The one-sentence summary

Liberalism has become divisive in modern times, but the original moderate version of it remains the best hope for twenty-first century democracy.

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  • Liberalism was originally the comparatively mild-mannered sibling to the more ardent camps of nationalism and socialism but is has come under attack from conservatives and progressives on either side and is now dismissed by many as an obsolete doctrine.
  • Its principles have been pushed to their limits by both sides – neoliberals have made a cult of economic freedom and leftists focus exclusively on identity over human universality.
  • The classical premises of liberalism are observing the rule of law, independence of judges, and equality of respect. The book defines this, along with how it evolved into the more extreme form of neoliberalism, how the basic liberal principle of personal autonomy was absolutized and turned into a critique of individualism, and how modern technology has challenged the liberal principle of free speech.
  • In essence, classical liberalism is an institutional solution to the problem of governing over diversity, or peacefully managing diversity in pluralistic societies.
  • At the extremes, protection of individual autonomy has been pushed to create gross inequalities, remove tolerance, and encourage identity politics (such as focusing on a fixed characteristic like race, ethnicity or gender).
  • Groups are defined not simply by their victimization, but by the deep cultural traditions that bind them together.
  • Neoliberalism is often used as a pejorative synonym for capitalism but really it refers to a form of economic thought that denigrates the role of the state in the economy and instead emphasises the free market. The deficiency of this is pushing property rights and consumer welfare to an extreme where all aspects of state action and social solidarity are denigrated.
  • Developments that would return liberalism to its original intentions include acknowledging the need for government instead of demonizing it, devolving power to the lowest appropriate levels, protecting freedom of speech within appropriate limits, reasserting the primacy of individual rights over those of cultural groups, and a recognition that human autonomy is not unlimited.
  • As a general principle, nothing in excess. Individual passions should not be followed absolutely, but in moderation.


  • Utility maximization as suggested by economists is a myth. People cannot maximize in this way because they must trade off incompatible desires that are hard to predict.
  • The sovereign self is autonomous and detached from all prior loyalties and commitments. That’s not a free and rational agent, but a person without character and moral depth.
  • America has become a ‘vetocracy’ – political decisions are hard to make because of the large number of veto points in the system. In effect, anything can be stopped or blocked, leading to paralysis, such as an inability to agree the annual budget.
  • Many of the arguments pioneered by the progressive left have drifted over to the populist right. When combined with modern technology, this lands us in a cognitive wasteland where, in the words of Peter Pomerantsev, “nothing is true and everything is possible.”
  • Radical subjectivity states that the external world that we think we perceive is actually created by the words we use in talking about it.
  • Intellectual capture refers to a phenomenon whereby if you are trained in a certain manner and all of your colleagues affirm the same set of beliefs, everyone agrees without seeing any other view.
  • People are intrinsically biased so they do not begin with a neutral observation of reality – they begin with strong preferences for the reality they prefer, and use their cognitive skills to select data and devise theories that support that reality. It’s called motivated reasoning.


  • Not surprisingly this is a political book, and it is quite technical.


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