50 Politics Classics: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: May 27th, 2015 by bobmorris

50 Politics50 Politics Classics: Freedom Equality Power: Mind-Changing, World-Changing Ideas from Fifty Landmark Books
Tom Butler-Bowdon
Nicholas Brealey Publishing (2015)

“The world is a dangerous place to live…because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” Albert Einstein

Actually, the complete quotation is this: “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” In the Inferno, Dante reserved the last – and worst ring in hell for those who, in a moral crisis, preserve their neutrality.

This is the latest in the 50 Classics series, all of them created by Tom Butler-Bowdon. As with his selections for previously published volumes, I was surprised to note several omissions in this one (e.g. Plato’s Republic, included among the 50 Philosophy Classics and Thomas More’s Utopia, included among the “50 More Politics Classics” in this volume, Pages 317-323). However, I find it very difficult to suggest which of Butler-Bowdon’s selections to replace so let’s go with them. All are eminently worthy.

* * *

These are the themes on which he focuses:

o Liberty as an end in itself
o The striving for equality throughout the ages
o The role of political activism
o Power never remains still
o Vision and implementation of ideas
o “The good, the bad, and the ugly”

* * *

Here is a sample of key assertions that Butler-Bowdon examines in Chapters 1-5:

“Politics must rest on a moral foundation that accords freedom to people for the sake of it.”

“The poorest countries in the world have something in common: failed political institutions. Without the stability and transparency that good government brings, the incentive to create wealth disappears.”

“Radicals need to understand the nature of power if they are ever to see their aims materialize.”

“Political action is shaped by the range of actors and interests, but it still takes a superior leader to choose the best path among therm.”

“War between advanced nations makes no sense in an age of economic integration.”

* * *

The 50 “classics” of political thought are organized within seven sections:

o PHILOSOPHY OF FREEDOM: Six selections discussed, including Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958)
o RECOGNITION AND RIGHT: Nine, including George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945)
o ACT NOW: Seven, including Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776)
o GEOPOLITICS: Seven, including Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World (2008)
o POLITICAL LEADERSHIP: Seven, including Edward Bernays’ Propaganda (1928)
o GOVERNMENT OF STATES: Ten, including Aristotle’s Politics (4th century BCE)
o “AND THE FUTURE GOES TO….”: Four, including John Mickelthwait and Adrian Woolridge’s The Fourth Revolution (2014)

* * *

For each of the 50 selections discussed, Butler-Bowdon makes brilliant use of two reader-friendly devices (“In a nutshell” and “In a similar vein” sections) followed by brief but remarkably substantial discussion and then his “Final comments,” followed by a mini-bio of the given author.

Einstein’s observation correctly suggests the importance of establishing and then constantly protecting as well as strengthening a social order within which freedom, equality, and power are guided and informed by basic principles of justice. I cited Dante because, obviously, evil ignored is evil condoned, indeed evil encouraged.

Today, at least in the United States where I reside, approval ratings indicate that IRS agents and used-car salespersons are ranked higher than politicians. The term “politics” tends to have negative connotations. Well, I agree with Harry Truman (who probably got the idea from Sam Rayburn) that politics “is the art of the possible.” In recent years in the United States, fewer than half of those eligible to register in fact did so, and, fewer than half of them then voted. We may not get the government we deserve but we certainly get the government that indifference permits.

Tom Butler-Bowdon did not write this book to achieve political objectives. He is by nature and temperament an educator in the very best sense, as well as an avid student with an insatiable curiosity to explore mind-changing ideas from world-changing sources, then share what he has learned with as many people as possible. In my opinion, this is his most valuable achievement…thus far. Bravo!

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