Liberalism’s motivating force, he suggests, was the need to find a sturdy, if flexible, status quo after a succession of 18th-century upheavals—not least the French Revolution and the wars it ignited—had turned society and politics upside down.
With settled arrangements fractured, the liberal project aimed at a kind of restoration, Mr. Fawcett implies, but it did so in a new way. It sought to secure ethical order without an appeal to custom or divine authority; economic order without state interference or monopoly; international order without force as its linchpin; and political order without absolute rule or undivided powers. Mr. Fawcett describes the liberal project as, essentially, an effort to channel conflict into peaceful cooperation. It is “a fluid and capacious story,” he notes. At its core lay a distrust of power and a faith in progress….
Fascism and communism presented the greatest challenges. But after the catastrophe of the two world wars, liberal ideas revived—in part, Mr. Fawcett suggests, by re-asserting the importance of constitutional government and putting in place an inclusive welfare state. The decision to adopt liberal democracy became the price of entry to the Western political sphere, first for authoritarian countries like Greece and Portugal, then for ex-communist ones.
If all this has a triumphalist ring to it—”the end of history”—it shouldn’t. Late 20th-century liberalism took an authoritarian turn. As Mr. Fawcett notes, group rights, aimed at promoting what he calls “civic respect,” began to intrude on the private sphere. Enforcing civic respect meant compelling individuals and businesses to endorse behavior or opinion at odds with their own principles. Tolerance alone—an aspect of the liberal temperament—was deemed insufficient.
In the 19th century, liberal attacks on authority dismayed the traditionalist members of society. Little could they imagine what was to come—not only, in the modern era, a celebration of radical individual autonomy but a new sort of orthodoxy enforced with Jacobin severity.