Edmund Fawcett’s LIBERALISM: The Life of an Idea begins with a neat rhetorical flourish, as Mr. Fawcett writes:
“This is a book about a god that succeeded, though a rather neurotic god that frets about why it has succeeded, whether it really has succeeded, and, if it has, how long success can last. It asks itself who it is and which its idols are. It worries about whether it deserves its success or whether it is simply a successor, the next god in line. For one so widely worshipped, the self-doubt is startling. But this is an ungodly god that got its start by challenging other authorities, if not the notion of authority itself. It is the kind of god that tells people to obey its commands so long as they agree to. Though it is hard to picture the world without it, nobody is quite sure what it is or why it feels indispensable.”
The self-doubting “ungodly god” that is liberalism is characterized, Fawcett claims, by “four broad ideas”:
“acknowledgement of inescapable ethical and material conflict within society, distrust of power, faith in human progress, and respect for people whatever they think and whoever they are...”
By Fawcett’s account, liberalism is not, as is so often claimed, utopian; it is quite realistic both about the inevitability of social conflict and about the temptations and corruptions of power (overbearing and concentrated economic power as well as government power). If liberalism’s faith in progress can seem a touch naïve, it remains the case that it has nonetheless helped lay the foundation for a good deal of social, political, and economic improvement.
In an era when hardly anyone has anything good to say about liberalism, and when even American liberals have decided to re-cast themselves as “progressives” because “liberal” is an epithet too shameful to endure: Mr. Fawcett’s book is a welcome effort to set the record straight.
On the other hand: if you favor a skeptical—not to say, jaundiced—view of liberalism, then look no further than Kenneth Minogue’s 1963 classic THE LIBERAL MIND, a book which has been re-issued but not updated, because, as Mr. Minogue would be the first to tell you, the author is quite certain he got it entirely right the first time.1
In contrast, then, to Edmund Fawcett’s opening, here is the first paragraph of Minogue’s THE LIBERAL MIND:
"The story of liberalism, as liberals tell it, is rather like the legend of St. George and the dragon.2 After many centuries of hopelesssness and superstition, St. George, in the guise of Rationality, appeared in the world somewhere about the sixteenth century. The first dragons upon whom he turned his lance were those of despotic kingship and religious intolerance. These battles won, he rested a time, until such questions as slavery, or prison conditions, or the state of the poor, began to command his attention. During the nineteenth century, his lance was never still, prodding this way and that against the inert scaliness of privilege, vested interest, or patrician insolence. But, unlike St. George, he did not know when to retire. The more he succeeded, the more he became bewitched with the thought of a world free of dragons, and the less capable he became of ever returning to private life. He needed his dragons. He could only live by fighting for causes— the people, the poor, the exploited, the colonially oppressed, the underprivileged and the underdeveloped. As an ageing warrior, he grew breathless in his pursuit of smaller and smaller dragons—for the big dragons were now harder to come by."
So, depending on your point of view, liberalism is either a self-doubting god worthy of sympathy and respect or a senile dragon-slayer deserving ridicule and overdue for retirement. It almost makes you wonder if Edmund Fawcett and Kenneth Minogue are talking about the same phenomenon; and if they are, it makes you marvel at how two highly intelligent and educated human beings in possession of essentially the same facts can come to such utterly different conclusions.3
1 Mr. Minogue’s book, by the way, is available for free online in PDF format: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/672 It is part of the Online Library of Liberty, a site which contains an impressive array of (mostly older) books and articles about history, economics, politics, religion and more. It’s a great site to browse; where else will you find the full text of the debate between Bernard Mandeville and the Earl of Shaftesbury about “Beauty and Virtue”? ]
2 More accurately, what Minogue is giving us is "the story of liberalism as conservatives like to caricature the way liberals tell it".
3 The explanation for such widely varying conclusions, of course, is the magic of “epistemic lenses”; but that’s a subject for another time.