Book Review: Liberalism by John Gray


Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press • 1986 • $9.95

The twentieth century has frequently been labeled the “age of collectivism.” Since the first World War, the spirit of individual liberty and the policy of economic freedom have appeared to be irrevocably on the decline. Every conceivable form of State con-trot and management has been tried during the past 75 years: socialism, fascism, Nazism, welfare statism, and interventionism. And each has failed, bringing nothing but tyranny, poverty, and a lost sense of hope in its wake.

But now with the twenty-first century less than 15 years away, the age of collectivism may be drawing to a close. And in its place may be coming a new liberal era. This is what makes Liberalism by John Gray such a valuable handbook. In a mere 100 pages, Professor Gray outlines the history of liberalism from ancient times to the present, and gives a concise and insightful analysis of the major tenets of the liberal point of view.

It is important to realize that by liberalism, Professor Gray means classical liberalism, i.e., the political philosophy which has emphasized that civil liberties and economic freedom are inseparable, both requiring respect for private property in a competitive, free market environment.

The historical half of the book traces the origin of liberal ideas to the ancient Greeks and Romans. But, as Professor Gray points out, the individualist foundation of liberalism only really developed in the seventeenth century in the writings of such thinkers as Benedict de Spinoza and John Locke. However, it was only in the eighteenth century that a general liberal world-view and philosophy was systematically developed by the Scottish moral philosophers, the French philosophes, and the American founding fathers.

While liberal ideas predominated throughout the nineteenth century, Professor Gray points out that an era of full laissez-faire never existed and liberal policies in general were on the decline by the 1870s. A major villain in the story is John Stuart Mill who flirted with socialism and redefined liberalism in such a way that opened the door to the redistributional welfare state. The liberal era ended with the First World War and the growth in State power and control over economic affairs.

Now that collectivism has been tried and found wanting, there is new interest in the liberal alternative, and Professor Gray analyzes the premises of liberalism in the second half of his book. He discusses the alternative foundations that have been offered for liberalism—natural rights, utilitarianism, and contractarianism—and explains the strengths and weaknesses of each. He contrasts the alternative “negative” and “positive” meanings of freedom and their relationship to each other.

In a chapter on “Individual Liberty, Private Property and the Market Economy,” Professor Gray defends economic freedom for the protection of individual liberty by drawing upon the writings of Austrian Economists, particularly the works of F. A. Hayek (who has defined the market economy :as a “spontaneous order” of mutual and voluntary cooperation).

Professor Gray brings the book to a close with a discussion ,of the “legitimate” functions of the minimal, liberal State and the possibilities for classical liberalism in the future.

One of the most difficult problems in the past was to know which h single book to recommend to someone interested in knowing more about the classical liberal ideal, but who was not up to reading through a half dozen lengthy works. Professor Gray has now solved that dilemma with a readable and concise volume. []

Freeman readers may order copies of John Gray’s Liberalism at $10.95 each (includes shipping) from Laissez Faire Books, Department F, 532 Broadway, New York, NY 10012, (212) 925-8992.


November 1986

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