This collection of papers explores various aspects of the decline of the liberal movement, ostensibly dedicated to peace and freedom, sweetness and light, into the coercive utopian form that dominates in the western world at the present time. As a result of this process the term liberalism has ceased to mean anything unless it is qualified in some way.
All of the contributors have something valuable to offer, especially Keith Windshuttle and Robert Conquest. Windschuttle has studied the waxing and waning fortunes of British liberalism, especially in relation to imperialism and the Empire. Adam Smith and David Hume saw no future for overseas dominions other than as friendly trading partners and similar views were held by the 19th century Manchester radicals such as Cobden and Bright. However one evil led to another because the threat of Napoleon prompted Britain to establish a worldwide system of naval bases to protect their sea trade and later these became the entry points for colonization of the pink coloured empire that extended around the globe. The philosophical counterpart of this movement was the philosophy of T H Green and the later Mill. The new nationalism and jingoism of the late 19th century resulted in some of the most squalid episodes in British history, of which the worst was probably the Boer War.
Robert Conquest's essay examines the record and credibility of the fellow-travelers with communism. During the Cold War Arthur Koestler speculated that the future of civilization might depend on the outcome of the struggle between communists and ex-communists because only ex-communists could comprehend how the cause could capture the loyalties of some of the best of men and also the worst of men. The best had to undergo crises of conscience when the reality could not be avoided. Little Louie, the fictional communist dockworker in Darkness at Noon committed suicide but more sophisticated western fellow travelers generally lack his integrity.
The collection has strengths and weaknesses. First the positives.For a long time it has been apparent that true liberalism could win any number of battles on economic policy but still lose the war through being outflanked on the cultural front. It often seems that liberals of the libertarian kind have not been very active on this front or even aware of the issues at stake. Conservatives tend to be more alert to the dangers in this area and more active in responding to them, as the contributors to this collection have done.
On the negative side those who take up philosophical issues have hardly drawn upon the two most powerful liberal philosophers of our time, namely Hayek and Popper. There are some fleeting references to Hayek but none at all to Popper. This is rather like going into a big ball game with your two strongest players on the bench. Some of the contributors (Scruton, Kimball and Windschuttle) would probably not even want Popper on the squad, judging from their comments on his work in other places.
The economic agenda of liberalism was not under the spotlight in this collection, still it was disconcerting to find that John Silber comes across as an unreconstructed New Dealer. Hadley Arkes, writing on "Liberalism and the Law" deplored the equivocation of Justice Harlan faced with a youth in his courthouse wearing a coat emblazoned with "Fxxxx the Draft". No doubt this was an obscene act but the conscription of young man for Vietnam was the great obscenity of the time, not only in its own right but for the way that it resulted in the loss of the war (through loss of support at home) after it had been effectively won on the ground in Vietnam. In the same way that conscription was the great moral mistake of the sixties, the War on Drugs threatens to shred the fabric of civil liberties and due process in our time. John O'Sullivan referred to the fall in crime "plainly the result of greater use of imprisonment" but the fall in crime is much more likely to be result of demographic factors (and possibly abortion law reform two decades ago) while the rise of imprisonment is a result of the War on Drugs. Another factor that undermines respect for even-handed justice and promotes racial tension is the racism of aggressive affirmative action programs such as college set asides and quotas for hiring.
Hayek pointed out that there are tensions between conservatives and Old Whigs, even while we form common cause against radicals and modern liberals (someone wrote "I vote libertarian if I can, otherwise I hold my nose and vote Republican"). These tensions need to be explored so that economic liberals become more attuned to the culture war and conservatives become more sensitive to the erosion of freedoms by the State when it attempts to act as a custodian of morals.
The Betrayal of Liberalism: How the Disciples of Freedom and Equality Helped to Foster the Illiberal Politics of Coercion and Control.
Edited by Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball