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Liberalism: The Life of an Idea [Hardcover]

Edmund Fawcett
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Book Description

4 May 2014

Liberalism dominates today's politics just as it decisively shaped the past two hundred years of American and European history. Yet there is striking disagreement about what liberalism really means and how it arose. In this engrossing history of liberalism--the first in English for many decades--veteran political observer Edmund Fawcett traces the ideals, successes, and failures of this central political tradition through the lives and ideas of a rich cast of European and American thinkers and politicians, from the early nineteenth century to today.

Using a broad idea of liberalism, the book discusses celebrated thinkers from Constant and Mill to Berlin, Hayek, and Rawls, as well as more neglected figures. Its twentieth-century politicians include Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Willy Brandt, but also Hoover, Reagan, and Kohl. The story tracks political liberalism from its beginnings in the 1830s to its long, grudging compromise with democracy, through a golden age after 1945 to the present mood of challenge and doubt.

Focusing on the United States, Britain, France, and Germany, the book traces how the distinct traditions of these countries converged on the practice of liberal democracy. Although liberalism has many currents, Fawcett suggests that they are held together by shared commitments: resistance to power, faith in social progress, respect for people's chosen enterprises and beliefs, and acceptance that interests and faiths will always conflict.

An enlightening account of a vulnerable but critically important political creed, Liberalism will be a revelation for readers who think they already know--for good or ill--what liberalism is.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 488 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (4 May 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691156891
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691156897
  • Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 16.3 x 3.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 141,381 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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

"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

From the Inside Flap

"In this wonderfully fluent tour through the history of modern liberal thinking, Edmund Fawcett examines a generous selection of important thinkers from the 1830s to our own time in a way that locates both the lineage of their political thinking and the politics of their times. Sharp analysis is combined with a compelling narrative of serious thinkers at work. There is much to learn in this book, which is truly a joy to read. He makes judgments, but they are aids, not substitutes, for our own thinking about liberalism as an idea and about its present possibilities."--Thomas Bender, New York University

"Liberalism: The Life of an Idea possesses both the authority made possible by sustained scholarly research, and the clarity and simplicity found in first-rate journalism. It covers two centuries of the history of a principle guiding political practice and the various philosophies that have attempted to justify or defame it. It is a very timely reminder of the achievements and problems of a political tradition now everywhere under siege."--Gareth Stedman Jones, University of Cambridge and Queen Mary, University of London

"Elegant, fluently written, and wryly amusing, this enlightening history of liberalism tells a persuasive story of ideas and politics through the lives of a huge variety of characters. The result is tremendously enjoyable."--Duncan Kelly, author of The Propriety of Liberty

"This is, quite simply, one of the most lively and engaging books that I've read in some time. With a brisk narrative that holds the reader's attention from start to finish, Liberalism provides a comprehensive survey of the subject, introducing a remarkable diversity of people and ideas, and offering a creative reconsideration of familiar tensions. It is impossible to imagine a reader who wouldn't learn much from it. I certainly did."--Ryan Patrick Hanley, author of Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue

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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars 29 July 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Brilliant, profound and thought provoking
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Everything You Wanted to Know About Liberalism and More. 10 Jun 2014
By The Peripatetic Reader - Published on
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 was.

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.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Looking At Liberalism 15 July 2014
By Steven J Kurvink - Published on
Fawcett has written an excellent book that will be greatly appreciated by anyone with an interest in liberalism. While the book is a work of serious scholarship, it is quite readable and its appeal will not be limited to the academic audience. Nonetheless, it is a lengthy book that goes into considerable depth and detail. Be prepared to invest some time as Fawcett narrates the story of liberalism in both theory and practice.
I have always accepted the conventional wisdom that liberalism is a philosophy of liberty. An argument that liberty is the paramount political value and that the primary purpose of government is the protection of individual rights and liberties. Fawcett argues from the outset that "it's more than liberty". he identifies four "guiding thoughts' that have been essential to liberalism:conflict, resistance to power, progress and respect. Liberals accept that social conflict is inevitable, that people will have different interests and values. Liberals believe that power must be limited. Liberals believe that the lives of people can and should be improved. Finally, liberals believe that all are entitled to dignity and respect.
Some may respond by saying "Well, who can argue with that". Thus, the point should be made that Fawcett is defining liberalism in very broad terms. The liberalism of which he speaks includes a variety of elements, left, right and center. Indeed, his discussions includes figures who are usually characterized as libertarians(Hayek and Friedman), modern liberals(FDR and LBJ) and conservatives(Reagan and Thatcher)
Therein may lie a weakness. If all of the above are liberals, if as Fawcett argues such diverse thinkers as Mill, Hegel, Rawls and Sartre all qualify as liberals, is the liberal tent just a little too big? Then again this a book that offers some rather tasty food for thought.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best read I have found in 20 years 7 July 2014
By billwest - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Best read I have found in 20 years. Truly. I carry it around a lot for reading on the buses. Author's main contention is that there isn't a short definition of Liberalism. No author, no Moses. Political choices and contingency. Practitioners argument, bargaining, compromise. Great author.

Addition to my review on Fawcett's Liberalism

This done off network with Pillarbox

Finished Liberalism and feel Fawcett deserves more at Amazon here.

Fawcett is an English journalist writing much of his life on his love for the English Liberal Party. Unlike myself, the man can write a sentence. Read his book.

Briton has some differences with the US. England has had a much longer period of local stable institutions. For very much longer than the US, England was developing the Provinces with local handling of whatever problem might arrive. America began to do this with councils and courts from the beginning of Jamestown and Plymouth. In the 80s Thatcher was the very right wing prime minister. When we had Reagan. Right after WW II England rebuilt with many enterprises government initiated. Their Socialism. Thatcher decentralized much of this skilled activity to private enterprise or to more local control. Since the War, the Labour Party --more Socialist advocating --has fended with the Conservative Tories --for power. Once 40% of the working force was organized and voted Labour. Recently, Labour and the desire to Socialize --really took a loss. A coalition of Conservatives and Liberals rules Parliament momentarily.

So Briton is used to handling problems at the local level. But the Liberals --not Labour --were once only 7% of the voters. The great turning point in England was finally signing the Elementary Education Act 1870. Gladstone has been patiently waiting for when the chimes meet the times. Mandatory school for ages 7-12. I think for boys only at this initial moment --I hope not. Upon finalizing the bill Gladstone commented --Ohmygosh, this is going to cost more than the Massive Royal Navy. That is what Liberalism has been about. No Marx setting out a whole systematic theory. Fawcett tells us it's bad faith to ignore contingency (children, sickness, disaster, old age) and choices, judgement and decisions. In England, France, and Germany Liberalism were preachers and teachers. In Fawcett's great story here America offers little liberal thinking or action until FDR, the Great Depression, and the National Recovery Act. All great things, of course. But Jefferson, Monroe and all the Founding Fathers did an incredibly liberal thing --the Declaration of Independence, the Revolution dispensing with European monarchy altogether, and the representative Constitution and democracy. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation may be the greatest thing America has done. The American South has always been the most il-liberal thing possible. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act, Teddy Roosevelt's health and safety reforms and regulations are liberal events. I count the Transcendentalists, self reliance, as important.

Fawcett begins about 1830 with Mills and Constant. Good. Oher's suggest starting with Hobbs and Machiavelli. Hobbs --why do we even have a king when occasionally we inherit an Ivan the Terrible or Attilla the Hun? Because original life was not always the Rousseau Happy Pacific Paradise but most often everything at war. Killing or being devoured. "Honey, that gigantic Saber Tooth Tiger wants our cave back. We can either go sleep in the rain or go see the Leader of the Pack --west side Jets or Sharks gangs. Fear, protection, survival. Whichever gang looks most like us. We want to be his girl friend or join the gang. Our gender --correct that to our preference."

Machiavelli informs us of how bad the dear Leader of the Pack can be. Then Locke, Mills and Constance begin the kind of real thinking that the beautiful Parthenon was built to conference --democracy and free enterprise.

Every Fawcett sentence makes me lift my eyes and mentally lecture myself on whatever. Let me list a few inspirations. I'll exaggerate some.

The Am/British/French/German current governments are what is liberal. Washington --with all it's present lobbyists, stalemates, and NSA --is Liberalism. England is a bit different. Currently a mixed Socialism that has had a lot of it's public enterprises out-sourced to private local management. What the Libertarians want to do with Washington if they ever get any power. Under Bush the 43rd, Dick Chaney outsourced many Department of Defense enterprises --the dining halls that once were Army KP rookie kitchen duty. DOD and the State Department even had 200,000 "mercenary" troopers instead of regular Army in Iraq. French liberalism is all free market --more like our Republicans. The west German's are still willingly supporting old East Germany.

Liberalism is not completely Economic Conservatism nor Socialism. Definitely not Libertarian as Liberal like big good government. Not competition to free enterprise but more big brother to Free Market. Good government keeps Free Market doing the right thing --following the straight and narrow. Liberalism is not Philosophy, History, not just Historical Thought, or Sociology. Closer to Political Science than any of these 19th Century disciplines. Fawcett emphasizes arguement/bargaining/compromise. A lot of just waiting around. Nothing excluded, obstructed, or intruded upon. Big tent. Everything is American. Contingencies and choice. Judgement and decisions.

All of Washington DC is what American Liberalism is. Stunning thought that Fawcett only mentions once. It is hugely tolerant, Big Tent tolerant.

Fawcett's editor says stick to a story. Fawcett says there has been no ordered plan of what Liberalism might be. Endless teachers and preachers. And Political Events --suddenly the chimes meet the times. So we had Lyndon Johnson nose to nose with the likes of such racists as Mississippi Eastland and Alabama George Wallace, with garlic in right hand, convincing the south to go along with Civil Rights and Voting Rights. Lincoln suddenly issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Contingencies and choices.

I say Fawcett points out the stunning realization that Liberalism is the whole Big Tent thing of Washington DC. Every act is under that tent. And catch this --liberal is whatever citizen's ask of their government.

Fawcett however says, for what it is worth, that he sees four characteristics of what has been liberal. The world is Progressing --getting better. Liberals like change --Conservatives like the way it's always been. For 100,000 years at least sons did what their fathers were doing --taking care of the farm or market stall. Much of the Middle East, Africa, and South America are still in the Agrarian Age. No employment problems with that, then.

Big Tolerance --acceptance of everyone, their ideas, and ways of going about their projects. An acceptance of conflict in the most modern world --the 20th Century sure underlines that. And a Priority to the Individual --suspicion of Power --any Power --government, corporate, community...domestic?

Let's upgrade one of the early great inspirations --the French banner Liberty/Equality/Fraternity. Let's say --Americans, Liberalism
-- in building this incredibly successful country, politic, economy --started out with liberty being Big Liberty --you can do anything you want, and do it your own way. Then After --golly, gee --we gotta rein in your statement Bub. Those automatic weapons and cross bandoleers of explosive shells. Tiny restriction --can you loose the bandoleers --the cops are so frigidity. So for 240 years we have been adding thousands of New Rules, tiny restrictions --federal laws, community ordinances. Big Equality too --from the Labour Party --everyone is entitled to live the life they want --to want the life they are living. Let's define Fraternity Rawl's style --Social Justice means Fairness --the difference principle being "If rich, look after the poor".

Given this fresh meaning to the great French banner --you can imagine the patient Optimistic Liberal waiting on the corner for the next great Liberal thing to happen. Ohmygosh, in 2014 Americans decided to accept gay America --accept quite a bit --while the federal congress was too deadlocked to do anything. The chimes found their times --with very little government involvement. A big overdue liberal event.

Let me restate the reoccurring within a very happy optimistic Liberalism. On the Left Hand Liberals in the four countries Fawcett studies are very tolerant of everybody and their enterprises. Like them or not, they get a piece of pizza at the table, too. The anti-bellum South was once included in our Big Tent as are today Tea Party representatives that their constituents correctly voted in. Mama said grit your teth and smile. Everything that doesn't force itself in --is accepted equally. That is our government. That has always been Washington DC. American government and economy is crazy Wall Street speculation and Social Security, a staid insurance program. Everyone's idea is tried, and sometimes removed. Pioneers built churches and schools as soon as they started plowing. Be patient, your pet program's chimes will match the times, sometime. We just keep bringing up a Minimum Income "Big Safety Net" solution --waiting for its chime to find a time. "Why, that has become indispensable."

Then --often contradictory --On my Right Hand --I accept conflict and distrust power, anyone's power. One moment I show great openness to everything --especially the New --and the next moment I'm very skeptical. Skeptic and criticizing that very once-favored thing. Drives conservatives and others crazy. Why don't we just pick out a Good --like we did in parochial school --and defend it come what may. Liberals are so Schitzy. Well, there is a characteristic of the liberal --a knee jerk suspicion of Power, The the rise to Power of anything --good programs, very bad ideas. All ideas have conflict "built into them." Good ideas and bad, my ideas and your best ideas. Lord Acton had two brilliant notions --power corrupts, great power corrupts completely. Let's exaggerate that --all power is likely to go south --the bad ideas and the wonderful. Liberals expect it. Clean up is a regular chore. I think the Congress for a hundred years has only been reforming the Reforms. How often must we repeat that all adult black Americans are permitted --expected --to vote. All of them. Every election they have. We need to repeat this every 50 years, I guess. On racial issues we are not swift. Lord Acton also commented --Liberalism obligates me to tolerate all. It is also my duty to teach each what is best for them. :) Drives conservatives and other persuasions nutty.

Everything is brought to America and tried here. That is the whole of Liberalism. On any commentary, issue, action --we each decide what is Liberal --what is American. What will be added to the American Way.

Liberals love everything at it's debut. Adam Smith The Heavenly Free Market was the most amazing liberal thing ever. Maybe greater even than Thomas Jefferson's democracy in the New World !! --for 75 years or so. Then the Robber Barons spoiled the brew --"What do I care about the law, ain't I got the Power?" Sorry we've got to put in some tiny restrictions. Like the incredibly inconsequential Federal Reserve. You can't effect the Vanderbilt's less than Federal Reserve interest rate adjustments. Even Timothy Geitner muttered in sub-committee testimony --"I'm not a regulator." He was President of the Third Fed Reserve District. As much regulator as we've got. But that is all we want done. We want the federal government to come to the aide --to help clean up --after the disaster --Wall Street man-made, or natural. AFTER the disaster clean up --don't interfere, obstruct, or exclude An American Effort. Oh, dear.

Speaking of how appealing The Free Market and Spontaneous Order can be. It is a small neat system. Easy to slip over the edge and think of Free Markets as the Answer to Everything! Gift from Jesus. Poser was a judge at the beginning of Reagan's eight years. Perhaps giddy from moving up the ladder as appeals judge. He wrote a paper. In which he reveal with excitement being born again a True Believer in the wonderful Free Market. Alleluia, Praise Jesus. He has seen the light. Blind before but now he sees. Business for a profit supplies everything! You don't need to know anything else. We don't need government at any level --as the Enlightened Libertarians have been preaching since 1970. Mercenary soldiers. Lord Cromwell had to fund himself for his 30,000 British regulars that fought against the American Revolution. The incredible Swiss banking system does everything "government" for the Swiss. Private contractors actually carry out road construction and maintenance for the feds and states. Insurance and other financial models will serve all monetary activities. Social Security is really an Insurance policy administered by the Feds. Best program America has got. Really works simple. But Free Enterprise has an answer to everything. Government not needed for anything! What a Pentecostal Awakening!

So let's not laugh when the new initiate suggests to his judicial breather to use a Free Market concept in deciding all court issues. Make all courtroom decisions on the Principle that we give the money to the litigant that can best make more money, for himself and others, with the award. Isn't that brilliant --businessmen always win, as they should. Only a True New Believer could produce such wisdom. I don't know what Posner would do with so many courtroom matters --privacy, defamation, racial discrimination. That was more than 30 years ago --I imagine Judge Posner has changed his mind a lot since trickle down came from Heaven.

One ancient idea that I have always liked, but now hits the recycle bin --Meritocracy. The idea that your best and brightest rule. The American CEO club respects merit. Many of those on their fast tracks to the now 100 Million Club were high school and college elected presidents. As many in Congress are. I'm thinking Jefferson (if he wont bring his slaves to the White House), Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Kennedy, Johnson, and I gotta include Reagan. All possible President's for Life. Well, I guess I mean my choice of The Best for Life. I could be happy with FDR for life --as he was. The Brit's have always had excellent PMs. The French and Germans have selected their best as well. The best looking wonks have got to be better than a military junta.

Read Fawcett for much better writing.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great analysis but a bit lengthy for a non-academic debate. 4 Aug 2014
By V. R. Esselaar - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Pretty good analysis of the principles of liberalism which separates bleeding heart liberals and the right wing from the core principles of being a liberal which is an admirable thing to be as a rational child of the enlightenment. It becomes obvious that most complaints about liberalism are based on ignorance and prejudice. Nobody except the malevolent can deny that the values of liberalism are worthwhile and probably the only route to peace in the world.

However while the subject is interesting it can be belaboured and I reckon a good essay can take the place of the book. Nonetheless while the author is not an academic I think he does a superb job of identifying and analysing the subject which is fascinating over the centuries and includes nearly all the great thinkers of years past.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What a book! 25 Jun 2014
By Shorty 101 - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I thought I knew what liberalism was until I read this book . Captivating reading walks thorough the evolution of liberalism , never forgetting to put the main thinkers in prospective
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