In This Review
Human Rights for Pragmatists: Social Power in Modern Times

Human Rights for Pragmatists: Social Power in Modern Times

By Jack Snyder

Princeton University Press, 2022, 328 pp.

In this masterful work, Snyder offers a bold explanation for why, how, and when societies make progress in expanding political rights and freedoms. Typically, the story of the rise and spread of human rights has been told as a moral, legal, and ideo- logical struggle, centered on the prom- ulgation of norms and treaties and the efforts of activist groups to name and shame violators. Snyder’s contrarian claim is that the successes, failures, and setbacks of the rights revolution are better explained by the forces of liberal modernity. Only when societies become modern, with rising middle classes and democratic institutions, can systems of political rights truly thrive. Surveying the ups and downs of the human rights movement over the last two centuries, Snyder shows that breakthroughs have occurred primarily when large coalitions emerge to push for expanded political rights as part of wider agendas of economic and social reform. In modernizing societies, human rights are embraced not because of their intrinsic ethical virtues or the dogged work of small groups of idealists, but because they serve the interests of a country’s dominant political coalition. In the shift to a rights-based society, according to Snyder, power and politics must come first, and rights will follow.