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3.0 out of 5 stars Good Men Forget, 13 Jun 2009
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This review is from: What Price Liberty?: How Freedom Was Won and Is Being Lost (Paperback)
"What Price Liberty" is not the book I thought I had bought. Also, while it addresses a critical topic and is animated by a powerful, synthesizing intelligence, it is dense and difficult. The trade-off in reading it to conclusion was close.

The book which I thought I had bought - encouraged by the cover design, sub-title and opening paragraphs on the 2008 debate on a 42 day detention period - was going to be an examination of how our liberty is under threat from the security state, the nanny state, the sinister possibilities of new technology, intolerant political correctness, and a cadre of former Marxist ministers who have adopted the market but not wholly lost their instinct for totalitarianism. Some of this is covered eventually, but the actual book is a 420 page, relentlessly chronological history of attitudes towards liberty in (mainly) England from the Magna Charta (as Wilson insists on spelling it) to the present.

Wilson writes in what might be termed the breathless past tense. His stream of commentary blends direct quotes from various thinkers, not all of whose credentials he establishes en route, paraphrases of prevailing opinions that he imputes for each relevant period, and his own views. This makes for a dense read. At the end of the book the reader's mind echoes with a cacophony of voices opining on liberty, which is partly Wilson's point.

The main argument of "What Price Liberty" is that liberty in England is preserved through culture not constitution. Indeed, our famously sovereign parliament could legislate our freedoms away at will. Furthermore, at any given moment, the statute book is replete with numerous laws which if rigorously enforced would have the same effect. Wilson provides examples of both draconian abuse and petty Napoleondom of the sort familiar to readers of the Daily Telegraph (such as the man who was arrested for joking that a police horse was gay). Our defence against these threats lies in our cultural inheritance: the Englishman's deep sense across many generations that this is a free country, that we have earned liberty through our internal history and defended it in just wars. The "long, long experience of liberty " runs deep through our common law and our judicial and political traditions. Liberty is preserved through the freedom of our press, the self-restraint of our officials, and the readiness of feisty individuals to stand up to authority.

Wilson also discusses how liberty is shaped through conflicts. At its most basic, my liberty has to end when it begins to infringe on yours. In a complex society, liberty needs to be balanced with other values such as economic regulation, security, social justice and - yes, I am afraid - health and safety. The only way to reach a satisfactory resolution is through transactions and boundary friction informed by cultural values and a sense of history.

The problem for liberty today, according to Wilson, is that we have lost our historical sense. Not only have there been waves of immigrants who do not share our traditions, but we have also had generations of educational policy that have made history poverty. Many of our leaders are basically ignorant and "simply have (no) fixed idea of what liberty is." Thus Blunkett can describe concerns about liberty as "airy fairy" and Blair can argue from conviction that it is better to lock up an innocent person than to let a bomb get through and so on. The historical dialogue has been swamped by new pseudo theories of "risk-based government" (which assume that everyone is potentially guilty unless deterred, for example, by a CCTV camera) or the competition of special interests and identity politics. The result is death to liberty by a thousand cuts. In Wilson's view, it is the loss of our sense of history which poses the prime threat.

At the end of the day, the answer to the question "What Price Liberty? " remains the Jeffersonian "eternal vigilance,." Or as Burke might declare, for evil to triumph it only requires that good men forget their history.
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Initial post: 15 Jun 2009 18:57:59 BDT
Excellent review, clearly you have read the book and have something to say. So often those that comment seem not to. I am not sure liberty is being lost, just evolving. The threats /violence/terror are nothing new (See Burleigh Blood & Rage) so we need vigilance but I also fear the people that protect us in almost equal measure.
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