It is not hard to spot a liberal. ‘Scrupulous, hardworking, impatient, dogmatic, and without a shred of humor or tact,’ is how Edmund Fawcett describes Sir Edwin Chadwick, the 19th-century manager of poorhouses and sewers, in one of the vignettes that make up his ambitious new history. Somewhat trickier is describing what liberals actually believe. It has to do with capitalism, John Stuart Mill and English ideas of ordered liberty and the inviolability of the individual. But liberalism has always been protean. It used to mean keeping government on a short leash; today it means inviting government into every corner of life. The word ‘liberalism’ makes Europeans think of robber barons in Chicago. It makes Americans think of transsexuals in Stockholm.
Fawcett, a former correspondent and editor for The Economist, seeks both to broaden our picture of liberalism and to sharpen our focus. Liberalism was developed not just by English political thinkers but by French and German ones as well (Tocqueville, Guizot, Benjamin Constant and Wilhelm von Humboldt). More than just