Heroes for liberty are not particular to any region of the world or to a particular time period or to one sex. They hail from all nationalities, races, faiths, and creeds. They inspire others to a noble and universal cause—that all people should be free to live their lives in peace so long as they do no harm to the equal rights of others. They are passionate not solely for their own liberty, but for that of others as well.
In my last book, Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction, I wrote about 40 individuals whose views, decisions, and actions served this cause in various ways. That book planted the seed for this new weekly series to be published each Thursday at FEE.org. But this time, others from around the world will do the writing, and I’ll be content to do the editing while keeping that to a minimum to preserve the author’s voice. It is my hope that when all is said and done some months from now, the literature of liberty will be greatly complemented by this collection of short biographies. The authors will be writing about heroes for liberty who are (or were) citizens of each author’s own country. Each week’s installment will be added to the collection here.
The subject of this week’s installment in the series is Roberto Campos, a Brazilian economist, diplomat, and congressman. The author is Rafael Ribeiro, a Brazilian Fulbright scholar acting as a cultural ambassador at the University of Georgia. He holds a Masters in International Affairs and is closely involved in initiatives that foster the ideas of liberty in his home country.
Lawrence W. Reed, President, Foundation for Economic Education
If he were still alive, Roberto Campos would turn 101 next week on April 17. He was a Brazilian hero whose timeless ideas are still shining a light in the darkness.
A common complaint in my country, Brazil, is that our heroes are not given due recognition or that their achievements are only realized and appreciated post-mortem. Aside from that belated acknowledgment, another factor is also in play: an unfair and biased selection of notorious figures who are put forth and glorified by the same Marxist historians who largely dictate how our history is taught.
Nonetheless, thanks to a recent enlightenment of ideas going on in Brazil over the last couple of years, some forgotten political and academic names who dedicated their lives to promote and defend liberty are becoming better known. This is a short biography of one of them.
A Multi-Talented Brazilian
Born on April 17, 1917, in Cuiabá, capital of the state of Mato Grosso, Roberto de Oliveira Campos, commonly referred to as Roberto Campos, was a Brazilian economist, writer, diplomat, politician, and also a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. In the late 1930s, he started his career at the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That position sent him to the United States where he studied Economics at George Washington University and Columbia University. A few years later, he represented the Brazilian government at the post-war Bretton Woods Conference.
From 1951 to 1953, Campos served in President Getúlio Vargas’ administration as an economic advisor. Not yet very enthusiastic about classical liberal ideas, Roberto Campos helped promote nationalist policies for the industrialization of Brazil. He continued working in the government for successive Presidents Juscelino Kubitschek, João Goulart, and Castelo Branco. Though he was still a self-proclaimed “pragmatic democratic nationalist,” he was a critical thinker who learned from experience and reality. His views matured in the direction of an ever-greater appreciation of freedom and free markets. In fact, he eventually resigned because of increasing government intervention in the economy and then served as Brazilian ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom.
Later, in the mid-1980s, as Brazil was transitioning from a military regime to a multi-party democracy, Campos joined a newly-formed party and ran successfully for Senate from his native state of Mato Grosso. He served an eight-year term, and then, in 1991, he was elected as Congressman for the state of Rio de Janeiro, serving for two legislative sessions.
In Congress, Campos fought against the nationalization of companies and often reminded his fellow Congressmen of what the role of government should be. He declared, “We will only be saved when we cease to have a state-run capitalism and have, at last, free-market capitalism.”
From a Socialist Youngster to a Contemporary Freedom Icon
As suggested above, Roberto Campos had not always been an advocate for the ideas of liberty. During his youth, he marched as a socialist supporter and believed that the government should have the power to shape society under the guidance of an elite leader. It was while serving as a diplomat in the United States that he realized the government is usually only able to change things for the worse. “I saw, however, that it is an illusion to think that socialism reforms the world. Socialism only makes the world totalitarian,” he once said.
He also became very critical of artists and intellectuals who enjoy all the advantages that only free markets can offer but whose advocacy is predominantly socialist-leaning. Campos stressed once that “Few things are more paradoxical than the leftism found among Brazilian artists. They are socialists through their fingers and their voices, but invariably capitalists in their pockets.”
Campos used to say that he saw no nobility in poverty. Unlike his fellow compatriots from the world of arts and literature, he argued that we should support the generation of wealth through a free-market society over the redistribution of beggary that ultimately comes along with socialist policies. For years before his death in 2001 at the age of 84, he was considered the most outspoken and articulate opponent of socialism in the country.
Another remarkable episode of his life was when Campos participated in a debate with long-time Brazilian communist leader and politician Luís Carlos Prestes. The debate was aired nationwide on television in 1985. Campos brilliantly exposed the tyranny inherent in communism. For a nationwide audience, he taught a magnificent lesson about the unprecedented contributions made by free markets in overcoming poverty around the world. He cited the example of Hong Kong and South Korea to prove that even small countries with scarce natural resources can become developed nations and efficiently address social problems through economic freedom and international trade.
Campos knew how to highlight the positive outcomes of adopting free-market policies. He liked to bust myths related to capitalism. He proposed a small-government agenda not only to boost the economy but also to avoid political corruption and arbitrary intervention in people’s lives. If Brazil had fully embraced his views two or three decades ago, we could have avoided the scandalous and poverty-creating policies we are finally now beginning to reject.
Roberto Campos can be considered a hero because he was a man of principle who embraced the good ideas when he realized what the bad ones were. He did not cling to failed notions. He had the intellectual courage to stand out from the crowd and defend ideas that were inconvenient to the bureaucratic and politically-correct status quo.
Presently, a new generation of young Brazilian activists is giving well-deserved and long overdue credit to Campos. They are citing both his name and his wisdom when they talk about the dire need for economic deregulation and the encouragement of an entrepreneurship culture in Brazil. Those people were lucky to have been born in the information era where content can be spread on the Internet and can thereby rescue young people from the indoctrination of failed and outdated statist ideas.
It is an encouraging sign for Brazil that what Roberto Campos stood for is gaining ground today among Brazilians who are searching for solutions to our economic problems!