Christopher Caldwell

Progress & Its Discontents

Liberalism: The Life of an Idea


Princeton University Press 468pp £24.95 order from our bookshop

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. 

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