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VINE VOICEon 3 December 2007
Short, readable, crystal clear. Politics books are often a hard climb or at least a tedious trudge. This is a smooth glide by comparison.
Miller states at the start that he wants to avoid jargon and academic mumbo-jumbo and he does just that, taking us on a concise but enjoyable tour of political philosophy. He begins at first principles and gradually builds his arguments, with deftly chosen examples adding depth and colour to the text. The logical progression means that the focus is firmly on democracy (since that is the political system that makes most sense to most people nowadays). Although he presents (and knocks down) arguments for alternative systems, don't expect great forays into the pros and cons of ideologies like Communism or Fascism. Among the concepts he tackles are justice, social justice, freedom, multiculturalism, feminism and globalisation.
The thoughts of political philosophers such as Plato, Rousseau, Locke, Mill and Rawls are woven beautifully into the flow, compact nuggets that reinforce rather than halt the narrative. Anyone who has tried to trawl through Rawls in the original will whisper a quiet thankyou when they arrive at the digested wisdom of Miller's version.
Miller makes a promise at the outset and he sticks to it: to be scrupulously fair and present all sides of each argument, even if the reader doesn't share his own leanings (which I sensed were slightly leftward).
In sum, it would be hard to do better than this for a well-reasoned introduction to (or refresher course in) political philosophy.
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on 3 May 2015
Avant-Garde Politician: Leaders for a New Epoch

This book is a very good short introduction to political philosophy. It fully meets the requirement that "political philosophers...are bound to challenge many of the conventional beliefs held both by politicians and by the public at large...when political philosophers put forward their own ideas and proposals, these nearly always look strange and disturbing to those who are used to the conventional debate" (pp. 9-10). This is all the more essential "at moments when we face new political challenges that we cannot deal with using the conventional wisdom of the day" (p. 11). I wish more political philosophers would heed this imperative, moving towards new paradigms as required by the metamorphosis into which humanity is cascading, instead of marginally improving ideas which are important but in need revaluation, often radically so.

All chapters are enlightening. Thus, chapter 4 on "Freedom and the limits of government" succinctly discusses central issues of "liberty" and "human rights." Departing from common views, the author distinguishes between "human rights" and "citizen rights", recommending quite counter-conventionally that "rights that belong on the longer list (of) rights of citizenship...ought to be recognized as basic protections for the individual within our political community - while in other communities a different set of rights, overlapping with but not identical with ours, should prevail (p. 72, emphasis in original). The author is careful "not to succumb to debilitating political correctness." Thus, he offers a balanced view of feminism and multiculturalism (p. 102). And he becomes quite "daring" in supporting a form of market socialism (p. 90), as position with which I fully agree.

On page 5 the book includes a crucial statement: in contrast to earlier periods "we think much more about the institutions of good government, and less about the personal qualities of the people who make them work. Arguably we have gone too far in this direction. But I will follow modern fashion and talk...primarily about good government as a system, not about how to make our rulers virtuous." The author has good reasons for doing so in a short introduction. But, still, this leaves a black hole at the center of political philosophy, which can easily swallow the best designed institutions and make them work miserably. I recommend that a new edition takes up this issue, however concisely.

Some of the presented views may well be over-optimistic. Thus, compromises and taking into account minority views may work in some Western countries, but not when intense, multiple and contradictory ideological commitments push ideas of "fairness" into a corner and make trust in "public discussion, where both sides listen to the other's point of view and try to find a solution that as far as possible is acceptable to both" (pp. 52, 104) into a chimera. The economic failures of the Israeli Kibbutz movement further undermine the hopes that in small communities economic incentives are not essential (p. 87). The experience of Singapore demonstrates the advantages in some situations of authoritarian rule headed by outstanding leaders. And the book does not discuss the tendency of democracies, as well as most other regimes (but not Singapore), to neglect the responsibility to take care of future generation - a trait the consequences of which are likely to become more serious and perhaps fatal to the future of the human species, far above and beyond the risks of environmental degradation.

Here I reach the main point which requires in my view quite some rewriting in a new edition, all the more so as it was less obvious ten years ago, when this book was published, while receiving much attention in more recent books by the author.

The book correctly states that "as societies change, as new needs and new problems arise, so too will the shape of freedom itself. Who could have imagined, even 20 years ago, that internet access, electronic surveillance, or gene ownership would very soon assume center state in debates about individual liberty?" (p. 73). But the consequences of this crucial understanding may well be more radical than suggested in the text.

The author raises justified concerns over strong global governance (pp. 120-121). Indeed, "Cosmopolitianism in its most literal sense is both implausible and unattractive" (p. 123) and the danger pointed out by Kant of a single world government being a "universal despotism which saps all man's energies and ends in the graveyard of freedom" (123) is real. But the book does not face the emerging radical and in part fateful challenges sure to confront politics which require radical innovations, including a strong global authority and much improved political leaders (as discussed in my recent book).

Examples include human enhancement, virus synthesis, robotization, artificial intelligence and more - all of which add up to a phase jump in human history. Present and all the more so emerging science and technology is quite sure to enabling humanity for the first time in its evolutionary history to deliberately transform itself and also to eliminate itself, on purpose by some fanatics or by accident. This shift in the situation of humanity required radical philosophizing with a Nietzschean hammer, especially in political philosophy. The emerging problems are much broader and even more fateful than environmental ones, mentioned by the author (120). They can only be coped with globally, requiring a supervisory and regulatory worldwide regime enforced on all states, never mind "sovereignty." At stake is not "global justice," however important and well discussed by the author, but the very future of humanity as a species.

The "strong need people have to feel in control of their own destiny" (p.130) is not met at present and is sure to be even less satisfied in the future. But there is no other choice: A neo-Hobbesian situation can only be prevented by unprecedented global measures, which are far beyond public awareness and surpass by far the capacities of nearly all contemporary political leaders.

The author seems to sense this problematic. He states wisely that "the choice between good and bad government is always one we have to make, even if the form that good government takes changes as technology advanced and societies become larger and more complex" (p. 131). He is right in postulating that "it is precisely those moments when we feel that humanity's future is slipping out of our control that we need to think about them long and hard, and then decide together what to do" (p. 132). The time is now!

This book paves the way for moving on to a new phase of political philosophy. As it is, it is strongly recommended for all concerned with public affairs, including political leaders who often lack basic knowledge in political philosophy as well provided by this book. But more is need than was visible ten years ago, when this book was published - waiting for an updated edition, hopefully coming soon.

Professor Yehezkel Dror
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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on 7 September 2012
Not being exactly new to the ideas of political philosophy I found certain aspects of this book somewhat basic particularly regarding the ethical considerations of good governance and justice. However I have now had a lot of gaps filled and my ignorance enlightened in other areas.

Arguments for and against different points of view from across the whole political spectrum were presented and discussed without presuming infallible wisdom on the part of the author but yet still with a candid attitude and no attempt to mask his own views. Indeed the book ends with a rough outline of the author's ideas of how we might improve society as it currently stands.

I would thoroughly recommend this book to all those new to the subject but also to anyone with a healthy critical outlook even if they feel they have a good idea of how society should be run already as you might find some ideas you had not given fair consideration to before.
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on 15 May 2015
In reviewing books, one likes to have some foreknowledge of the subject at hand, even if one does consider oneself omniscient on the subject. We read non-fiction not to be entertained, but to be informed. The idea of political philosophy is more fundamental than the level at which I usually ponder. As such, it seemed an appropriate topic on which to read a very short introduction. The individual notions will be familiar to us all. What makes this an interesting work is the particular combination of topics, along with their interplay.

Miller writes under the headings of political authority, democracy, ‘freedom and the limits of democracy’, justice, ‘feminism and multiculturalism’ and finally, ‘nations, sates and global justice’.

In the discussion of political authority, the figure of Thomas Hobbes looms large. In many ways, this is quite a sad outlook, particularly as I look at it from a christian perspective, as much of Miller’s argument is to do with a carrot-and-stick approach, whereby adherence to political authority is done so out of the threat of some form of physical violence. The root of this seems to be the notion of human selfishness and greed, but this seems to be accepted as a fact to live with rather than a problem to be addressed.

In democracy, attention switches from Hobbes to Rousseau. The discussion pulls on a few threads that will likely occur to anyone who has considered democracy, such as how to protect the rights of the minority and how democracy differs from mob rule, but there’s nothing earth-shattering here.

In discussing freedom, our central figure is John Stuart Mill. Miller doesn’t so much give answers and just ask the reader a series of questions to consider. This is a theme throughout, so even if you disagree with the particular slant that Miller presents, he does at least give the reader room to come up with their own answers.

What seems to be the heart of the book is the notion of justice, where Miller takes as his key guide John Rawls. The focus here is not about justice of outcomes but of justice of machinery. i.e. let’s not look at the outcomes, but at whether the systems in place are fair. The concept of social discussed though he does bring in the counter point of Friedrich Hayek, an ideologue who I have little time for.

As he looks at the nation states, he continues to ask us questions, while sketching out the answers that others have given. At times it felt less like a book about politics and more about ethical dilemmas. One thought that flashed through my mind was about the curbs to liberty; specifically to the idea that one cannot be free to as one wishes, as that may include the ability to curb the freedom of others, hence not everyone can be free to do as they wish.

One thing that soured it was Miller’s pessimism in human nature. There was a theme running through the book about the need for either coercion or the threat of it. My personal reaction to this is that, as a species, we can do better this. It may require education, even a more enlightened worldview, but that it is possible for people to work together for a common good without the need for violence.

At this point he seems to run out of steam and so the chapter on ‘feminism and multiculturalism’ feels quite different. Here, Miller tries to ask the same questions as he has before, only through alternative lenses, as some factors fade into the background and others get highlighted. The treatment given to these subjects are so brief, though, as to be rather unsatisfying. I doubt many of the feminists I know would consider Miller to have captured the nuances of their views.

In any discussion of politics, one cannot write from a neutral perspective, just as one cannot really read such a book from a neutral point of view. Miller attempts to give a fair weighting to different viewpoints, though his choice of representatives may be questioned by some. The other thing that I picked up on, which other readers may do so, is that is quite UK-centric.

As far as meeting the brief, Miller does as good as job as one can hope. From my point of view, I acknowledge that my formal learning in political philosophy is somewhat lacking. Though I know my own mind, I probably ought to learn the minds of some of those others who have gone before me. So I have added some works of Mill, Rousseau, Hobbes and Derrida to my reading list.
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on 17 July 2007
This little book is a quick yet thoughtful work-through of some major areas of political philosophy. Whats great is that you can finish it in a single evening and know loads more than before. David Miller is a very good writer and his narrative style sweeps the reader along as he investigates political issues. Miller has refrained from cluttering his text with unnesscary jargon. Throughly enjoyable and refreshingly different to other introductions, this is simply a very good book. I loved the way in which Miller used a 14th century painting ('Allergory of Good and Bad Government' by Lorenzetti) to act as a discussion point for opening up political philosophy becuase it really added flavour to proceedings.

It should be warned, however, that this book is far from comprehensive even in an 'introduction' sense of the word. Instead of being written with a quick synopsis of all the major discussion, Miller instead opts for a continuous narrative that works through *some* of the major topics of the discipline. Interestingly, Miller's book is not so much an illustration of the debates as it is an argument for his personal conclusions through illustrating these debates. This is not neccessarily a bad thing, though, as it still serves to introudce the reader to the fundamentals and still allows the reader to come to their own opinons. In many ways, it is actually quite nice to see conclusions made for once rather than questions left unanswered as coming to conclusions is also a part of the philosophical discipline.

I have given this book five stars becuase its great, but it should be realised that other, more comprehensive introductions could prove better due to more depth. However, it undoubtedly introduces political philosophy in an excellent manner, especially considering its length (130 or so very small pages). It is, afterall, meant to be a very short introduction and it scores five stars when taken as such.
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on 28 February 2008
This was a mildly interesting introduction to an interesting subject. I felt it rambled a little, and was disappointed that it did not introduce any key theorists and missed out some key concepts (sovereignty, for example). The book only really succeeds in raising some key questions, but does not introduce one to the multifarious attempts to answer these questions. Furthermore, Miller's own opinions (given heavy weighting in the final chapters) are not particularly interesting or radical, and given the nature of the medium (a 'very short introduction') would be better presented elsewhere.

If you want a very short introduction to the subject of political philosophy, a good alternative is the 'Politics: A Very Short Introduction', which I have found to be a much better read and much more thorough.
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on 18 June 2012
This is a Very Short Introduction, and so I suppose it can be forgiven for being somewhat more superficial than a similar book by Jonathan Wolff which is styled an `Introduction'

Nevetheless, Miller makes some observations which I think are interesting to a general reader such as myself.

On democracy, he develops certain themes which can be overlooked. Firstly, the importance of protecting minorities from majorities. Secondly, the case for more participatory forms of democracy as populations become more educated and more electronically accessible.

By placing current debates about the rights of women and of cultural minorities into a political philosophical context, he helps one to understand that there are no right answers to some of these questions. Instead, the issues live somewhere on various equilibria between, say, justice and liberty, or between individual and general/social justice.

While praising the nation-state as an enduringly stable vehicle for the expression of political philosophy, he reminds of some of its imperfections: xenophobia; the tendency to mythologise the past, especially in its military aspects.

Wolff's book is no harder to read, and overall I preferred it; I particularly enjoyed his ability to lure one into a plausible argument, and then surprise you by revealing its counter-argument. So unless you are VSI collector, you could always skip this one.
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on 15 September 2011
Whenever I wish to learn more about a subject matter and form a coherent informed view I would usually start with Oxford's very introduction series as they are simply the best and sure way of getting to know what you are after. I wasn't disappointed in this instance too as David Miller has skilfully done a great job and prepared the ground for dipping deeper for an interested reader. Very informative, interesting and delightful.
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on 23 August 2010
I think this book is one of the best VSI'S that I have read.
It speaks to you directly and there is none of the intellectual pseudo arguments that some writers expect you to perform to understand to subject. I wanted the book to last longer, David uses great arguments to open up your mind eg the fox hunting illustration. This helps you grasp the concepts he puts forward. I am sure it is not perfect but then again I am no expert on Political Philosophy. So I will leave it for others to critize this book if they must.
It has changed the way I look at politics and the process of state.
For that I thank the writer.
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on 24 August 2012
Pocket sized summary of lots of political theories. I bought it for a philosophy evening class to get me up to speed and I found it very helpful. Nicely written, zips along, not heavy going at all, but sufficient detail for a beginner.
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