Democracy's dark side

In the Name of Liberalism
October 22, 1999

Desmond King's book In the Name of Liberalism meets the high standards for careful research and elegant writing achieved in his earlier work. It represents a further development of his comparative scholarship on welfare policy and employment. If the book had achieved nothing else it would be a substantial addition to the literature. I believe, however, that it makes a number of other contributions. Each of the historical cases is valuable in its own right. King enriches our understanding of the widely debated but previously somewhat stilted concept of social citizenship and its historical development. Much more explicitly than in his previous work, King engages sympathetically but critically with "historical institutionalism", with valuable results for the appreciation of the role of expertise in and the impact of ideas on, the making of policy.

Most important, In the Name of Liberalism represents a major renewal of the challenge offered by Karl Polanyi in his classic analysis of "the great transformation". Although Polanyi is treated as canonical in international political economy, comparative social policy analysis and economic anthropology, his work is cited more often than emulated and developed further. He demonstrated that the emergence of a market society in 19th-century Britain required sustained state intervention. This intervention did not merely remove traditional barriers to exchange in a straightforward process of liberalisation; it was also necessary in the construction of the market itself and the management or suppression of its adverse consequences.

Based on scrupulous analysis of historical evidence, the book details illiberal impulses or policies under three main headings. Under "liberal unreason" the analysis considers the political uses of eugenic ideas, including proposals for the introduction of "voluntary" sterilisation in the United Kingdom. As well as noting the introduction of sterilisation policies in the US, King discusses the uses of eugenic ideas in United States' immigration policy. The analysis of "liberal amelioration and collectivism" examines state-sponsored collective responses to unemployment in the 1930s. Interwar work camps for the unemployed in the UK and the US Civilian Conservation Corps are the main foci of analysis. The final empirical section considers the long history of "workfare"-type policies under the heading "liberal contractualism". Importantly, it emphasises that this history is not seamless. Recent moves to (re-) introduce workfare may represent a return to a deep tradition in both states, but such policies seemed inappropriate, their introduction implausible, during the postwar "golden age" of the welfare state.

King also makes a considerable contribution to institutionalist theory. Some authors who claim to work in this tradition veer from asserting that "history matters" in a general way, often implying that history is deterministic and political choice meaningless, to declaring that the "ideational" dimension is key. The notion of "path dependence" is often invoked in support of the former claim. Usually, however, a deracinated version of the concept is deployed, amounting to little more than the traditional policy-analytic notion of incrementalism. King argues cogently that the novel contribution of "path dependence", emphasised in its original formulation in economics, concerns the sensitivity of subsequent outcomes to small differences in initial conditions. In contrast to the airy invocation of "the ideational" in some contemporary social science, King provides a theoretical treatment of ideas that is grounded in careful consideration of expertise.

King shows that illiberal impulses and policies are a recurring and essential feature of liberal democracies. Previously neglected, studies of illiberal social policies should flourish in the wake of this book. I hope that policy makers as well as scholars in history, politics, sociology and social policy will read the book. The picture King draws is detailed and complex. He persuasively argues that illiberal potential is contained within liberal democracy, but may also be contained by it. While changes to the balance of the rights and obligations of social citizenship may be necessary or even welcome, we need to guard against glib assumptions about the triumph of liberal democracy. As experts seem likely to play an ever larger role in democratic policy making (perhaps particularly as a consequence of genetic science), policy makers would do well to heed King's warnings about the illiberal potential inherent in the politics of expertise.

Daniel Wincott is senior lecturer in political science and international studies, University of Birmingham.

In the Name of Liberalism: Illiberal Social Policy in the United States and Britain

Author - Desmond King
ISBN - 0 19 829609 6 and 829629 0
Publisher - Palgrave
Price - £40.00 and £14.99
Pages - 340

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