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Customer Review

25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Informative, though not always persuasive, April 22, 2009
This review is from: The Future of Liberalism (Hardcover)
The Future of Liberalism
The Future of Liberalism is a competent history of core liberal ideas. It is wide ranging, in both the issues and theorists it addresses. Wolfe covers big name thinkers (Kant, Mill, and so on) but also includes numerous lesser-known figures, and he refers to about as many conservatives as he does liberals.

Wolfe stresses that the aim of liberalism is to give people the power to choose and shape their own lives. In a typical chapter he plays off a liberal representative against someone who proposed more or less the opposite ideas; Kant versus Rousseau or Benjamin Constant versus Carl Schmitt, for example. He mixes in contemporary political figures to illustrate his chief points. This is primarily intellectual history, so do not expect much in the way of programmatic proposals (health care, energy, the environment, etc.) or analysis of electoral politics. On the other hand, you will learn a great deal about Wolfe's own political beliefs and his reasons for them.

In my judgment, Wolfe's reasoning is less sound on certain key matters than it is on others. I am a bit baffled, for example, at how vehemently he objects to "sociobiology" and "evolutionary psychology." He sets up an overly simplified dichotomy between nature and nurture and argues that it is culture that has made man what he is. He is critical of anyone who suggests that genetic inheritance has some effect on moral behavior, for instance, and he concludes that such ideas necessarily support the political right. He does not acknowledge the arguments made by Steven Pinker, Peter Singer, and others for how a Darwinian view of nature can buttress the political left, and Wolfe makes really no case here to scientifically challenge the kinds of findings he finds so objectionable.

Contemporary conservatives and some liberals as well are likely to object to Wolfe's ready acceptance of the role of government. He sees government as a sort of countervailing power that stands up for the mass of the governed against powerful interests, but he offers only minimal insight into who influences the state through lobbying and campaign finance. He seems to think that it is only conservatives who cannot govern competently, that you must believe in what you are called upon to do in order to do it well (think Katrina). But he offers no evidence that liberals, who for Wolfe offer better policies, are any more managerially competent to execute those policies.

Wolfe claims that Francis Fukuyama went too far in proclaiming the triumph of liberalism in the modern world in The End of History and the Last Man, but he comes perilously close to the same position himself. The essence of modernity is that it wants to expand freedom and equality, Wolfe asserts. It would take a different book than this one to be wholly convincing on that point.

Even though I found myself questioning these and certain other of Wolfe's positions, I found his treatments of several aspects of liberal political theory to be nuanced and informative; the chapters on freedom of speech and freedom of religion are good examples. I think that no matter what one's political beliefs or background in political thought might be, most readers will learn at least some things of value from The Future of Liberalism.
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Location: Portland, OR USA

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