Jun 14th 2007
From The Economist print edition
Mr Starr's first and least serious tormentors are the rival sloganeers, to right and to left, who have bent the word liberal into a term of abuse. Liberals have always looked a soft target. Lenin scoffed that they would thank executioners for liberating their souls from earthly clay. The poet Robert Frost jeered that liberals do not take their own side in a fight. And an old Texas campaign proverb has it that all you will ever find in the middle of the road is a dead jack rabbit.
To such raillery Mr Starr replies with a counter-jibe of his own. Think of the systems experimented with in the past 100 years: fascism, communism, populism and authoritarianism. If liberals are so weak and woolly, he reasonably asks, how come liberal democracy won?
This is innocent fun. The author's next two tormentors are a tougher proposition. Call them, respectively, traditional conservatives and right-wing liberals. Mr Starr believes that liberal democracy's many elements can be smoothly reconciled. Others point out the difficulties. A concept that covers, say, Brazil, Sweden, Taiwan and the United States clearly needs elastic. But any liberal democracy has to include, in some combination, individual liberty and economic freedom, equal rights, mutual tolerance, universal suffrage and accountable government under the rule of law. Many people, though not all, now add state responsibility for social equity: helping the needy and avoiding undue discrepancies of wealth.
Traditional conservatives worry that liberals overdo individual liberty. Modern liberal societies, they fear, have encouraged a disengaged, amoral selfishness. Mr Starr thinks they worry too much. He is probably correct. But he spends too little time defending his position.
One way to interpret the conservative complaint is to hear it as a plea for everyone to pitch in, to think of neighbours and put something back into society. That is fine, liberals right or left can both agree, so long as no one is compelled to be community-minded. More dangerously, it is also possible to hear the message as an intoxicating call to submerge yourself in some larger whole: a nation, community or creed. With the growth of religious extremism in mind, Mr Starr might have dwelled longer on that anti-liberal perennial.
Mr Starr's main concern, however, is challenging the right-wing liberal story of what went wrong with the liberal tradition. At issue is the proper power of the state. Classic liberalism, the right-wing story goes, went off track when liberals became social reformers at the end of the 19th century. Or perhaps it was after the second world war, when liberals backed the welfare state.
On one side, according to this story, are genuine, small-government, free-market and right-wing liberals; on the other corrupted, big-government, interventionist and left-wing ones. (Europeans keep, or used to keep, all that clearer by calling left-wing liberals social democrats.) Mr Starr rejects that entire picture. True liberals, for him, have always veered leftwards.
Historically, liberals sought not only to contain arbitrary power (as the right-wing story highlights) but to provide capable government (which the story plays down). In its first constitutional stage from the late 17th to the mid-19th century, liberalism was about how to make power answerable yet effective. In its later democratic phase, the task became how to nourish the egalitarian seed within liberalism—equal rights—without damaging freedom. Drawing widely on recent scholarship, Mr Starr argues that the historical picture of a golden age of weak-government liberalism is an illusion.
“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. Fair enough. He teaches sociology and politics at Princeton University, and he writes for American readers. But then he narrows things yet more by concentrating on how to win votes from Republicans. At the start, his book seems to promise a wide-ranging and non-partisan vindication of liberalism's progressive tradition. It ends, alas, sounding more like erudite and thoughtful notes towards a platform speech at a Democratic Party convention.
The True Force of Liberalism.