When I read the panegyric reviews of this book in the New Republic 13 years ago, I promptly bought it. Few reviews of any book in any venue matched the praise for this book. When it arrived, I was disappointed. Other than its attacks on various nonmarxist illiberal schemes, which are the first-half of the book, and often "straw men," it only offered traditional (classic) liberal principles against the straw-men arguments hoisted against liberalism by conservatives, communitarians, and theocrats.
When John Dean's book "Conservatives without Conscience" was reviewed, all of the dragons Dean slays were already in mind. Where had I encountered them? Well, from this book, written 13 years earlier. Dean, it appears, like most traditional conservatives are still classical liberals at heart. The appeal of Barry Goldwater (a Dean mentor) was his devotion to classical liberal ideals. Maybe a tad extreme, but nonetheless appealing. Now, in light of neo-conservatism's assault on classical liberalism (which bears no resemblance to traditional conservatism), suddenly the power of this book becomes all to obvious and deserving of a far wider readership.
Classical liberalism has been under assault from its beginnings. It undermined the hegemony of religion. It gave people the right to consent to be governed. It imposed "limits" on what a government could and could not do, infuriating whimsical autocrats. It fostered the autonomy of the individual in making his own choices. It created a system where the exchange of ideas, commodities, and governors was in the common domain, not left to the elite. It insisted on "rights" of certain individuals and functions. It imposed checks-and-balances. It demanded democracy and representative government. From the perspective of history, liberalism not only upset the status quo, but by giving the ruled the right to choose their rulers, and within certain confines, each individual could control his or her life within wide boundaries without encroachment. Liberalism was and remains subversive of all authoritarian schemes, unless the authority comes from the people themselves through democracy and laws. It was and remains positively scandalous. Authority-oriented utopians and master planners will find all these liberal principles entirely too distasteful and inhospitable to stomach.
No defense of liberalism can counter every antiliberal notion; such an enterprise, if possible, would require volumes. So, Holmes deliberately omits all Marxist antiliberalism, and in Part I focuses on just seven: Maistre, Schmitt, Strauss, MacIntyre, Lasch, Unger, and Sandel. Strangely, without comment, Holmes ignores Fabianism. The irony is that he has ignored the elephant in the center of the room, while focusing on flies buzzing around on the periphery. The targets he selects he admirably disposes, but the target he ignores is arguably one of the most important. In other words, six of his targets are from the Right, and only one from the Left. Not merely the bias, but the critical omission, is a major defect. In Part II Holmes offers a more general defense against what he calls "misunderstanding of liberalism," and in the process actually gives one of the best defenses of liberalism itself. It is unquestionably the strength of the book. Indeed, one could skip Part I and benefit entirely from Part II, while the reverse is not true.
Holmes distinguishes between liberal theory (singular) and liberal societies (plural). First, there is no singular liberal theory, there are only liberal principles, from a preponderance of liberal theories (plural). Second, I'm not sure a liberal society is sufficiently elastic and pluralistic to allow the plural without becoming illiberal. The form of democracy may vary, the administration of justice may vary, certain other procedures may vary, but either a society is liberal or it is not. Like baptism, either you are baptized or you are not.
Israel's and the recent U.S. detention of prisoners without charges of a crime (often for years), the inability of the accused to hear from the accuser, denying due process and equal protection, denial of the accused of counsel, denial of trial (much less "speedy"), for one simple example that is applicable to both countries, calls into question both a society's "liberal" principles and their designations as a liberal society. One glorious feature about liberalism is a sort of either/or dichotomy. Intermediate liberalism (if one can conceptualize it) is illiberal by definition. Warrantless searches and indeterminate detentions are by definition illiberal, which then reflects on the underlying society's patent illiberalism. The existence of "some" liberal features, while denying others, does not a liberal society make. While a "mixed" economy is viable, no amount of "mixed" liberal and antiliberal principles makes a society "liberal." Better, perhaps, but not liberal. And in this very specific context, the one dominant antiliberal attack, Fabianism, is not addressed.
For the clear principles addressed in Part II, the book deserves a 6 (with 5 the limit). For the straw-men antagonists identified in Part I, the book deserves a 3. For the omission of Fabianism, the book deserves a 0. Yet, the strengths of Part II are weighted heavily against the other negatives, so I give it a 4.
- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: Harvard University Press; 1 edition (15 March 1996)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0674031857
- ISBN-13: 978-0674031852
- Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.2 x 22.9 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 594 g
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