Saturday, September 20, 2014

Two Books on the Demise of the Western Liberal Tradition

Inventing the Individual: the Origins of Western Liberalism  Larry Siedentop
Allen Lane, 448pp, £20
Liberalism: the Life of an Idea 
Edmund Fawcett
Princeton University Press, 488pp, £24.95

All over the Atlantic world, political liberalism has fallen on evil days. In the US, the creed of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D Roosevelt and John F Kennedy has become a sin that dare not speak its name. In last year’s German election, the Free Democratic Party – the embodiment of the country’s liberal tradition and the second party in coalition governments for most of the postwar period – won less than 5 per cent of the popular vote and is no longer represented in the federal parliament. In the 2011 Canadian election, the Liberal Party – for decades a dominant force – suffered a catastrophic defeat. The Radical Party of the Left, today the closest approximation to a liberal party in France, is little more than a pimple on the body politic. In Britain, the Liberal Democrats, heirs of the Liberal Party of Lloyd George, Keynes and Beveridge, have clambered into bed with a market-fundamentalist Conservative Party and endured a huge slump in the opinion polls.
As Edmund Fawcett and Larry Siedentop show in different ways, the travails of political liberalism reflect a profound crisis of the liberal world-view. To put it crudely, it is no longer clear what liberalism means. Its core value is freedom – freedom for unconstrained individuals to choose for themselves. Freedom, however, is a notoriously slippery word. Freedom as a source of human flourishing is one thing; freedom to ignore the common good and exploit others is quite another. Positive freedom, or freedom “to”, is not the same as negative freedom, or freedom “from”. The great Liberal government of 1905-15 curbed the negative freedom of the privileged in order to enhance the positive freedom of the dispossessed.
Much the same is true of choice and the individual. Choices can be bad as well as good.
 

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