An interview with Edmund Fawcett about “Liberalism: The Life of an Idea”

Fawcett jacketIs liberal democracy in need of a serious overhaul? As we release the paperback of Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, (which includes a new preface), Edmund Fawcett took the time to answer some questions about his book, including whether liberalism means different things in Europe than it does in America, where exactly liberal democracy comes from, and what about it is in need of repair.

Why liberalism and why a history?

EF: My book’s topical for a simple reason. Where liberal democracy exists, it badly needs repair. Where it doesn’t, it is losing appeal. Nobody disputes that. What’s harder is to say what liberal democracy is and why it matters. Oddly, few books tell us. Mine does both. We need to see where liberal democracy come from. We need to see what we risk losing. As history, my book looks ahead by looking back.

What makes your book on liberalism different?

EF: It looks past disputed, misleading labels like “freedom” or “the individual” to what liberals really care about and aim for. It combines history and ideas. It foregrounds French and German liberals, too often ignored. It handles tricky academic disputes–in politics, economics and philosophy–in a readable, non-academic way. It holds a complicated, 200-year story together through lives and thoughts of exemplary thinkers and politicians.

Don’t Europeans and Americans mean different things by “liberal”?

EF: Not really. On the American right, it’s true, “liberal” is a term of abuse. On the European left, “liberal” means a lackey of neo-capitalism. We can’t, though, let sloganeers hog the argument. France, Germany and the US are liberal democracies. China and Russia are not. Everybody understands what those two sentences mean. Nobody seriously disputes that they are true. The meaning problem with “liberal” is a side issue.

Some reviewers found your liberal tent too big, your idea of liberalism too loose.

EF: Funny complaints for a book on liberalism. It’s not a sect or creed. Inclusiveness ought to be a liberal virtue. Seriously, Liberalism set out four key ideas that unite liberals and tell them apart from their rivals, then and now: resistance to power, faith in progress, equal respect for people and acceptance that social conflict was inevitable, but containable. I distinguished liberalism from democracy, often confused, and described how in the 20th century liberal democracy grew out of historic compromises between the two.

In your big cast of more than 50 characters, name some favorites.

EF: In the 19th century, the thinker John Stuart Mill, for trying hardest to hold together liberal conflicting elements together. Lincoln for his power of liberal words. In the 20th century, Lyndon Johnson for the liberal capacity to change and Germany’s Willy Brandt for the ability to admit national wrong. And now? It’s hard to see one’s own time. Giants are only visible looking back. A fair guess: today’s liberal giants won’t all be white, US-European and male.

What is new in your preface to the paperback?

EF: I answer criticisms, some fair, some not fair. I clarify points of mine that led to misunderstandings. I stress that why I wrote the book–challenges to liberal democracy from inside and out–strikes me as even more pressing now than when I began. I explain that I left out critics and alternatives to liberalism from right and left. Those topics were too vast for one book, though I’m turning to conservatism now.

Edmund Fawcett worked at The Economist for more than three decades, serving as chief correspondent in Washington, Paris, and Berlin, as well as European and literary editor. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Guardian, among other publications.

Ethicist Jason Brennan on why smart politicians say dumb things

Jason BrennanEthicist Jason Brennan, whose posts on the ethics of voting for our 2012 Election 101 series were enormously popular, will be writing a series of posts for the PUP blog offering unique perspectives on ethics, voting, not voting, democracy, public policy and strategy. He is currently Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, and is writing Against Politics, under contract with Princeton University Press. We’re excited to have him back, and to kick it off with his first post. –PUP Blog Editor

Saying stupid things to would-be voters is a very smart thing to do.

The Onion jokes: Donald Trump is “an eccentric, megalomaniac billionaire still more relatable to average Americans than anyone willing to dedicate life to politics”. Every other day, he says something outrageous or blatantly false, and yet he continues to grow in the polls. He seems to be getting by on empty slogans, with no well thought out policy ideas.
 When you see a politician saying something outrageous or blatantly false, you might be tempted to decry the quality of our politicians. If only someone better came along.

But there’s a reason we have the kind of politicians we do, and it’s not because no one better is willing to step up to the plate. Nor is it because great and evil villains (insert the Koch Brothers or George Soros, depending on your political predilection) are keeping our saviors down. Donald Trump may or may not be an eccentric megalomaniac, and he has indeed said many substantively stupid things. But he’s not a stupid man, and saying stupid things to would-be voters is a very smart thing to do.

Politicians are trying to win elections. To win elections, they need to get the most votes. To do that, they need to appeal to as many voters as possible. In an election, what every smart politician is trying to do is behave in ways that he or she hopes will appeal to the typical voter. Politicians are like this because they respond rationally to the incentives democracy creates.

 If voters were well-informed, dispassionate policy-wonks, then political campaigns would resemble peer-reviewed economics journals. But few voters or potential voters are like that. As I’ll document at greater length in future blog posts here, most voters are poorly informed, passionate, biased, overconfident, and tribalistic. Most non-voters are not dispassionate truth-seekers; rather, they just don’t care much at all.

Voters are like this because they respond rationally to the incentives democracy creates. The problem is that our individual votes count for very little. Economists and political scientists debate just how to calculate the probability that your vote will make a difference. Still, even on the most optimistic estimate in the literature, your vote (in a presidential election) has a 1 in 10 million chance of making a difference, but only if you live one of handful of swing states and vote Democrat or Republican. Otherwise, your vote has no real chance of mattering. Polls show that citizens more or less realize this.

Voters do not consume much information, nor do they discipline themselves to think rationally about the information they consume, because their votes make little difference. As economists like to say, voters are rationally ignorant. Consider, as an analogy. Suppose a billionaire offers you a million dollars if you can ace the Advance Placement Economics and Political Science exams. You’d probably be willing to learn basic economics and political science for that price. But now suppose the billionaire instead offers you a 1 in 20 million chance of earning that million dollars if you ace the exams. Now it’s not worth your time—it doesn’t pay to learn economics or political science.

Indeed, it’s not clear that voters are even trying to change the outcome of the election when they vote.  One popular theory of voter behavior is that voters vote in order to express themselves. Though the act of voting is private, voters regard voting as a uniquely apt way to demonstrate their commitment to their political team. Voting is like wearing a Metallica T-shirt at a concert or doing the wave at a sports game. Sports fans who paint their faces the team colors do not generally believe they will change the outcome of the game, but instead wish to demonstrate their commitment to their team. Even when watching games alone, sports fans cheer and clap for their teams. Perhaps voting is like this.

When you see politicians saying dumb things, remember that these politicians are not fools. They are responding rationally to the incentives before them. They say dumb things because they expect voters want to hear dumb things. When you see that voters want to hear dumb things, remember that the voters are only foolish because they are responding rationally to the incentives before them. How we vote matters, but for each individual person, how she votes does not. Thus, most individuals vote as if very little is at stake.Trump’s popularity is an indictment of democracy, not a conviction (yet). Democracy may make us dumb, but that doesn’t mean that in the end, democracies always make dumb decisions.

Jason Brennan is Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of Markets without Limits, with Peter Jaworski (2015), Why Not Capitalism? (2014), Compulsory Voting, with Lisa Hill (2014), Libertarianism (2012), The Ethics of Voting (2011), and A Brief Hisotry of Liberty, with David Schmidtz (2010). He is currently writing Against Politics, under contract with Princeton University Press, and Global Justice as Global Freedom, with Bas von der Vossen.

Presenting Richard Bourke’s new video discussion of “Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke”

Bourke jacketEdmund Burke was arguably one of the most captivating figures in turbulent eighteenth-century life and thought, but studies of the complex statesman and philosopher often reduce him to a one dimensional defender of the aristocracy.

Richard Bourke, professor in the history of political thought and codirector of the Centre for the Study of the History of Political Thought at Queen Mary University of London, has written a multifaceted portrait that depicts Burke as a philosopher-in-action who evaluated the political realities of the day through the lens of Enlightenment thought. The book also reconstructs one of the most fascinating eras in the history of the British empire, a period spanning myriad imperial ventures and three European wars. PUP is excited to present this new video in which Bourke discusses Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke:


Q&A with Scott L. Montgomery & Daniel Chirot, authors of The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World

Scott L. Montgomery and Daniel Chirot, both of the University of Washington, recently sat down for a Q&A on their new book, The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World. Read on to learn what these four Enlightenment ideas are, and why they remain so important to the understanding of the ideological and political conflicts of our own time.

The Shape of the New jacketWhy are ideas so important to the history of the modern world and also to understanding so much of the contemporary world?

Many of our social, cultural, and political perceptions have been shaped by big ideas first argued by long dead intellectuals.  For example, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton’s argument on the shape of democracy more than 200 years ago continues to play out today in American debates over the size and scope and purpose of government.

Why use the term ‘ideas’ rather than ideology?

Ideology refers largely to already fixed, hardened positions about certain policy choices. The ideas we cover were much broader.  The leading intellectuals who developed them understood many of the conflicting arguments and knew they had to argue their positions in order to have any lasting influence.

What are the “Four Big Ideas” of the title, and why do you focus on them?

Our focus is not on single concepts but entire systems of thought that have affected every level of social experience. Adam Smith wrote about the freedom that individuals must have to decide their material and moral lives and that, if attained, would create the most efficient, prosperous, and free society. Marx spoke of universal equality for humanity, a just and egalitarian world that would arrive due to scientific laws governing history. Darwin took evolution and turned it into a scientific theory of enormous force:  with natural selection as its main mechanism, it gave all life a secular history and human beings a new context liberated from ancient traditions of religious purpose and final principles. Finally, modern democracy gained its first major success through the founders of the United States, most notably Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, two brilliant but flawed men whose fierce debates set down essential patterns for how to imagine and institutionalize this new political system that has spread throughout large portions of the world.

You seem to suggest that the most powerful ideas have come from the Enlightenment and mainly from areas like political philosophy, economics, and theories of society or history? Is this correct?

Yes, partly but not political, economic, and social thought alone. Ideas of vital, even extraordinary influence also emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries from the sciences and from religious thought, as shown in our discussion of Darwin and religious fundamentalism in Christianity and Islam. Other domains of thought, such as art and literature, played major roles in the shaping and movement of key ideas.

What are some examples of what you call the “Counter Enlightenment”?

Some hostility came from organized religions that resisted the Enlightenment’s defense of freedom of thought and skepticism about fixed dogma. Much also came from elites opposed to democratization and increased freedom for everyone.  This Counter-Enlightenment has never gone away. Fascism and communism were based on powerful ideas that rejected much of the Enlightenment. Religious opposition remains in some fervent Christian denominations and  in radical Islam there remains bitter hostility to much of modern science and to any questioning of holy texts and authority. Rather than witnessing the continuing expansion of democracy and greater individual freedom that seemed to characterize the late 20th century, some governments, not least China and Russia, reject that side of the Enlightenment and propose instead illiberal forms of autocracy as better alternatives.

What does this have to do with the humanities and social sciences?

We strongly feel that college and university education no longer insists enough on the importance of teaching the ideas on which free, dynamic societies are based. To resist the paranoia about threats coming from all sorts of poorly understood sources we have to reaffirm the importance of the great ideas that shaped so much that we value, and make it known how those ideas were used to combat ignorance and opposition to freedom. Ultimately it is imperative that we understand the ideas that oppose what we value so that we are better equipped to fight against them.

Scott L. Montgomery is an affiliate faculty member in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. His books include Does Science Need a Global Language?: English and the Future of Research. Daniel Chirot is the Herbert J. Ellison Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Washington. His books include Why Not Kill Them All?: The Logic and Prevention of Mass Political Murder (Princeton). They both live in Seattle.

Edmund Fawcett discusses Liberalism: The Life of an Idea [VIDEO]

Love it or hate it, liberalism is here to stay–and it has a long and fascinating history. Edmund Fawcett explains more about his forthcoming book Liberalism: The Life of an Idea in this wonderful video interview with Natalia Nash. How do we define liberalism? Edmund Fawcett explores the underlying ideas that guide the liberal story here:

Learn more about Edmund Fawcett and Liberalism at the Princeton University Press site.

New Philosophy Catalog!

Be among the first to check out our new philosophy catalog!

Of particular interest are some of our new and forthcoming titles including John M. Cooper’s Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus, Steven Nadler’s The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter: A Portrait of Descartes, Brian Leiter’s Why Tolerate Religion?, and Robert Audi’s Moral Perception. We’re also publishing a new textbook, Logic: The Laws of Truth by Nicholas J.J Smith, an essential for undergraduates and graduates seeking a comprehensive and accessible introduction to the subject, and a new paperback edition of Elizabeth Anderson’s Imperative of Integration. Also be sure to note our ever-growing collections of works by and regarding Isaiah Berlin and Søren Kierkegaard, which now includes reissues of titles by and about Kierkegaard and a launch of a digital edition of his writings in celebration of the 200th anniversary of his birthday.

If you’re interested in hearing more about our philosophy titles, sign up with ease here: Your email address will remain confidential!

We’ll see everyone at the meeting of the American Philosophical Association December 27-30 in Atlanta, GA. Come visit us at booth 208!