Identifying myself as liberal all my life, I went through life thinking I knew what liberalism was all about and knew the difference between liberal and conservative politicians and philosophy. How wrong I was. Shortly after starting this book I soon realized how little I really knew and how complex the liberal political philosophy really is.
Western liberalism is a package of ideals born from the French Revolution. Yet it really does not matter your political viewpoint, anyone could find something to relish from reading this book. Anyone with more than a passing interest in political science should purchase, read, and digest this book. Fawcett discusses the main exponents of the liberal political philosophy from the vantage of biography, to history, to historical analysis, to political philosophy, to a history of ideas, and navigates effortlessly to and from each of these aspects with total command.
Edmund Fawcett, a correspondent for the Economist magazine, which in the interests of disclosure, he states started as a leading proponent of the liberal philosophy, has produced a text which demystifies the sometimes confusing and contradictory world of liberal political thought. There is a cavalcade of liberal expositors, thinkers, philosophers, political scientists, social movements, and historical trends, but Fawcett is able, perhaps for the first time, the explain these many diverse elements into a coherent package. Through the book Fawcett displays a unique ability to simply and clearly explain complex philosophical or political philosophies.
One of the mistakes I fell into which the book clarified was associating "left" with "liberal" and "right" with "conservative." Part of this error originates from the "core values" Fawcett ascribes to the liberal philosophy. Those core values are
* the acknowledgment of ethical and material conflict in society
* a distrust of authority or power
* faith in human progress and
* an abiding respect of people and their belief regardless to belief or creed.
The boundaries of theses values are malleable and flexible, which not only allows the liberal philosophy to change with changing conditions, but enables it to accommodate divergent philosophies or policies, from the New Dealers of FDR's administration believing in aggressive government social and economic intervention to neoliberal such as Hayek who supported a laissez faire attitude on steroids to economic markets.
These values change in sometimes horrific ways. In its second stage, liberalism made what Fawcett calls its "accommodation" with the ruling powers. This accommodation produced the beginnings of welfare systems in Germany, but also partnered the liberal philosophy with Western Imperialism, from which it has never completely been released.
Incidentally, Fawcett's book appears to resolve an on-going debate between humanistic and structuralistic Marxists as to whether ideas precede human action or vice versa. Fawcett's book demonstrates the incredible power of ideas and how they can ignite human actions. He describes a symposium presided by Walter Lippman during the Great Depression, where the leading liberal intellectuals discussed alternatives to the direction liberalism was taking at the time. It was at this symposium during the Thirties that the term "Neo-Liberalism" was coined and where its main tenants were outlined. Hayek, the recognized father of Neo-Liberalism was one of the speakers at this symposium. The seeds of Neo-Liberalism lay dormant for thirty years before it appeared in the administrations of Reagan and Thatcher, testimony to power of ideas in general and liberalism's dynamism in particular.
This is a heady read, mainly because it is a heady subject. But the task of making sense of the many directions liberalism has taken is made easier by Fawcett's command of the subject and the ease in which he describes its twists and turns. The result is a highly readable text, great summer read, which educates as well as entertains.