a secretaria não faz a mesma coisa com funcionários públicos federais fascistas.

Mendonça, bom de bico, enrolou, enrolou, e tentou sair de fininho: “Tomei conhecimento desse possível dossiê pela imprensa. [...] É de rotina que se produzam relatórios para se prevenir situações que gerem insegurança para as pessoas, com potenciais de conflito, depredação, atos de violência contra o patrimônio público, então não é uma atividade que surgiu agora".

Dito de outra maneira: liberdade de expressão para servidor público só a favor do governo. Contra, a porta da rua é a serventia da casa.

sexta-feira, 31 de julho de 2020

Library of Congress: Brazil: Hispanic Division Country Guide

Library of Congress

Brazil: Hispanic Division Country Guide


Agronegócio e meio ambiente: separando o joio e o trigo - Marcos S. Jank

Agronegócio e meio ambiente – separando o joio e o trigo


Jornal “O Estado de S. Paulo”, Opinião, 31/07/2020.


Marcos S. Jank*


Em vez de negar os fatos, é hora de arrumar a casa coibindo o desmatamento ilegal e implementando o Código Florestal.


Aprendemos ao longo da vida que os fatos são os fatos e é a partir deles que temos de construir as nossas estratégias e ações.


Pois bem, é fato que a preocupação com desmatamento mudou de patamar no mundo, deixando de se limitar à pressão isolada de ONGs ambientais e entrando de forma estrutural na agenda de organizações internacionais, governos, bancos, investidores, 


A reação do agronegócio tem sido responder com outro fato, relacionado às conquistas ambientais históricas do País: o elevado estoque de áreas florestadas (dois terços da área do País), a matriz energética limpa e renovável, o Código Florestal rigoroso, as técnicas de agricultura de baixo carbono, os ganhos de produtividade e outros.


Esses são os fatos. Mas a questão que está sobre a mesa não é o estoque de conquistas do passado, mas sim o fluxo de problemas do presente e a impacto da percepção negativa sobre eles no futuro.


Falhamos em controlar o desmatamento, composto por 95% de conversão ilegal de floresta principalmente sobre terras devolutas (sem destinação). Falhamos na implementação do Código Florestal, que oito anos após sua assinatura continua sendo mais promessa do que prática, sem garantir a segurança jurídica de que precisamos.


Falhamos em não regularizar a situação fundiária e ambiental da Região Norte, sabendo que direitos de propriedade e ordenamento do território são pilares de qualquer processo de desenvolvimento. Falhamos nos mecanismos de “comando e controle” que precisam ser exercidos nas bordas do bioma Amazônico. A ideia de pagamento por serviços ambientais ainda é uma ficção, já que até aqui ninguém quer pagar por eles. A floresta em pé tem menos valor que a floresta derrubada, apesar das promessas da bioeconomia.


A agenda de política pública da Amazônia é vasta e complexa, acumulando décadas de conflitos e insegurança jurídica. No agro, os dois setores mais expostos são a soja e a pecuária de corte.


Por isso as maiores empresas desses setores assumiram compromissos de não adquirir produtos de seus fornecedores diretos que tenham inconformidades nas áreas ambiental e social. A Cargill e o Marfrig deram passos à frente nesse processo, prometendo eliminar completamente o desmatamento de toda a sua cadeia de suprimentos até 2030 (


A decisão dessas duas empresas abre a avenida para que grandes empresas do varejo, do processamento de alimentos e da produção agropecuária se unam para construir cadeias produtivas livres de desmatamento, com garantia de originação sustentável e rastreável – do bezerro ao boi terminado, no caso da pecuária.


Hoje já há nichos de mercado para soja não transgênica, carnes de origem vegetal e orgânica, certificações de “produtos locais” e de respeito ao bem-estar dos animais e dezenas de outros segmentos.


A pressão do consumidor final por produtos “livres de desmatamento” forçará as empresas a reorganizar suas cadeias de suprimento para ofertá-los. Mas ainda não se sabe se o mercado vai, de fato, oferecer um pagamento pelos serviços ambientais do produtor que tenha excedente de vegetação nativa que poderia ser convertido dentro da lei.


Também não sabemos se a construção de cadeias produtivas livres de desmatamento proposta por empresas como Cargill e Marfrig vai se tornar “referência” para outros players. Ou se essa será uma iniciativa isolada, com o produto gerado por desmatamento ilegal “escapando” para outros canais de distribuição do mercado doméstico, que é menos exigente.


Vale lembrar que a nossa soja é facilmente rastreável e basicamente dirigida à exportação. Já o nosso plantel de bois é enorme, muda de propriedade algumas vezes ao longo do ciclo produtivo e é basicamente destinado ao mercado interno. Não há dúvida que a pecuária é o nosso calcanhar de Aquiles no tema do desmatamento e onde temos de concentrar nossos esforços.


Estima-se que menos de 2% dos produtores sejam responsáveis por 62% do desmatamento ilegal na Amazônia e no Cerrado. Ainda que o governo seja o principal responsável pelo combate à ilegalidade, acredito que a pressão de clientes e financiadores falará mais alto. Pesquisa do BCG indica que 95% dos brasileiros esperam que as grandes empresas tenham mais comprometimento com questões ambientais.


Por isso, em vez de negar os fatos, é hora de arrumar a casa, começando pela união contra o desmatamento ilegal e a favor da implementação imediata do Código Florestal. Agricultores, empresas e associações do agronegócio deveriam ser os primeiros a carregar com força essa bandeira.


(*) Marcos Sawaya Jank é professor de agronegócio global do Insper.

John Lewis Final Letter - The New York Times, July 30, 2020


Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation

Though I am gone, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe.



Mr. Lewis, the civil rights leader who died on July 17, wrote this essay shortly before his death, to be published upon the day of his 

The New York Times




While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me. You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.

That is why I had to visit Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, though I was admitted to the hospital the following day. I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on.

Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. He was 14 when he was killed, and I was only 15 years old at the time. I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me. In those days, fear constrained us like an imaginary prison, and troubling thoughts of potential brutality committed for no understandable reason were the bars.


Though I was surrounded by two loving parents, plenty of brothers, sisters and cousins, their love could not protect me from the unholy oppression waiting just outside that family circle. 

Unchecked, unrestrained violence and government-sanctioned terror had the power to turn a simple stroll to the store for some Skittles or an innocent morning jog down a lonesome country road into a nightmare. If we are to survive as one unified nation, we must discover what so readily takes root in our hearts that could rob Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina of her brightest and best, shoot unwitting concertgoers in Las Vegas and choke to death the hopes and dreams of a gifted violinist like Elijah McClain.

Like so many young people today, I was searching for a way out, or some might say a way in, and then I heard the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio. He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. 

He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.

Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.

You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, through decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. 

Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.

Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. 

When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.

John Lewis, the civil rights leader and congressman who died on July 17, wrote this essay shortly before his death.



 Editorial New York Times, July 17, 2020:




E já que estamos falando de liberalismo, e de Samuel Moyn... - David Bell (NYRBooks)

The Many Lives of Liberalism

While today’s ideological cleavages are not as wide as those of the 1930s, they are nonetheless more pronounced than at any time since the cold war.

  • Samuel Moyn:
  • James Miller:
  • Helena Rosenblatt:

While the collapse of communism

That consensus seemed to hold even after the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia and the September 11 attacks. Now‚ in 2019, however, it is fracturing. Around the world, populist politicians on the right are winning elections by warning demagogically that representative democracy and human rights policies are too weak to protect hardworking, native-born families against threats from beyond their national borders—especially terrorists and migrant hordes. At the same time, a resurgent socialist left is gaining support by warning that liberal social democracy is too fragile to protect ordinary people from the ever more disruptive forces of global capitalism. While today’s ideological cleavages are not as wide as those of the 1930s, they are nonetheless more pronounced than at any time since the cold war.

As always, when the ideological landscape changes, so does our sense of the history behind it. Take, for instance, the subject of human rights. Back in the distant past of 2007—before the financial crisis, before President Trump—the historian Lynn Hunt published a pioneering study that presented the ascent of universal human rights as inexorable.

Three eventful years later, Samuel Moyn directly challenged Hunt’s account. In 

Each of the three books under review makes a renewed case for elements of the liberal ideal, but with a powerfully heightened sense of its fragility and of the contingent factors behind its historical development. James Miller, whose earlier work has ranged from political philosophy to histories of rock and roll to a biography of Michel Foucault, offers 

Strikingly, while the authors 

Taken together, the three books suggest that the Western liberal tradition may indeed have the strength and the resources necessary to withstand the political storms now gathering. But we should not conflate this tradition with the narrower set of mostly Anglo-American ideas that has been conventionally identified as its core, and labeled (mistakenly, according to Rosenblatt) “classical liberalism.” All three authors clearly believe that this narrower tradition has concerned itself too heavily with individual rights—above all, economic rights—as opposed to the common good. It has not paid enough attention to moral values and moral education, and it has not done enough to encourage broad democratic participation. Such arguments are not entirely new, but these books offer impressive new evidence and analyses. And at a moment when liberal democracy has shown itself rather more resilient in France and Germany (even with their current travails) than in Brexit Britain and Trumpist America, the case for looking to Continental sources for inspiration is particularly timely.

For James Miller, 

Nor did Athens launch a durable democratic tradition. After its fall, democracy as a concept fell into long centuries of discredit and eclipse, with most leading Western commentators, up to and including the American Founding Fathers, seeing it as barely superior to mob rule. America, Miller reminds us, was not founded as a democracy but as a republic in which wise elites would restrain unruly expressions of the popular will. Only with the French Revolution did an ideal of egalitarian, participatory government again gain prominence. Miller here singles out the urban 

Miller argues that this French plan represents perhaps the most promising model for democracy ever devised. In a set of short, clear chapters, he holds it up as a model against which to measure various later attempts to give citizens greater participation in governance. These include the British Chartist movement of the 1830s and 1840s, the Paris Commune of 1871, and even, in the West, early-twentieth-century hopes that opinion polling might give ordinary people more of a political voice. Miller also recognizes that today, profound social transformations have left the democratic ideal more imperiled than ever. Increasing inequality makes it more difficult for people to have their voices heard; government secrecy deprives them of the information necessary for political participation; and in an age of globalization many of the most pressing problems, such as climate change, require global, not local, solutions.

America’s current plight spurs Miller (drawing on F. Scott Fitzgerald) to some passionate and anguished prose:

This is what democracy in America often seems like: an elusive fantasy, forever out of reach, forever unrealized, even as its most eloquent bards, trapped in their own prejudices, are “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

But he still holds out hope that some version of the Condorcetian ideal of local democratic restraints on national governance might yet continue to inspire contemporary democratic movements.

With Helena Rosenblatt’s 

It is this last definition that Rosenblatt takes aim at. She begins by noting that in ancient Rome, the terms “liberal” and “liberality” (

Most of this material is well known, but Rosenblatt builds upon it to argue that even in the nineteenth century, the supposed heyday of “classical liberalism,” the individualistic, laissez-faire ideology discussed in recent decades by so many scholars did not actually exist in anything like a coherent form. While some relatively obscure writers and politicians came close to it (Frédéric Bastiat in France, John Smith Prince in Germany), most self-described “liberals” did not. John Stuart Mill, the author of 

To the extent that a self-conscious “liberal” movement existed, according to Rosenblatt, it was not to be found in Britain and America but on the European continent, starting in the French Revolution. While respectful of individual rights, this liberalism was moralizing, elitist, and concerned with the classic philosophical question of how to construct a stable, enduring, moderate regime. In France, the writers Benjamin Constant and Germaine de Staël, who came to prominence in the Revolution’s last stages, developed a political program that remained much closer to the earlier meanings of “liberty,” with an emphasis on a paternalistic “government of the best.” In the nineteenth century, German thinkers led the way in developing a “liberal” Protestant theology as well as economic ideas that anticipated the policies of modern welfare states. These self-proclaimed liberals, Rosenblatt notes, were emphatically not democrats. They mistrusted the common people and advocated limited suffrage. Nor were they libertarians. They generally did not consider property a core right, and while they warned against government becoming tyrannical, they did not seek to minimize its powers. Constant defended laissez-faire in the economic realm; many others did not.

By the end of the nineteenth century, people who called themselves liberals had mostly made their peace with democracy, but remained deeply divided over other issues, including laissez-faire economics. Prominent British Liberal Party members like Leonard Hobhouse even argued that “true socialism serves to complete rather than to destroy the leading Liberal ideals.” While some liberals decried European imperialism, others defended a version of it that would spread “civilization” to supposedly benighted areas of the globe. Many defended eugenics and opposed women’s suffrage. The uniting factors, insofar as they existed, remained a strong moralism and an emphasis on education as essential to political progress. These same factors also pervaded the American liberalism that took shape in the early twentieth century under the influence of Woodrow Wilson, John Dewey, and the young intellectuals who banded together in 1914 to found 

If this is the true (“lost”) history of liberalism, then where did the idea of liberalism as an individualistic ideology tied to laissez-faire capitalism come from? In a fascinating epilogue, Rosenblatt argues that historians only established this misleading intellectual genealogy very late, in the mid-twentieth century. Critics had long tried to discredit liberalism by associating it with narrow material self-interest, but after World War II liberals themselves, seeking to distinguish their beliefs as sharply as possible from Communist totalitarianism, came close to agreeing with their detractors. Only a strong emphasis on individual rights, argued political philosophers like Isaiah Berlin, could save liberal states from sliding into totalitarian extremism. For the same reason these thinkers downplayed the contributions of French and German liberals, who had shown such a distressing inability to halt extremism in their own countries. Soon, “genealogies based on a canon of great thinkers were constructed and anthologies published. Founding fathers of liberalism were discovered.” And the true, complex history was forgotten.

Rosenblatt has written one of those rare academic books that, for all its brilliance, needed to be longer. For someone seeking to reevaluate Britain’s place in the history of liberalism, she devotes little sustained attention to British thought and politics. Locke, one of the prime targets of her revisionism, gets just three pages of close analysis. The epilogue, at only thirteen pages, cannot be more than suggestive. At times, Rosenblatt’s argument becomes so compressed that she fails to distinguish adequately between the history of the word “liberal” and the ideas we now associate with it. The two are, after all, separable.

Dan Edelstein covers

In a superb, erudite piece of intellectual excavation, Edelstein argues persuasively that already in the late Middle Ages, Catholic theologians had established that humans possessed inalienable rights, and that these rights did not depend on belonging to a particular state. In the sixteenth century, driven by the passions of religious warfare and the spectacle of Spanish conquests in the Americas, another series of writers added that, if necessary, rights could be defended by force, from beyond the boundaries of the state in question. So already by 1572, a conception of human rights broadly similar to what exists today had taken shape.


Edelstein’s skill as an intellectual historian lies especially in his ability to situate ideas in their broadest cultural and political setting. He recognizes that, by themselves, ideas possess no inexorable logic dictating how, and for what purposes, they will actually function in political debate. Like tools in a toolkit, ideas can have many different uses, depending on the purposes of the political actors who deploy them. In the sixteenth century, the idea of inalienable universal rights justified revolts against alleged tyrants and even the murder of supposedly unjust kings. Some writers also invoked it to decry the Spanish treatment of Native Americans. The burgeoning African slave trade, on the other hand, drew no condemnations for human rights violations. That would only come two bloody centuries later, in very different circumstances.

The early modern story Edelstein tells about human rights is a complex and surprising one. Although the preservationist regime of rights had come into existence by the late sixteenth century, it did not immediately become dominant in the Western world. To the contrary, many of the most sophisticated and influential writers of the day, associating it with the horrors of Reformation-era religious warfare, sought either to refute it or to establish the right to resist oppression on other, less volatile grounds. Thomas Hobbes argued that we in fact abandon our “natural rights” to a sovereign once we leave the state of nature and enter political society. Locke, by contrast, suggested that on leaving the state of nature we actually “transfer” our rights to the political community as a whole—but still do not preserve them. When American and French revolutionaries declared that men (but not women) possessed inalienable, universal rights, they were not building on Hobbes and Locke. They were reactivating a very different concept of rights that had arisen on the European continent two centuries earlier.

To prove this point, Edelstein conducts a bravura piece of “archaeological” investigation, which challenges a great deal of conventional intellectual history. He shows that in France, the bridge back to the concept of inalienable rights was furnished by the early economic theorists known as the Physiocrats, in the middle decades of the eighteenth century. They entirely rejected Hobbes’s distinction between the state of nature and civil society and returned to the older natural law tradition, but with a more explicit articulation of what were coming to be called “the rights of man.” The point of a proper constitution, they maintained, was not to transcend nature but to establish formal laws and rights as close to those of nature as possible. Americans, meanwhile, arrived at the same destination by an entirely different route. They turned to English legal scholars—especially William Blackstone (1723–1780)—who interpreted the “rights of Englishmen” as natural rights preserved and guaranteed by the unwritten English constitution.

Neither the Physiocrats nor the English lawyers had any desire to challenge the prevailing political order in their countries. But as Edelstein wittily puts it, they could develop ideas “with radical implications precisely because those implications were so far from their minds,” fashioning intellectual tools that revolutionaries would soon put to unexpectedly radical purposes. Edelstein acknowledges that before 1776, Americans chafing at the rule of the mother country frequently invoked Locke’s authority—he was, after all, the most famous English-language philosopher of the century. But in doing so they tended to rewrite Locke in a way that he and his closest followers would not have recognized.

While the French and American revolutionaries did not invent the preservationist rights regime that prevails today, it was their enshrinement of it in their founding documents that sealed its triumph over its Hobbesian and Lockean competitors and established it as a foundation for two centuries of democratic experimentation. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen did less to guarantee individual rights than its American counterparts, since it also stipulated that the sovereign nation could place strict limits on the exercise of those rights. In this respect, it helped to enable the ferocious political repression of the Terror of 1793–1794. Nonetheless, it was this document—and not the American Declaration of Independence or Bill of Rights—that remained the reference point for a vein of international legal scholarship that continued to present human rights as “supranational restraints on government action” through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This scholarship in turn lay directly behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the human rights politics of the present day.

Since the 1970s, the idea of human rights as the basis for how states should behave has profoundly transformed international politics. (Donald Trump is the first American president in decades not to make the idea at least the rhetorical centerpiece of his foreign policy.) But as Edelstein demonstrates, this shift did not actually involve much intellectual innovation. Like the American and French revolutionaries before them, contemporary officials and activists have reached deep into the toolkit of Western political thought and turned old tools to new and more prominent purposes. The rise of human rights politics in the past few decades, in other words, was not, as Samuel Moyn’s work suggests, a seismic break with older political patterns, requiring a seismic correction that will return issues of social equality to a central position in political debate. The “preservationist regime” is not a recent invention. It is part of the intellectual atmosphere that surrounds us, and that we cannot do without.

Anyone reading these three books, particularly in the current grim political moment, will come away convinced of the fragile nature of the ideas underlying rights-based liberal democracy. They will grasp more clearly than ever that this liberal ideal, which seemed to triumph in the late twentieth century, had a tortuous history, with its successes dependent on a host of contingent factors. Readers will also be left in no doubt about some of the less savory things that often accompanied it. Miller pays due attention to the “carnival of atrocities” during the French Revolutionary Terror, even as France undertook its first grand experiment with democracy. Rosenblatt emphasizes the elitist, exclusionary tendencies inherent in the history of liberalism. Edelstein notes that, thanks to the concern with property of both the French Physiocrats and English common lawyers, the ideal of rights that triumphed in the eighteenth century can be seen as “the intellectual forefather of free-market fundamentalism.”

Yet at the same time readers will come away with the realization that the liberal ideal has a much richer, deeper, more varied past than they might imagine from accounts that stress only the supposed Anglo-American path to “classical” liberalism. Perhaps forms of liberal democracy built upon narrowly individualist notions of rights and liberty, and that deny most citizens the chance for meaningful political participation, are indeed too fragile to offer sufficient protection against unfettered capitalism and the rising inequalities we see today around the world, as well as against surges of angry populism. But there are other ways to think about liberal democracy, inspired by constitutional models that strive to maximize democratic participation, by forms of liberal thought that emphasize moral action and the common good, and by a vision of human rights that extends broadly and fully across the globe. The French Revolution, for all its radical excesses, offered one such vision, and a particularly powerful one. Despite its well-documented flaws, its ideals may still be able to inspire those seeking to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

David A. Bell is Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor of History at Princeton. His book “Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolutions” will be published next spring.


  1. Inventing Human Rights: A History (Norton, 2007).

This post originally appeared on The New York Review of Books and was published January 17, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.