Oh what a tangled web we weave …

According to Ian Dunt, author of ‘How to be a liberal’ (Canbury Press, 2020; £25), liberalism was born the moment Decartes wrote: ‘I am a real thing, and really exist, but what thing? A thinking thing’.

Liberalism then went back to its cot for a few years to re-emerge, in a different form, with the English Civil War and the Levellers with their ‘three explosive thoughts’:

  • people should have freedom of conscience;
  • the notion of the individual, and
  • the notion of doubt.

Locke, Benjamin Constant, Adam Smith, Harriet Taylor, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Hayek, Keynes, Orwell and Isaiah Berlin also put in appearances as exponents of different, and conflicting, forms of liberalism.

Dunt’s chapters on the ‘three revolutions’ (Glorious, American and French) are a rather tedious Reader’s Digest like trudge through 150 years or so almost in real time. However he does make the point that property was an important aspect of the concept of individual freedom in that era. This was reflected in the old Liberal Party’s concept of ‘a property-owning democracy’. In the 17th and 18th centuries owning things would have helped me, personally, to become a free(er) individual. But if I can afford more property than you, does this not restrict your freedom? Only an idealised form of communalism, where everything is shared, would make us equal. But then we would no longer be individuals. This is a pointlessly circular discussion.

And how does the notion of the free individual fit in with the concept of the state, and what is the purpose of the state? According to Adam Smith (author of ‘The Wealth of Nations’ and Turner’s predecessor on the £20 note), the state had just three duties: defence, justice and the creation and maintenance of ‘public works’. This last is the idea that the taxpayer should fund projects where the market mechanism would fail, such as roads and schools. Presumably there was no chance of a public-spirited individual forking out unbidden. Apart from this the state should leave well alone and not interfere in the way the market operates.

This was to be taken up in the twentieth century by Friedrich Hayek (idolised by the ‘Great Vandal’, Margaret Thatcher) and leading proponent of the ‘right-wing’ form of liberalism which stresses non-interference in the market above all else. Adam Smith thought that each person, ‘working for his own betterment’, in the market place buying and selling what he liked created competition, which resulted in efficiency, which in turn increased the material wealth of society.

Yes, but… The point about any form of competition (as opposed to co-operation) is that almost everyone who takes part loses. If I can undercut you and dozens of others and you all end up bankrupt, in what way have I ‘increased the material wealth of society’? I have increased my material wealth but left a lot of you poor sods significantly worse off, and being proud individuals is not going to help put food on your table. And note Smith’s phrase about ‘working for [one’s] own betterment’. This can only lead to stressing me, the individual, over society as a whole and the interests of innumerable other, less fortunate, individuals. Ultimately, this approach leads to libertarianism – the survival not of the fittest but of the most ruthless.

So liberalism, if it is to be worth pursuing, must mean more than market forces and cod Darwinism and owning stuff. Liberalism is essentially about the individual, rather than the collective – which can exercise all sorts of malignant, conformist influences on its constituent members.

After a couple of hundred pages you wish Dunt would get to the point, which is that there are two types of liberalism: laissez-faire capitalism – which we can now agree has nothing to do with the popular concept of ‘liberalism’ – and what he rather lamely calls ‘the philosophy of shake things up’. He could have spared us the laboured and glaringly obvious point that Fascism and Communism are the opposite of liberalism, and various digressions that take in banking crashes in the 20th and 21st centuries, the Dreyfus affair, Trump and Orban and the plight of refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean. I don’t wish to appear rude but after 450 pages one (certainly this one) looks for resolution.

Where Dunt is at his best, and outstandingly so, is when he contrasts nationalism – the enemy of the individual – and liberalism.

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His introductory chapter, ‘Today’, focuses on the Six Lies of Nationalism, which are worth enumerating:

  • you do not exist as an individual;
  • the world is simple;
  • you must not question;
  • institutions are engaged in a conspiracy against the public;
  • difference is bad and
  • there is no such thing as truth.

‘This disinformation’, the author says, ‘serves two distinct agendas. Firstly, it attempts to define day-to-day events in whichever way most suits the nationalist narrative. Secondly, it works to degrade the entire notion of empirical reality.’ By contrast, ‘‘Liberalism doesn’t have a party line… It is the rebel thought’.

Moving to the last chapter, ‘Tomorrow’, Dunt points out that laissez-faire liberalism ‘was the reverse face of communism: a zealous commitment to the market in all things, as the solution to all problems. This proposition was simplistic and the consequences were catastrophic.’ By contrast, there is ‘egalitarian liberalism’.

So what? What happens next, Dunt asks. That depends on how liberals respond to nationalism. To reiterate, we are now in effect talking about the clash between authoritarianism and social responsibility. This response must be based on confidence and humility: ‘We will require the confidence to stand up for our values and the humility to understand what has gone wrong, so that we can address it’.

The conclusion appears to be that the way to be a liberal – a shape-shifting concept over the centuries – is by not being a nationalist and by standing up for the individual. Fair enough, but Dunt could have said this much more succinctly. This is clearly a work of considerable scholarship (and see the extra chapter on ‘Further Reading’), but the ruthless red pen of an editor would have come in handy.

The author could usefully have discussed how ‘liberalism’ is or was understood in other countries. In nineteenth century Germany, for example, it was the movement to replace two dozen or so individual states with one super state (i.e. nationalism). In the Benelux countries and others, too, it was a specifically and gratifyingly anti-clerical movement.

Your response to this book will depend on how tolerant you are of Dunt’s rather tabloidy style and whether (unlike me) you are a patient reader.

For what it’s worth, my star ̀rating is: ⁎⁎⁎.

Borrow or buy but on no account buy from Amazon, thereby putting an independent bookseller out of business (remember ‘laissez—fair capitalism’?).