Liberty under threat

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Chris Berg has responded in a robust fashion to my short article in which I discussed the new text, 100 Great Books of Liberty: The Essential Introduction to the Greatest Idea of Western Civilization, edited by himself and John Roskam, with Andrew Kemp. He correctly notes that I was concerned not only with their broad and wide-ranging collection but also with the value of an alternative approach that would more precisely identify and discuss in great detail a much smaller number of texts that encapsulated the core, essential, and fundamental principles of the liberal tradition.         

In a nutshell, I set out to discuss their book (and help bring it to peoples’ attention) while also developing an argument about the nature, history, and present situation of liberal thought. My emphasis was on the need to fully expound and drive home the fundamental principles upon which liberty and liberalism are based (represented by a comparatively small number of thinkers), while the emphasis of Berg and his fellow editors is on the pervasive role that liberty plays in Western Civilization. My preferred approach is comparatively narrow and specific, while theirs is broad and inclusive. To their great credit, they have successfully produced their book, while I am lamenting the absence of one that more precisely meets my criteria.

There are two main reasons why I favour my alternative approach. Firstly, I am not at all sure that liberty is the central idea of Western Civilization, or that the best or most accurate narrative of that civilization would have liberty at its centre. This is not to deny that liberty and the liberal tradition are truly great products of that civilization. However, that is not the same thing as claiming that Western civilization is principally orientated around liberty.

Indeed, I disagree with Chris Berg that “the supreme achievement of Western Civilization is the idea of liberty”. I believe that a large number of the greatest achievements of Western Civilization give expression not to a desire for liberty, but rather to the desire for transcendence, in which liberty plays a subsidiary, enabling, and instrumental role. (And here my mind wanders back to Kenneth Clark’s Civilization as an accessible discussion of what Western Civilization has achieved across a wide range of fields.)

Secondly, I believe there is a unity to liberal thought that should be recognized and must continually be emphasized in the ideological encounters that characterize contemporary politics. The reason for this is simple: people have a limited understanding of the principles of liberalism – e.g., many assume, as I mentioned in my article, that whatever rights people enjoy are provided to them by the state. Therefore I believe that these principles and the logic that unites them need to be effectively expounded, so that people will understand, value and defend them. As a corollary of this, I am not uncritically enthusiastic about discussions of liberty that are overly compendious and imply, e.g., that Burke is as much part of the tradition of liberty as Paine (although I have made clear my admiration for Burke as a conservative thinker).  

Such excessive inclusiveness obscures both the principles of liberalism and their unity. It also implies that they are more securely rooted in our civilization than they really are. And to illustrate this point one need only recall the totalitarian temptation to which Western societies nearly succumbed at the Copenhagen conference last December, and the extreme anti-liberal views that were daily being uttered by many intellectuals, commentators, politicians, and community figures in connection with the global warming panic. If the ideal of liberty is so firmly grounded in our culture then how did this occur, and why did the West need to be saved from itself by the self-serving machinations of communist China? It should also not be forgotten that less than six months ago a highly prominent professor of philosophy and candidate for federal parliament was advocating the suspension of civil liberties, and the muzzling or even incarceration of climate change sceptics. If the idea of liberty is so diffused throughout our civilization, then why was this person not denounced and marginalized for his illiberal views, instead of being given blanket media coverage? There is a real danger that the principles of liberalism are fading from public consciousness, and therefore they must be reaffirmed if liberty is not to become a forgotten ideal. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

Ultimately, however, 100 Great Books of Liberty is to be welcomed, as I said in my article. It is a great achievement and has much to offer. The editors should be very proud. While I believe there is a need for another, different book, that is my problem not theirs.

[What are the Great Books of Liberty? Join the discussion here…] 

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