In this collection of essays on the core values of liberalism, Stephen Holmes--noted for his scathing reviews of books by liberalism's opponents--challenges commonly held assumptions about liberal theory. By placing it into its original historical context, "Passions and Constraints" presents an interconnected argument meant to fundamentally change the way we conceive of liberalism.
According to Holmes, three elements of classical liberal theory are commonly used to attack contemporary liberalism as antagonistic to genuine democracy and the welfare state: constitutional constraints on majority rule, the identification of individual freedom with an absence of government involvement, and a strong emphasis on the principle of self-interest. Through insightful essays on Hobbes's analysis of the English Civil War in "Behemoth," Bodin's writings on the benefits of limited government, and Mill's views on science and politics, Holmes shows that these basic principles provide, to the contrary, a necessary foundation for the development of democratic, regulatory, and redistributionist politics in the modern era.
Holmes argues that the aspirations of liberal democracy--including individual liberty, the equal dignity of citizens, and a tolerance for diversity--are best understood in relation to two central themes of classical liberal theory: the psychological motivations of individuals and the necessary constraint on individual passions provided by institutions. Paradoxically, Holmes argues that such institutional restraints serve to enable, rather than limit, effective democracy.
In explorations of subjects ranging from self-interest to majoritarianism to "gag rules," Holmes shows thatlimited government can be more powerful than unlimited government--indeed, that liberalism is one of the most effective philosophies of state building ever contrived. By restricting the arbitrary powers of government officials, Holmes states, a liberal constitution can increase the state's capacity to focus on specific problems and mobilize collective resources for common purposes.
"Passions and Constraint" is an assessment of what that tradition has meant and what it can mean today.
A spirited vindication of classical liberalism and its notions of constitutional government. In a series of linked essays, Holmes (Political Science and Law/Univ. of Chicago; The Anatomy of Anti-Liberalism, not reviewed) takes on what he sees as wrongheaded criticisms, whether from the right or the left, of three aspects of liberal democracy: constitutional constraints on majority rule; the identification of individual freedom with an absence of government involvement in civil society; and self-interest. Holmes sees these principles as necessary both for popular self-rule and for the modern welfare state. Most tellingly, he takes sharp issue with negative constitutionalism - the idea that constitutions are designed to curb the power of the sovereign. This notion is true only up to a point, Holmes counters, arguing that, when legitimated by a constitution, sovereign or executive power often increases. Though Holmes touches on the point only lightly, he suggests that the reason some right-wingers so overestimated the Soviet threat to the West was that they failed to recognize that the contentious nature of democracy was not a weakness. "It should now be clear, for good or ill," he notes, "that liberalism is one of the most effective philosophies of state building ever contrived." What lends particular credibility to Holmes's argument is his examination of the historical context that gave rise to elements of liberal theory, including the English Civil War, which inspired Thomas Hobbes's notions of unruly man; the 15th-century conflict between French Catholics and Huguenots that led Jean Bodin to speculate on the nature of royal sovereignty; Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine's theories of bonds among the generations; and how liberal theory is tested in such contemporary applications as welfare and abortion. Despite some puzzling gaps (e.g., little discussion of the disruptive effects of race and ethnicity), an intelligent reminder that a system of government seen as weak can be unexpectedly strong. (Kirkus Reviews)