Notes on ‘How To Be a Liberal’ by Ian Dunt


  • Dunt opens the book by putting liberalism in its modern context, as the only way to challenge the lies of nationalism. The core lie of nationalism, in Dunt’s view, is that there are two distinct groups of people that make up the polity; the people and the elite.
  • In his pursuit of certainty, Descartes first connected liberalism and reason by establishing that the existence of the individual is one of the only things of which we can be certain. Descartes’ first meditation, which presents the argument for cogito ergo sum (“I think therefore I am”), is the “exact point where the old world” died, according to Dunt. The metaphysical significance of the individual appeared to be somewhat lost on Descartes, but his work proves to be the intellectual foundation of liberalism.
  • The Levellers were some of the earliest defenders of free speech. Under Charles I, printing presses were heavily restricted; there were only 20 authorised printers and only 4 people who were authorised to cast type. The Stationer’s Company enforced these rules through intimidation and torture. In 1637, William Prin, Henry Burton and John Bastwick were given life imprisonment and had their ears cut off for publishing libellous material.
  • John Lilburne, inspired by the plight of the three men, became the leader of the Levellers, defending the ‘ancient liberties of the English’ and publishing material in defiance of the company. Lilburne was repeatedly imprisoned for insulting members of parliament but continued to campaign for free speech from his prison cell.
John Lilburne on the pillory at Westminster, 1638
  • When Charles 1 recalled Parliament in 1640, MPs ensured they could never be dismissed again — Parliament had to be summoned once every 3 years and if this didn’t happen, it could ensemble on its own. MPs abolished the regime of censorship, including the Stationer’s Company. This led to an explosion of publications; the number of titles published in England increased from 900 in 1640 to 2,000 in 1641, then to 3,500 in 1642. More titles were published in 1642 alone than the century and a half before that put together (this seems like a good example of discontinuous progress).
  • Dunt claims ‘An Arrow Against all Tyrants’, a pamphlet published by leveller Richard Overton in 1646, effectively introduced the concept of ‘rights’. It’s an incredible document for its time, published over 100 years before the Bill of Rights:
  • Democracy was first established in England (and probably the Western world) by the New Model Army, formed in 1645 by the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War. They started electing representatives to speak on behalf of the troops and their leaders claimed that they could speak on behalf of ‘the will of their people’.
  • The New Model Army proposed further liberal reforms at the Putney Debates, a series of discussions in Surrey in 1647 where the army proposed a constitution for Britain. Their proposals would feature manhood suffrage (“one man, one vote”), freedom of conscience, freedom from impressment (conscription) into the armed forces and equality before the law.
  • Dunt outlines three liberal revolutions that followed this; the Glorious Revolution (William III Orange’s successful invasion of Britain), the American Revolution and the French Revolution.
  • The Glorius Revolution of 1688 led to the deposition of James II and VII and replacement by his daughter Mary II and her husband, William III of Orange. The opportunity for reform that followed led John Locke to write the “Two Treatises of Government” (1689) which defended natural rights and contract theory and argued that all men are created equal in the state of nature by God.
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s General Will contorted the core tenets of liberalism and made room for the dangerous populism that led to the French Revolution. The General Will was above and beyond individual will. If society is equal, according to Rousseau, its will is the General Will (the will of the people) and, crucially, can never be wrong.
  • The works of Benjamin Constant, one of the first thinkers to identify as ‘liberal’, identified that Rousseau’s concept of the General Will is what led to the tyranny of the French Revolution. Constant argued that whoever claimed to represent the will of the people would inevitably abuse this power and use it to further their own interests.
  • Dunt covers the life and works of John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor in great depth. Unsurprisingly, Dunt considers their work On Liberty to be a practical outline of how to be a liberal. The book expands on Constant’s idea of the tyranny of the majority, outlines the importance of free speech and introduces the harm principle (the actions of individuals should only be limited to prevent harm to other individuals).
  • Dunt claims that Mill and Taylor’s key error is to assume that people will pursue what they define as ‘higher pleasures’ once they experience them. This introduces an unnecessary expectation of uniformity, according to Ian, and undermines the centrality of the individual’s preferences to their freedom.
Harriet Taylor and J.S. Mill
  • The second half of the 19th century proved to be a relatively stable and prosperous period for much of Europe. There were great technological advances, wages steadily increased, cities flourished and there was an unusual peace — no European power fired on one another between 1871 to 1914.
  • The most prominent encroaches on individual freedoms by the state in this period were against minorities. During the Dreyfus affair (1894–1906), the French state imprisoned a Jewish officer in the French army (Alfred Dreyfus) for leaking military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris only to later discover that another officer was responsible. Despite this, high-ranking military officials suppressed evidence and sought further charges against Dreyfus based on forged evidence.
  • Marx, despite being the progenitor of one of the core anti-liberal intellectual movements, seems to have some sympathy for the core values of liberalism. For example, in The German Idealogy, Marx writes:
  • However, Marx then goes on to make the same mistake as Rousseau in claiming that the authentic self can only be realised at the social level and that the freedom of the group precedes the freedom of the individual.
  • Chapters 9 and 10 outline in excruciating detail the horrors of Stalinism and Nazism. Dunt forcefully argues that these two ideologies inflicted the most egregious assault on human liberty in history.
  • Dunt then maps out the two wings of liberalism that emerged after the Second World War; the laissez-faire wing (which promoted the freedom granted by markets) and the egalitarian Wing (which favoured the freedoms granted by a more equitable society) post-war. Dunt describes the animosity and deep friendship between Friedrich Hayek (who wanted to lower inflation) and John Maynard Keynes (who wanted to lower unemployment).
John Maynard Keynes
  • Dunt emphasises how many of the core features of the international order are liberal at their core. Paraphrasing Dunt, “It’s a liberal idea to have markets. It’s a liberal idea to trade instead of fight”.
  • As one example, The Atlantic Charter, a statement issued by Roosevelt and Churchill after the war, helped build the foundations of international trade. It inspired the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade of 1947, which introduced norms of reciprocity and non-discrimination. World trade grew by 8% a year for decades from the year after the Agreement was signed.
  • Another feat of post-war liberal progress was the UN Declaration of Human Rights, an international document crafted in 81 meetings by a commission appointed by the UN and led by Eleanor Roosevelt. The declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948.
  • Another intellectual reinterpretation of liberalism was put forward by Isiah Berlin. Berlin denied that the individual had any kind of fixed set of desires and promoted pluralism. In doing so, Berlin recommitted liberalism to doubt and complexity. (I struggled to get a handle on Berlin’s contribution to the development of liberalism. Dunt is clearly very sympathetic, perhaps because Berlin’s pluralism presents an alternative to Mill and Taylor’s expectation of uniformity in people’s preferences).
  • Dunt then walks the reader through the deregulation of markets that occurred throughout the 80s and 90s and which led to the financial crash of 2008. Dunt argues that this dramatic failure was a result of laissez-faire liberals’ overreliance on market forces.
  • The emergence of standpoint theory — the epistemological claim that our viewpoint depends on our social context — presents a strong critique to liberalism in the early 21st century. Liberalism, until this point, has not protected freedoms for all individuals but freedom for heterosexual white men. Dunt defends the validity of standpoint theory but warns against a slide into cultural relativism; standpoint theory, if interpreted too strongly, can rob people of individuality and free thought and make them vulnerable to groupthink. Just as liberalism needs standpoint theory to identify its failings, the social justice movement needs liberalism to defend freedom of speech and thought.
  • Political activists start to use their identities as their motivation for political engagement. Identity politics originates with the Combahee River Collective, a Black feminist lesbian socialist organisation active from 1974 to 1980 which rejected binaries.
  • Identity politics becomes a dominant political narrative in the 21st century. Despite the valuable contributions of standpoint theory and intersectionality, Dunt rejects identity politics as an approach to politics; identity politics cements difference as a key attribute of human nature and subsumes the individual into the group to their detriment.
  • Dunt then traces the re-emergence of nationalism under the Tories in Britain, Trump in the U.S. and Orban in Hungary. Dunt’s on home turf here and tells a convincing story of Brexit as an assault on liberal values in the U.K. Anti-immigration sentiment became Tory policy. The courts were described as ‘enemies of the people’ for ruling that Theresa May’s government would require the consent of Parliament to give notice of Brexit. May’s government did everything they could to force a Brexit deal through parliament using the threat of walking away with no deal.
Theresa May in Parliament
  • Dunt closes the book by outlining the core liberal values: freedom of individual, individual rights, separation of powers, reason, compromise, consent in government autonomy, moderation and protecting minorities. He rejects laissez-faire liberalism, expresses his support for egalitarian liberalism and argues that we can deliver the benefits of the market alongside state support.


  • Overall, this is a vivid and accessible book about the history of one of the most influential ideologies in modern history. Regardless of how sympathetic you are to liberalism, I think it’s worth reading if only to understand the values upon which much of western society is built.
  • Like a true liberal, Dunt adds vibrancy, individuality and colour to the life of every intellectual in the history of liberalism. I particularly enjoyed the vignettes of Benjamin Constant and John Lilburne, two fascinating and impressive intellectuals I hadn’t heard of before who led incredible lives.
  • I felt Dunt attacked a strawman of utilitarianism at various points in the book. Dunt outlines Bentham’s account of utilitarianism, one of the earliest articulations, and chooses not to describe how the theory has evolved in much the same way liberalism has. He accuses Mill of ‘mangling’ utilitarianism out of shape without presenting a clear summary of Mill’s ethical views (which surely inform Mill’s account of liberalism). Utilitarianism is a close intellectual cousin of liberalism — everyone’s happiness matters and the rightness of action can only be determined through reason and the consideration of all of the consequences of that action. It surprised me that Dunt didn’t acknowledge or explore the congruence between liberalism and utilitarianism and it was disappointing to hear him dismiss the theory without a fair examination.
  • The book predominantly explores the history of liberalism in the west. It would have been interesting to hear more about how liberalism gained favour in other parts of the world (e.g. Chile under the Chicago Boys or Deng Xiaopeng’s liberalisation of China in the 1980s).
  • Dunt comes across as somewhat biased towards Keysianism and against laissez-faire liberals. He described Keysnians as rational, clear-headed benefactors who ‘use economic modelling and sensible calculations’. Neoliberals, on the other hand, are ‘ideological and bloodthirsty’. I doubt it was so clear cut.
  • Dunt cites Sherif’s Robber’s Cave experiment as evidence of how quickly humans can adopt group identities. However, this article points out that Robber’s Cave was the third iteration of the experiment; the previous two experiments found that the boys at the camp did not form strong group identities, despite interference from experimenters to get the result they wanted. I’m unclear on how strong the evidence is in this field or which way it points.
  • The above are minor quibbles. I recommend this book and, as I hope is clear, got a lot from it.



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Longtermist, reader of books, giver of unprompted advice