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Booknotes: liberalism misdefined

January 26th, 2010 · No Comments

The many faces of liberalism
By Samuel Brittan
The Neo-liberal State
By Raymond Plant
OUP £50, 312 pages

British Party Politics and Ideology after New Labour
Edited by Simon Griffiths and Kevin Hickson
Palgrave Macmillan £60 256 pages

The Science of Liberty
By Timothy Ferris
HarperCollins $26.99 384 pages

Anyone searching for the underlying ideas behind the smokescreen of election battles is up against a preliminary difficulty: the key terms of political theory now have a very wide and often contradictory set of meanings. Take the word “liberal”. In the US a liberal is usually someone with an overriding belief in state intervention as a cure for social problems and market inefficiencies. Indeed, President Bush Sr used the “l” word as a slur on his Democratic opponents. But in the European tradition a liberal is committed, above all, to personal freedom, including a belief in free competitive markets as a means to this end. To confuse matters, the US meaning is creeping into European usage too.

The word “neoliberalism” came into widespread circulation two or three decades ago, in particular in French political circles, as a term of abuse to denote the Anglo-American espousals of free markets, especially under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. It is still used in this way today: three new books attempt to analyse the basic issues surrounding the term. Raymond Plant tackles the concept directly in The Neo-liberal State . In British Party Politics and Ideology after New Labour, a collection of essays, it crops up not by name but as something from which both New Labour and the Cameron Conservatives have been trying to get away. In The Science of Liberty, on the other hand, Timothy Ferris vigorously defends the European notion of liberalism, not shirking the pro-capitalist implications but dispensing with “neo”.

Tags: Booknotes · liberalism

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