Liberalism: The Life of an Idea


Liberalism dominates today’s politics just as it decisively shaped the American and European past. This engrossing history of liberalism—the first in English for many decades—traces liberalism’s ideals, successes, and failures through the lives and ideas of a rich cast of European and American thinkers and politicians, from the early nineteenth century to today.

An enlightening account of a vulnerable but critically important political creed, Liberalism provides the vital ...

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Liberalism dominates today’s politics just as it decisively shaped the American and European past. This engrossing history of liberalism—the first in English for many decades—traces liberalism’s ideals, successes, and failures through the lives and ideas of a rich cast of European and American thinkers and politicians, from the early nineteenth century to today.

An enlightening account of a vulnerable but critically important political creed, Liberalism provides the vital historical and intellectual background for hard thinking about liberal democracy’s future.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Alan Wolfe
…[a] richly informative historical tour of liberal leaders and concepts…Widely read, apparently conversant in at least three languages and a vivacious writer…Fawcett aims to make liberalism comprehensible to contemporary readers. To do so, he takes a commendably liberal approach, bringing as many within the tent as possible.
Kirkus Reviews
Former longtime Economist correspondent Fawcett (co-author: The American Condition, 1982) charts the versions and vagaries of liberalism from the 1830s to the present. The author focuses on the United States and Western Europe in this comprehensive, quirky, scholarly and personal exploration of one of the dominant ideas in political discourse. Although he writes that this is a "historical essay for the common reader," his notion of that character seems a bit hopeful. Fawcett's text is thick with quotations and with names that do include many notables (such as James Madison, Tocqueville, Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson) but also numerous others familiar principally to political philosophers. Oddly, the author includes no endnotes and only a "works consulted" list, a disservice to those who are not "common" readers and would like to know more about the figures he discusses. Cavils aside, this is a phenomenal work of research and synthesis, generally positive, even admiring in tone. The author gives his working definition of "liberalism" in the preface (identifying four key ideas), then focuses on four historical periods when the idea of liberalism underwent stress, redefinition or modification: 1830–1880, 1880–1945, 1945–1989, 1989–the present. In each section, Fawcett surveys what the principal philosophical thinkers and writers were saying and shows us some of the activities and attitudes of various prominent politicians of the time. Readers may be surprised to see some kind words for Richard Nixon ("the Hidden Liberal") and to read that the author believes LBJ was brighter than JFK ("The Johnson years…were a historic achievement in the search for an acceptable liberal order. Decades later its essentials were still in place"). Fawcett devotes lots of attention to (among others) Friedrich Hayek, John Maynard Keynes, Michael Oakeshott and John Rawls. Liberalism, he writes, is now in a period of transition. A pool of profound, rigorous research and thought that has no shallow end.
From the Publisher
Honorable Mention for the 2015 PROSE Award in Government & Politics, Association of American Publishers

"[A] richly informative historical tour of liberal leaders and concepts. . . . [Fawcett] takes a commendably liberal approach."—Alan Wolfe, New York Times Book Review

"[E]xcellent. . . . What Fawcett clearly and compellingly shows is that the relationship of capitalism to the state, of economics to politics, should be at the heart of any history of liberal ideas. Whether you take his version as a story about liberalism's realist adaptability or its counterrevolutionary intent, it's a fitting one for a moment in which capitalism and political economy are back on the agenda."—Katrina Forrester, The Nation

"Fawcett's workmanlike history of the bundle of ideas and practices that liberals have espoused since the Spanish liberales coined the term after the Napoleonic wars is an excellent guide to liberalism's rise and fall."—David Marquand, New Republic

"[A] comprehensive, quirky, scholarly and personal exploration of one of the dominant ideas in political discourse. . . . [T]his is a phenomenal work of research and synthesis. . . . A pool of profound, rigorous research and thought that has no shallow end."Kirkus Reviews

"[Liberalism: The Life of an Idea] confirms the virtues of the disciplined generalist's approach to the exploration of politics. Deftly combining history, economic thought, and political theory, Fawcett has produced the sort of synoptic work that in our era is increasingly unlikely to come from universities. . . . [It] not only draws on the practicing journalist's close observation of political affairs but also the educated person of letters' facility across many disciplines. The result is an engrossing narrative of liberalism's dramatic career—often lustrous but also marked by its share of delusion, hypocrisy, hubris, and tragedy."—Peter Berkowitz, Real Clear Politics

"Liberalism by Edmund Fawcett is not only a gripping piece of intellectual history, it also equips the reader to understand today's threats—and how they might be withstood. . . . Liberalism is indeed under siege. Those who would fortify the walls would do well to study the foundations. Mr Fawcett's book offers an admirable archaeology."Economist

"A book so good I want to read it again. . . . [A]n intellectual page-turner made even more readable by its personal, sometimes quirky, style and its seamless mix of philosophy, history, biography and history of ideas."—David Goodhart, Standpoint

"In Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, Fawcett draws on the experiences and ideas of dozen of thinkers and politicians in an informative, lively, and provocative history of a political tradition he deems 'worth standing up for.'. . . Fawcett's book is an immensely interesting, informative, and important assessment of liberalism. . . . Liberalism is as relevant as ever, Fawcett concludes, passionately and persuasively."—Glenn C. Altschuler, Huffington Post

"[An] impressive account of the 'life of an idea.'. . . [O]ne of the many virtues of Fawcett's unfailingly stimulating book is that he makes you look past the misleading labels with which we characterise political argument. For anyone interested in the history of the ideas that have shaped our society, his book is essential reading."—Simon Shaw, Mail on Sunday

"[A] fine work of intellectual history that shows, among much else, that experience can shape ideas, too."—William Anthony Hay

"[M]agnificent."—Bruce Edward Walker, Morning Sun

"Fawcett has written a marvelous book. . . . [H]is erudition would be daunting if he didn't write with such verve. . . . [I]t's a pleasure."—Clive Crook, Bloomberg View

"As Fawcett's compelling history reveals, the twentieth century turned out to be much more unstable and dangerous than the early liberals anticipated and has forced liberals ever since to temper their expectations for human betterment with a world-weary search for small steps that can keep the liberal international system on an upward trajectory."Foreign Affairs

"Liberalism is an important and worthwhile book."—Walter Moss, History News Network

"This is a good and well-written book. . . . [I]t is wide-ranging, informative, and independent in its judgments."—James Kalb, Chronicles

"Fawcett expertly reveals [liberalism's] evolution, dead-ends, and permutations. A sprawling yarn that somehow remains utterly coherent and on-point, this is history at its very best."—Jeff Bloodworth, Gannon University, Cercles

"A felicitous combination of wit and erudition . . ."Choice

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691156897
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 5/4/2014
  • Pages: 488
  • Sales rank: 230,958
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Edmund Fawcett worked at The Economist for more than three decades, serving as chief correspondent in Washington, Paris, and Berlin, as well as European and literary editor. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Guardian, among other publications.

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Table of Contents

Preface xi
Acknowledgments xvii
Introduction It’s About More Than Liberty 1

PART ONE The Confidence of Youth (1830-1880) 27
1 Historical Setting in the 1830s: Thrown into a World of Ceaseless Change 28
2 Guiding Thoughts from Founding Thinkers: Conflict, Resistance, Progress, and Respect 34
i. Humboldt and Constant: Releasing People’s Capacities and Respecting Their Privacy 34
ii. Guizot: Taming Conflict without Arbitrary Power 44
iii. Tocqueville and Schulze-Delitzsch: The Modern Powers of Mass Democracy and Mass Markets 57
iv. Chadwick and Cobden: Governments and Markets as Engines of Social Progress 65
v. Smiles and Channing: Personal Progress as Self-Reliance or Moral Uplift 74
vi. Spencer: Liberalism Mistaken for Biology 79
vii. J. S. Mill: Holding Liberalism’s Ideas Together 85
3 Liberalism in Practice: Four Exemplary Politicians 98
i. Lincoln: The Many Uses of “Liberty” in the Land of Liberty 98
ii. Laboulaye and Richter: Tests for Liberals in Semiliberal Regimes 106
iii. Gladstone: Liberalism’s Capaciousness and the Politicsof Balance 112
4 The Nineteenth-Century Legacy: Liberalism without Caricature 117
i. Respect, “the Individual,” and the Lessons of Toleration 117
ii. The Achievements That Gave Liberals Confidence 133

PART TWO Liberalism in Maturity and the Struggle with Democracy (1880-1945) 137
5 Historical Setting in the 1880s: The World Liberals Were Making 138
6 The Compromises That Gave Us Liberal Democracy 146
i. Political Democracy: Liberal Resistance to Suffrage Extension 146
ii. Economic Democracy: The “New Liberalism” and Novel Tasks for the State 159
iii. Ethical Democracy: Letting Go Ethically and the Persistence of Intolerance 167
7 The Economic Powers of the Modern State and Modern Market 173
i. Walras, Marshall, and the Business Press: Resisting the State on Behalf of Markets 173
ii. Hobhouse, Naumann, Croly, and Bourgeois: Resisting Markets on Behalf of Society 186
8 Damaged Ideals and Broken Dreams 198
i. Chamberlain and Bassermann: Liberal Imperialism 198
ii. Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and Wilson: Liberal Hawks of 1914-1918 214
iii. Alain, Baldwin, and Brandeis: Liberal Dissent and the Warfare State 227
iv. Stresemann: Liberal Democracy in Peril 237
v. Keynes, Fisher, and Hayek (i): Liberal Economists in the Slump 245
vi. Hoover and Roosevelt: Forgotten Liberal and Foremost Liberal 267
9 Thinking about Liberalism in the 1930s-1940s 275
i. Lippmann and Hayek (ii): Liberals as Antitotalitarians 275
ii. Popper: Liberalism as Openness and Experiment 279

PART THREE Second Chance and Success (1945-1989) 285
10 Historical Setting after 1945: Liberal Democracy’s New Start 286
11 New Foundations: Rights, a Democratic Rule of Law, and Welfare 290
i. Drafters of the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights: Liberal Democracy Goes Global 290
ii. German Postwar Liberals: The 1949 Basic Law as Liberal Democracy’s Exemplary Charter 302
iii. Beveridge: Liberalism and Welfare 312
12 Liberal Thinking after 1945 316
i. Oakeshott and Berlin: Letting Politics Alone and “Negative” Liberty 317
ii. Hayek (iii): Political Antipolitics 327
iii. Orwell, Camus, and Sartre: Liberals in the Cold War 332
iv. Rawls: Justifying Liberalism 338
v. Nozick, Dworkin, and MacIntyre: Responses to Rawls, Rights, and Community 348
13 The Breadth of Liberal Politics in the 1950s-1980s 355
i. Mendès-France, Brandt, and Johnson: Left Liberalism in the 1950s-1960s 355
ii. Buchanan and Friedman: Liberal Economists Against the State 368
iii. Thatcher, Reagan, Mitterrand, and Kohl: Right Liberalism in the 1970s-1980s 378

PART FOUR After 1989 391
Coda Liberal Dreams in the Twenty-First Century 392

Works Consulted 409
Name Index 433
Subject Index 444

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