Sunday, October 19, 2008

Book: Freedom's Power

A book I finished reading over the summer that I have been intending to recommend is
Freedom's Power: The True Force of Liberalism by Paul Starr. In my experience most left-liberals don't know the history of liberalism. If you talk about classical liberalism they think you are referring to FDR and Truman. Which is why I found this book interesting. Starr is a left-liberal who does understand this history and he tells the story of liberalism from his perspective without being hostile to classical liberalism. If you are used to conservative and libertarian narratives of this history you won't agree with every aspect of his interpretation but I think it is useful to get outside of your usual perspective and this book does offer that opportunity even if you end up disagreeing with him.

Liberalism is notoriously difficult to define. The term has been used to describe a sprawling profusion of ideas, practices, movements, and parties in different societies and historical periods. often emerging as a philosophy of opposition, whether to feudal privilege, absolute monarchy, colonialism, theocracy, communism, or fascism, liberalism has served, as the word suggests, as a force for liberation, or at least liberalization--for the opening up the channels of free initiative. But liberalism in its oppositional and even revolutionary moments has not necessarily been the same as the liberalism of established parties and governments. In different countries, depending on their particular histories, parties bearing the name "Liberal" have variously ended up on the right or left and thereby colored the understanding of what liberalism means as a political philosophy. This book primarily reflects the understanding of liberalism in Britain and the United States, though it has been conceived in substantially different ways even in the Anglo-American world.

Two conceptions of liberalism chiefly concern us, as they help organize the argument in this book. In its broader meaning, liberalism refers to the fundamental principles of constitutional government and individual rights shared by modern liberals and conservatives alike, though often differently interpreted by them. This tradition of constitutional liberalism--classical political liberalism--emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, culminated in the American and French Revolutions, and continues to provide the foundation of the modern liberal state. The classical liberals themselves were a diverse group, but they generally stood for freedom of conscience and religious liberty, freedom of thought and speech, the division of governmental powers, an independent civil society, and rights of private property and economic freedom that evolved in the nineteenth century into the doctrine of laissez-faire. This cluster of ideas is the principle subject of the first part of this book. The second part turns to modern democratic liberalism, which has developed out of the more egalitarian aspects of the broader tradition and serves as the basis of contemporary liberal politics. The relationship between liberalism in these two phases has been predominantly cumulative: while rejecting laissez-faire economic policy, modern democratic liberalism continues to take the broader tradition of constitutional liberalism as its foundation. that is why it is possible to speak not only of the two separately, but also of an overarching set of ideas that unites them.

No comments: