Liberalism: Origins

Liberalism: Origins

Historical Background

  • Liberalism as a political philosophy emerged in the 17th century, mainly in response to the social and political changes brought about by the European Enlightenment.
  • Its development is closely linked with the growth of individualism, a belief in the supreme importance of the individual over any social group or collective body.
  • Originally, liberalism aimed to limit the power of the state and increase individual liberty, reflecting the aspirations of the commercial middle class during the Industrial Revolution.

Key Thinkers

  • John Locke (1632-1704) is often referred to as the ‘father of liberalism’. He argued that individuals have natural rights to life, liberty and property, and that these rights are inherent and cannot be taken away by the state.
  • Adam Smith (1723-1790) is another early liberal thinker; he advocated the idea of a ‘free market’ and criticised the state’s intervention in economic affairs. Smith is considered a significant figure within liberal economic thought.
  • The 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill pushed the idea of ‘individual liberty’ further. He proposed that individuals must not only be free to pursue their own interests, but also should seek the improvement of society as a whole.

Core Principles

  • Within liberalism, two underlying principles are paramount: freedom and equality.
  • Liberal emphasis on freedom is generally linked to the concept of negative liberty, or the absence of restraints. Liberals also value positive freedom, meaning the ability to act according to one’s will.
  • Equality in liberalism is often understood as equality under the law and equality of opportunity, rather than equality of outcome.
  • Throughout its history, liberalism has evolved and split into two key strands: ‘classical liberalism’, which stresses limited government and laissez-faire economics, and ‘modern liberalism’, which supports a broader role for the state in ensuring social justice.

Remember: The roots of liberalism lie in its commitment to individual rights and freedoms, and its consistent challenges against traditional authority. The evolution of liberalism has adapted to societal changes, but its core principles of freedom and equality have remained constant.