Review of Liberalism: The Life of an Idea by Edmund Fawcett (Princeton University Press, 2014) 468 pages; $35.00.
Russell Kirk published The Conservative Mind in 1953, which provided the history of modern conservative thought from Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke to George Santayana. Later updated to include T. S. Eliot, Kirk's study was a long overdue examination of conservatism's history; first principles; prominent and less-so great thinkers; theoretical, theosophical and philosophical underpinnings; and practice. When it was published, The Conservative Mind served as a tonic for the tidal wave of post-World War II liberalism threatening to render conservatism a historical footnote.
By its very nature, the principles of conservatism evolve slowly if, indeed, at all. Kirk eventually devised his 10 Conservative Principles for his 1993 Politics of Prudence based on his examination of the record, but in truth they could've been written at any time after the French Revolution. Kirk prefaced these principles with the caveat: "Being neither a religion nor an ideology, the body of opinion termed conservatism possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata." And this: "there exists no Model Conservative, and conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order." Yet, Kirk's mind ably discerns a distinct plumb line from Burke to Eliot.
The above might explain why a similar book on liberalism hasn't been attempted before Edmund Fawcett's Liberalism: The Life of an Idea. Since its inception more than 200 years ago, liberalism has witnessed more twists and turns than a roller coaster catapulted onto gelatin rails positioned over the San Andreas Fault. Pinning the myriad strands of liberalism to any fixed system of thought, then, is impossible. All that's left is tracing liberal DNA from Wilhelm von Humboldt and Benjamin Constant to Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper, and Fawcett performs this delicate genetic task magnificently– albeit with some reservations.
Fawcett, a former Economist reporter, stresses the European branding of liberalism rather than employing the word as the more recent epithet applied to progressivism. This approach grants him wide berth to examine many who would not be considered "liberal" by current political U.S. standards. Fawcett identifies liberal antecedents in Renaissance Europe "through the Church doctors to the ancient Greeks and Romans." Compare Kirk's caveat with that written by Fawcett: "Liberalism had no accredited doctrinalists, no Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, no Marx-Engels Standard Edition." While confessing liberalism is indefinable, Fawcett forces himself to land his definition in a somewhat overgrown meadow:
Liberalism as I take it here was a search for an ethically acceptable order of human progress among civic equals without recourse to undue power…. Liberalism on this telling has an outlook, and 'liberal' means someone who shares that outlook with a degree of enthusiasm and commitment. None of that defines 'liberalism.'
Liberals hoped for ethical order without appeal to divine authority, established tradition or parochial custom. They hoped for social order without legally fixed hierarchies or privileged classes. They hoped for an economic order free of crown or state interference, monopoly privileges, and local obstacles to national markets. They hoped for an international order where trade prevailed over war and treaty over force. They hoped last for a political order without absolute authorities or undivided powers that all citizens might understand and accept under lawful arrangements honoring and fostering those other hopes. [Italics from the original]
Those operating under this rubric, writes Fawcett, abjured utopianism both temporal and eternal. Man's laws, wisely written and enforced with a healthy dollop of luck, would result in a degree of peace and prosperity. He confesses this approach involved tremendous trial and error, and the experiment caromed "politically from overconfidence to undue disappointment and intellectually from horizonless universalism to worldy-wise damage limitation."
The advent of fascism and communism in the 20th century cast liberalism in favorable relief, and the fall of the former in 1945 and the latter in 1989 seemingly assured liberalism's ascendency to a permanent perch in the West thereafter. However, competition from newly invigorated conservatism and a host of other -isms stemmed the tide of liberalism. Additionally, as noted by Fawcett, liberalism unmoored itself from its centrist beginnings by divorcing itself from its more right-leaning component. It eventually came to embrace obsessive secularism, moral relativism and other violations of Natural Law it previously endorsed unacknowledged in its search for, in Burke's words, ordered liberty. The result was even more government, state-enforced coercion and exponential growth of social programs on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the beginning, so to speak, it was much different. The genesis of liberalism, Fawcett asserts, sprang from the pens of Constant and Humboldt. According to the author, the former declared representative democracy a tradeoff in which "citizens gave up direct power over their lives; the state compensated them by letting them alone." Constant also championed the freedom of an individual to pursue whatever their respective talents afforded. France's Francois Guizot soon enters liberalism's early mosaic in his opposition to absolute power, described by Fawcett as "despotism or tyranny. Such unchecked power could be, and often was, arbitrary, unresponsive, and oppressive" rather than "enlightened, beneficial, and benign."
Fawcett is unclear, however, on a distinction he draws but does not define between Burke and Guizot – admittedly a fitting topic for a book-length thesis or dissertation. How is Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution, in which he "stressed the perils of abandoning established custom and disregarding the wisdom of tradition without adequately netting those perils against the benefits of change for the sagacity of its advocates," in Fawcett's words, less supple than Guizot's beliefs in "representative government by consent on a narrow, property- based franchise and in a constitutional division of powers under a monarch who reigned but did not rule"? Fawcett asserts a few pages later:
To schematize, conservatives revered traditional or established power. Authority was to be obeyed and orders followed without question. To the conservative mind, the very idea of limited power or divided sovereignty involved a confusion. For sovereignty was no more or less than supreme power of command without having to answer 'why.'
By this description, it's clear Burke – in Fawcett's view – rests on the liberal continuum rather than the starting point for modern conservatism where Kirk (more convincingly, in this writer's opinion) placed him. It would seem Kirk trumps Fawcett as well in characterizing Alexis de Tocqueville, particularly when it applies to religion. Fawcett writes that Tocqueville believed religion "absurd on the whole, but – another echo of Constant – he took some unquestioned faith or other as necessary to serve as society's ethical glue. Since it was familiar and available, Roman Catholicism, Tocqueville believed, met that purpose well." Rather than present examples of where Kirk and the subject in question upend Fawcett's conclusion, I instead direct readers to Chapter VI of The Conservative Mind and the writings of Tocqueville.
Where Fawcett shines, however, it's with Klieg light intensity. Without losing the strands of his narrative in a tangle of names, dates, philosophies, historical events and influences, the author corrals each thread into one compelling compendium of diverse characters and schools of thought from Germany, France, Great Britain and the United States. Readers adhering to the principles advocated by the Acton Institute will be thrilled to read about 19th century politician Richard Cobden – who convinced English Christians that wages are fixed by supply and demand and free trade is virtuous: "In his maiden speech to parliament in 1841, he argued movingly that relieving hardship in factory towns by lowering tariffs was an obligation for any good Christian."
One difference Fawcett recognizes between 19th century liberals and those of the 20th century and today is an emphasis on character. As late as 1873, John Stuart Mill hoped to nudge the needle of liberalism forward by emphasizing a "change of character … in the uncultivated herd who now compose the labouring masses, and in the immense majority of their employers." Mills was joined in this goal by British Samuel Smiles and the American Unitarian preacher William Emery Channing.
As for recognizing the dual roles played by morality and religion in maintaining ordered liberty in free societies, William Gladstone might've been liberalism's last gasp. But, as last gasps go, Gladstone's efforts resonate as a breath of fresh air for Western democracies increasingly puffing themselves up as secular entities:
Gladstone found religion and politics hard to pull apart. A tolerant nation could not impose faith or morals. Yet politics without moral vision was for Gladstone unintelligible, as was morals without religion. His vision combined the egalitarian dicta of the Sermon on the Mount with a Homeric devotion to unflinching and, when needed, ruthless nobility. The notion his faith might not be the faith of all humankind was foreign to him, and he remained unshaken in that characteristically liberal mix of Enlightenment and Christian universalism…. Gladstone's ideal of a virtuous liberal commonwealth was a Christian state, not imposed by law but arisen in spirit, and peopled by latter-day Hectors.
Fawcett writes that Gladstone focused on the benefits wrought by the Industrial Revolution – all the while recognizing – as did Charles Dickens – members of the Victorian society in which he lived were slipping through the cracks.
The twentieth century was a marked change from modern liberalism's inaugural century. Progressivism gained a toehold through such publications as The New Republic. The magazine featured a trio of far-left liberals – Herbert Croly, Walter Lippman and Walter Weyl – who impatiently crusaded for a greater role of government to alleviate poverty, income disparity and a host of progressive bugbears. Croly, Fawcett writes, believed the "nation needed vigorous direction from Washington if it was to promote science, efficiency, personal fulfillment and social justice." Muckrakers such as Upton Sinclair added fuel to the fire, and liberalism began its slide into the soft socialism witnessed in much of Europe today, and growing tendencies in the United States. As a nonobjective observer and chronicler, Fawcett seems unbothered by the expansion of governments into the lives of their governed. In fact, he leaves unexplained an off-the-cuff remark referring to "the rotten compromises of Philadelphia" in a discussion of the post-World War II government established in West Germany.
Despite the sometimes maddening editorial asides offered by the author, there's much to recommend Liberalism: The Life of an Idea. Fawcett may be a bit of a liberal ideologue, but his encyclopedic grasp of the history and ideas of the last two and a half centuries, and the changes wrought by two world wars, the Cold War and a Great Depression make for a dizzying yet concise epic of ideas.
Bruce Edward Walker, a Michigan-based writer, writes frequently on the arts and other topics for the Acton Institute.