Postrel On David Hackett Fischer

Lynne Kiesling

Virginia Postrel reviewed David Hackett Fischer’s new book, Liberty and Freedom, in the New York Times on Sunday (registration required). Her review, nuanced and not particularly favorable, whets my appetite to read it.

Fischer is apparently focusing on iconography in this book, and exploring the historic distinction between concepts of liberty and freedom as held as communicated by ordinary people, through flags, hats, etc. Sounds fascinating. He is an historian of early America, and it sounds like that’s where the strength of the book lies. His treatment of the 20th century, though, is a bit more muddled according to Virginia:

So the folkways of the colonies have divided and fused into two distinct traditions of freedom, one collective, the other individualist. Unfortunately, Fischer doesn’t develop the point beyond its application to Prohibition. Given his general sympathy for the collective vision and his frequent disdain for the desire to be left alone by government, he may not want to push the issue. He might feel forced to defend Prohibition or, worse, to acknowledge that the individualist fusion has evolved into American libertarianism, best represented by his bete noire, the economist Milton Friedman. (Fischer’s antipathy for Friedman, whom he doesn’t name but whose department at the University of Chicago he refers to as ”dogmatic” twice in as many sentences, may stem less from Friedman’s libertarian popular works than from his influential monetary scholarship, which contradicts Fischer’s own eccentric — to put it mildly — theories of inflation.) …

The closer the book gets to the present, the less it discusses popular culture or visual symbolism. It loses its early, charming tone and becomes instead a dutiful, sometimes cranky march through the political movements of the late 20th century. Cliffs Notes versions of ideas and individuals appear, but iconography and material culture almost entirely disappear. Fischer doesn’t mention the Adam Smith neckties conservative activists adopted in the late 1970’s or explain how triangles and rainbows came to symbolize gay liberation. He has room for a mention of Shulamith Firestone’s radical, intellectual feminism but none for Marlo Thomas’s popular record and television special, ”Free to Be You and Me.” He provides a dumbed-down version of Friedrich Hayek’s classical liberalism but doesn’t mention Ayn Rand’s blockbuster novels. He devotes pages to Stokely Carmichael but says nothing about Afros, dreadlocks or cornrows. He misses the chance to consider California as a symbol of freedom across the political spectrum. In short, once the apparent uniformity of World War II dissolves, ”Liberty and Freedom” loses interest in popular culture. This absence may reflect the author’s fatigue as the book moves beyond its 500th page. Or perhaps it is simply harder for Fischer to take a sympathetic interest in the mental and material lives of those contemporaries with whom he disagrees. He seems to resent all these contentious people (except for consensus civil rights heroes) who insist on disturbing established institutions and ideas with their demands for liberty and freedom.

This review raises an interesting tension. At its core in the US, much of the classical liberal perspective relies on the Constitution, and its protection and enforcement. Definitely an established institution, but one that is flexible and leaves some room for “disturbing”. How do we reconcile the dynamism of small-l-liberalism and human ingeneuity and creativity and growth with the benefits of those established institutions, and how do they evolve in turn?

Very interesting. David Hackett Fischer’s book Albion’s Seed is one of my favorite books. In it he doesn’t address this static/dynamic tension really; it’s more about the traditional cultures and what different folkways brought to America and how they shaped the cultures of the regions where they settled and the country as a whole.

Thanks to Instapundit for the link.


One thought on “Postrel On David Hackett Fischer

  1. Apparently I’m Jacksonian (or Scotch-Irish)

    Great book review by Virginia Postrel. The author of the book, David Hackett Fischer, is apparently hostile to any individualist notions of liberty: New England Puritans pursued ’‘ordered liberty,’’ or community self-government, which could imp…

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