In This Review

Liberalism: The Life of an Idea
Liberalism: The Life of an Idea
By Edmund Fawcett
Princeton University Press, 2014, 488 pp

What is liberalism? The debate never ends, but Fawcett identifies a core set of liberal ideas: respect for the individual, civic equality, suspicion of power, faith in progress, and the search for an ethical order amid the great conflicts generated by a modernizing world. Fawcett traces the liberal tradition from its origins in nineteenth-century Europe, to its historic union with democracy early in the twentieth century, to its near-fatal collapse after World War I and the Great Depression, and culminating in its triumph and spread in the decades after World War II. Fawcett shows how early liberals welcomed the coming of Western advancement and believed that social change could be steered in a progressive direction through science, the accumulation of knowledge, trade, international cooperation, and healthy political institutions. As Fawcett’s compelling history reveals, the twentieth century turned out to be much more unstable and dangerous than the early liberals anticipated and has forced liberals ever since to temper their expectations for human betterment with a world-weary search for small steps that can keep the liberal international system on an upward trajectory.