In his new book Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, the writer and journalist Edmund Fawcett makes the rather startling claim that “liberty is the wrong place to begin” when telling the story of liberalism. This will no doubt strike some readers as eccentric, especially if they’re political philosophers working self-consciously in the “liberal” tradition and are used to deriving conclusions about the legitimate activity of the state from a set of assumptions about liberty, consent and individual rights. But Fawcett’s book is not a work of political philosophy. And for him, liberalism is not a set of timeless principles susceptible of rational justification but a “modern practice of politics” with a distinctive history. It’s this history that is the focus of his book.
“”The idea that liberalism can be exhausted or fully accounted for by liberal philosophy in a set of timeless principles seems to me a mistake,” Fawcett told me when I met him at his home in London recently. “They are part of liberalism, but I don’t think we can really understand liberalism as a political practice if we think of it in purely academic, philosophical terms.”
JD: So liberalism for you is a political practice with a history. But the varied and diverse forms that practice has taken since the beginning of the 19th century, which is when your story starts, nevertheless have certain things in common in your view. You pick out four key ideas: tolerance of conflict; resistance to power; belief in progress; and civic respect. Can you explain why liberty is absent from that list?
EF: Liberty is a term that has been brandished by almost everybody and so worn bare. Every rival of liberalism has waved the banner of liberty. In my four guiding ideas, you can actually see liberty. Why are we interested in resistance to power—to state power, the power of markets, of majorities? Partly because we don’t want to bullied or pushed around. And that’s a large component of what matters to us about what people have called liberty.