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April 27, 2008

Liberalism from Another Anglo: Three British Reviews of Freedom's Power

One of the distinguishing aspects of Freedom’s Power is that it deals with British and American liberalism as a single political tradition, albeit developing along different branches. The interplay between them has continued through all phases of the history of liberal thought and political activity. England’s Revolution of 1688-89 provided the template for the American Revolution, and the influence of British ideas on the American Founding was immense (regardless of whether one characterizes that influence as republican or liberal). Likewise in the nineteenth-century rise of laissez faire—and in its later reversal on both sides of the Atlantic. Britain’s New Liberalism of the 1890s and early 1900s had its parallels in American Progressivism, and Keynes and Beveridge were a direct influence on the New Deal. Even in recent decades, there have been mutual influences and parallel tendencies—for example, between Bill Clinton’s and Tony Blair’s efforts to adjust their parties’ policies in line with a neo-progressive, “third way.”

Strangely, much of this interplay is missing from historical accounts that focus on the development of liberalism in one or the other country. One of my objectives in writing Freedom’s Power was to bring the two sides together (though my publisher refused my offer to revise the Introduction and the final chapter for the British edition to address the book more directly to a British audience).

I gave attention to the British story because it’s essential to understanding liberal ideas and institutions, not because of any personal roots or experience; to my regret, I’ve spent little time in Britain and have few connections in its academic or literary worlds. For that very reason, I’ve been especially gratified that the book has received some serious attention from British reviewers. And in the near future, I’m going to be visiting Britain twice—to speak first at the Anglo-American Historical Conference at the University of London in early July and then at a conference on “comparative liberalisms” organized by Timothy Garton Ash in Oxford in January 2009.

Reviewing Freedom’s Power in the December 2007 issue of the European Journal of Sociology, Michael Freeden, professor of politics at Oxford and the author of several books about the history of modern liberalism, writes:

... this is the best short book on liberalism that has been written for a very long while. It is wonderfully concise, packing in insight and good sense into almost every page; it hardly misses a trick in assessing the variegated nature and impact of the traditions operating under the umbrella term liberalism; it combines a strong historical purview with an acute sense of the fine points of liberal theory; the author does not talk down to his readers; and it is punchily and elegantly written. All told, it is plumb in the tradition of L.T. Hobhouse’s Liberalism, published almost a century ago, and written with the dual purpose of spreading out liberal wares in all their richness and of providing a tract for the times—in this case for an American, rather than a British, public.

Hobouse’s Liberalism (1911) was actually my model for the book. It seemed to me that no one had recently done for liberalism what Hobhouse had done nearly a century ago—given a concise and persuasive account of liberalism that made sense of the continuities as well as the changes in the tradition.

In his review, Freeden gives a British perspective on American liberalism with which I have little disagreement:
Liberalism is a European product but, of course, its American incarnation has had its own moments of glory. The American constitution is, on the whole, an exemplary liberal document, remarkable for its resilience and prescience as one of the oldest working constitutions in the world. Under the name of progressivism, American liberals attempted to match the British new liberalism, though with a more pronounced patriotic edge. Roosevelt’s New Deal was a further instance of what a regulatory liberalism could do, even if its interventionism pushed liberal sensibilities to their limits. In the 1960s and 1970s US liberals showed impressive flair and courage in their pursuit of civil rights and women’s equality, securing international acclaim—a momentum currently, though one would hope temporarily, halted in its tracks. But, as Starr demonstrates, American liberalism has always been at its weakest in social policy, operating within an individualist and ethnocentric political culture highly suspicious of an egalitarian and redistributionary ethos, and of the frequent dalliances of liberalism with a mild collectivism. Instead of the helping hands offered by social democrats to liberals in the British and Scandinavian cases, a reactionary conservatism—of the likes long relegated to Europe’s sidelines—blunted the drive of American social liberalism. When the fingers of blame and fury are now pointed from outside the Western world at the US as the (satanic) representative of Western civilization, Europeans are prone to mutter to themselves that civilized Western thinking and conduct is mainly to be found east of the Atlantic. That gulf identifies the real American exceptionalism. Although Starr is bent on retrieving significant liberal practices in the US as a service to an uninformed citizenry, he tellingly does not mention the durability of the death penalty in the US—a practice that alone sets that country apart from all other current Western societies, and constitutes an acid test of the liberal texture of a country’s moral mettle. Though punctured by a short hiatus in the 1960s and 1970s, judicial murder is once again neither cruel nor unusual, and no liberal President has dared to voice public opposition to it.
Freeden’s main disagreement with my book has to do with what he views as a “lack of clarity” that comes from my view that in the past several decades, Europe has been moving in a liberal direction despite the tendency of Europeans to identify “liberalism” with right-of-center free-market ideas. Here is how he introduces the criticism:

In a bravura survey of the history of English and American liberalism, Starr argues that the mixing of power (England) or the ring-fencing of certain rights (US) both gave rise to vigorous states. He is also insistent, and rightly so, that an account of liberalism cannot rest content with an isolated investigation of its ideas and theories but must incorporate liberal practices. On the whole, that task is very well discharged. Starr relates the redistributionary push of liberalism to economic growth policies, to earnings support, to the encouraging the free flow of information through bourgeoning technologies, to the regulation of pollution, and to international multilateralism.

But in emphasizing those features, a lack of clarity creeps into two areas. The one concerns a running boundary problem between the traditions and thought-patterns of liberals and the conduct and policy of states that are very roughly, and often questionably, assigned to the liberal domain. Take Europe as an example. In countries such as France, Germany and Italy, the liberal tradition has become almost invisible to their inhabitants and even to their intelligentsia. Liberalism is either considered to be limited to a right-of-centre market variety or hidden—in the French case—amidst strong republican or solidarist traditions that have promoted liberal ideas sans le nom. Those latter enclaves, past and present, notwithstanding, the continental political spectrum is packed too tightly for a party-political liberalism, even for its intellectual agenda, to find sufficient breathing space. Starr, however, verges on the other extreme. For him the entire European Union project is a liberal one. But is for instance the British state, led by New Labour, a liberal state? Its ostensible liberal credentials have been dented no less by its unitary moralism in the name of a national community than by its campaign against terrorists. At best it offers a hybrid between liberal and social authoritarian practices. Are states led by Christian democrats, or Gaullists, liberal states? Is Japan, forsooth, a liberal state (p.131)? Larger magnification might have allowed for more intricate configurations to emerge.

This leads to the second, related, problem area: Starr’s predilection for identifying as liberal any belief system that has some liberal components, without considering whether it has accumulated sufficient critical mass to be entitled to membership of the liberal family. Constitutionalism may have been liberalism’s gift to the world, but to embrace it no longer singles out a liberal from a conservative or a social democrat, even from some forms of populism. And when Starr writes perceptively that dissenting voices in Eastern Europe revitalized a pan-European awareness of human rights, civil society and democracy, he then over-eggs the argument by claiming that ‘the intellectuals and movements that … ultimately overthrew communist rule contributed to a renewal of liberalism all over Europe’ (p. 186). Rather than aver that socialists, populists, conservatives, greens—and the Churchill of World War Two!—are all liberals now, it would be more nuanced to suggest that liberal ideas have seeped into non-liberal viewpoints and groupings while performing very different work in each of them, and while being contained by a variable range of non-liberal notions that put a different gloss on ideas of liberty and democracy. Thus for many European conservatives the ‘social market’ is a method of ensuring not only justice but order; for many European greens the free individual choice component of democracy needs to be constrained by scientific expertise about the environment; and for many European populists liberty is harnessed to the unfettered expression of national values. Earlier Starr astutely noted the changing rankings liberals accorded to various liberties (p. 86), a comment that could have been extended to the latter chapters of his book. In sum, liberal ideology, liberal states, and liberal features shared with other ideologies are three analytically distinct categories.

One point of correction: I never characterize the Churchill of World War II as a liberal, except in writing that Franklin Roosevelt and Churchill in 1941 “negotiated a statement of Anglo-American aims known as the Atlantic Charter, setting out the principles of a liberal world order.” And only a few pages later, however, I write, “While Roosevelt viewed the Charter’s language as a commitment to decolonization, Churchill rejected that interpretation.”

I don’t disagree with Freeden that certain liberal ideas have been adopted so widely that an acceptance of them no longer distinguishes liberals from nonliberals. But I do hold to the case that the European Union is evidence of a liberal ascendancy on the continent, the result of which is a “hybrid ... perhaps best thought of as social-market liberalism.” Here is the relevant passage from Chapter 7:
The creation of a European liberal order on a continental scale has been the quiet, underappreciated revolution of our time. Differences in terminology ought not to diminish or confuse the significance of this achievement. Many Europeans use the term “liberal” interchangeably with “neoliberal” to refer to a political economy that relies on the logic of the market. The contrast is usually with a social-democratic or social-market economy in which the state plays a stronger role in social welfare, and bargains struck between representatives of organized business and labor provide a high level of economic coordination. This distinction highlights important differences in the workings of capitalism between the Anglo-American economies, on the one hand, and those in Nordic and continental Europe, on the other. Whether closer to the free-market or social-market models, however, all of these societies are liberal, constitutional democracies, and in recent decades even the social-market countries have adjusted their economic policies in a market-oriented direction. The resulting hybrid is perhaps best thought of as social-market liberalism. Recent attempts to update social democracy as the “third way” or “neoprogressivism” also typically emphasize such characteristically liberal ideas as competition, choice, and pluralism. In its intellectual and political life, Europe has become distinctly more liberal than at any time at least since 1914. Throughout the continent, except for the Balkans, aggressive nationalism has given way to a politics of conciliation, and the major political parties operate within the bounds of a constitutionalist consensus. Nowhere is this general turn toward a continental liberal order more apparent than in the pooling of sovereignty in the European Union, with its commitment to the free movement of capital, goods, and labor as well as the rule of law, democracy, and human rights.
A second review from Britain, by John Lloyd in the Financial Times, begins:

Liberalism is a series of paradoxes. It weakens autocratic power, and strengthens the democratic state. As it builds a strong state, it limits that state’s power over its citizens. Classic, pre-19th-century liberalism held out the promise of rights for all, but in practice denied them to the majority. As liberal democratic practice developed in the 20th century, state intervention to provide welfare grew - and liberals became less censorious, and more respectful, of private behaviour. Private life became more truly private while public life, the practice of government, ecame more open.

Paul Starr has in his comparatively slim book, Freedom’s Power, provided an account of the historical flow and present state and travails of liberalism that is limpid in brevity and graceful in judgment. As an evocation of the central importance of liberalism to the modern world, and the shape it takes in democratic states, it will be very hard to beat.

He gives two warnings, which are apposite. First, that politics in the US (and less dramatically elsewhere) is increasingly dominated by the rich - who are now demanding more political power. And, linked to that, the fact that citizens are disengaging. “For some time,” he writes, “the imperative has been clear. Liberalism has no way to advance without a majoritarian politics capable of restoring the kind of inclusive democratic partnership that was the basis of modern liberalism’s achievements.” American liberals seeking the key to a “majoritarian politics” had better read this.

Where Lloyd disagrees with me is the Iraq War. “Here,” he writes, “[Starr] lapses from a tough-minded to a conventional liberal posture, and it is the most unsatisfactory part of the book. The arrogant, deeply illiberal and incompetent conduct of the war is a fit subject for any pen, liberal or conservative, but the responsibility of the critic is to consider the object of the attack - the regime of Saddam Hussein - and give some account of why refraining would have contained the threat.” In fact, as we now know, Saddam Hussein was already boxed in at the time of the war and did not represent a threat to the wider world, whereas the war itself allowed jihadists to find support in Iraq and has served to strengthen Iran. Refraining from an invasion would have been the wiser course

Finally, there have been two other reviews from Britain. One of them, by Stein Ringen, professor of sociology and social policy at Oxford, is unfortunately beyond my linguistic abilities, as it has appeared in Norwegian (the TLS apparently having turned it away). The other comes from The Economist and reflects the particular slant of that magazine. The reviewer notes that the first part of Freedom’s Power argues that from its beginnings in the eighteenth century, liberalism proved to be a basis for a strong and capable government. Then the reviewer writes:

“Freedom’s Power” is worth reading for this first part alone. However, Mr Starr’s opponents could be wrong on their history but correct that freedom and equality are now in conflict. Arguing to the contrary—that the two ideals reinforce each other—is by no means impossible. But to do it convincingly is a tall order that would need a much broader conceptual and geographical framework than Mr Starr’s.
In his later chapters the timescale shortens and the policy detail grows denser as Mr Starr limits himself in effect to the contemporary United States. ... It ends, alas, sounding more like erudite and thoughtful notes towards a platform speech at a Democratic Party convention.

Two things to note here. First, counterposing “freedom” and “equality” as two separate and distinct values is not, in my mind, a helpful way of understanding either one. Freedom means little without equality; equality little without freedom—although it is certainly possible to pursue one value in so partial and single-minded a way as to undermine and potentially destroy the other.

But the reviewer in the Economist also points to a genuine problem in the book. It is inherently difficult to write a general essay on liberalism and its history, while also addressing the immediate concerns of the moment. In Freedom’s Power, I have tried to do both, and there inevitably will be some readers who find the theory and history too remote and other readers who find the contemporary concerns too parochial. I have tried to connect the long trajectory of liberal ideas and institutions to today’s challenges in the United States, hoping to encourage a robust sense of liberal possibilities after a dreary era of political frustration. As I mentioned, I would have liked to revise the book for a British audience—indeed, I still hope someday to do an international edition that is less tied to American developments. But if readers from Britain and elswhere focus on the core of the book, I hope they will see that the arguments have broader reach and relevance. Perhaps, in their own work, they can pick out the elements that make most sense and pick up the story where I have been unable to go.

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