Kenneth Minogue offers a brilliant and provocative exploration of liberalism in the Western world today: its roots and its influences, its present state, and its prospects in the new century. The Liberal Mind limns the taxonomy of a way of thinking that constitutes the very consciousness of most people in most Western countries.
While few—especially in America—embrace the description of liberal, still, Minogue argues, most Americans and most Europeans behave as liberals. At least they are the heirs of what Minogue describes as "the triumph of an enlarged, flexible, and pragmatic version of liberalism."
But what, precisely, is liberalism? Or, more accurately, can liberalism be defined precisely? Minogue attempts to answer both questions. "The Liberal Mind attempts to uncover the philosophy of liberalism and lay bare its implications. What is Man? How does he think and feel? What is the place of Reason in human affairs? How should men live? What is politics, and what is it for? These are the questions which liberalism both asks and answers. The answers supply a technique of living, which is a utilitarian moral guide: yet the great advantage claimed for this code is that it is scientific. Because of this claim, liberalism is forced into a series of moral and political evasions, both doctrines and emotional habits of thought. These are dissected in The Liberal Mind."
The past two centuries have been characterized, in the West at least, by "the fury of old ideological battles . . . such as: A planned economy, or free enterprise? Individual thrift, or social services? Free trade, or protection?" These battles have largely been completed—and, many would say, have been won by the champions of, respectively, free enterprise, individual thrift, and free trade.
By examining the larger implications of the concept of liberalism, Minogue offers fresh perspective on the political currents that continue to shape governments and policy in the Western world.
"The story of liberalism, as liberals tell it, is rather like the legend of St. George and the dragon. After many centuries of hope-lesssness and superstition, St. George, in the guise of Rationality, appeared in the world somewhere about the sixteenth century. The first dragons upon whom he turned his lance were those of despotic kingship and religious intolerance. These battles won, he rested a time, until such questions as slavery, or prison conditions, or the state of the poor, began to command his attention. During the nineteenth century, his lance was never still, prodding this way and that against the inert scaliness of privilege, vested interest, or patrician insolence. But, unlike St. George, he did not know when to retire. The more he succeeded, the more he became bewitched with the thought of a world free of dragons, and the less capable he became of ever returning to private life. He needed his dragons. He could only live by fighting for causes— the people, the poor, the exploited, the colonially oppressed, the underprivileged and the underdeveloped. As an ageing warrior, he grew breathless in his pursuit of smaller and smaller dragons—for the big dragons were now harder to come by.
Liberalism is a political theory closely linked these days with such democratic machinery as checks and balances in government, an uncontrolled press, responsible opposition parties, and a population which does not live in fear of arbitrary arrest by the government. A liberal state is one where most actions of the government are taken with the consent of at least a majority of the population. A liberal political philosophy is a description of this kind of state, combined with the attempt to work out the general principles which can best rationalize it. A fair case could be made for John Locke as its founding father, even though the actual term “liberalism” was only imported from Spain early in the nineteenth century. In their early formulations, liberal philosophers built an edifice of doctrine upon the natural rights of man. Their successors, blooded by idealist criticism and Marxist social theory, admitted that the “individual” was an abstract and implausible hero for a political doctrine. Men, liberals came to agree, were largely moulded by the social environment in which they grew, and to talk of “natural rights” bordered on metaphysical dogmatism. Indeed, as time went on, they did not merely admit their error; they positively rushed to embrace the corrections which Marxists and Idealists forced upon them—for reasons which should become clear. Out of this intellectual foray emerged modern liberal doctrine, representing political life as the struggle by which men make their society rational, just, and capable of affording opportunities for everyone to develop his own potentialities."
Kenneth Robert Minogue (born 11 September 1930) is an Australian political theorist who is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics. Born in New Zealand, his publications include The Liberal Mind, Nationalism, The Concept of a University, Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology, and Politics: A Very Short Introduction. He has written academic essays on a great range of problems in political theory. His latest work, published in 2010, is The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life.