This is the earliest liberal tradition, emerging during the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and reaching a high point in the 19th century. It was a reaction to religious conformity and the ascribed statuses of feudal society, and began in the UK, where the industrial revolution was most advanced. Some classical liberal ideas have increased in popularity in recent decades, namely neoliberalism, which is a return to classical liberal economics.
View of freedom
Classical liberals support the concept of negative freedom, meaning that individuals should, as far as possible, be free from government interference. Therefore, there should be an absence of constraints on the individual, meaning the state should be minimal. This will encourage individuals to take responsibility for their lives and be self-reliant. The alternative is that people may become reliant on the state, leading to a dependency culture. Egoistical individualism is also supported by classical liberals, where freedom is associated with self-interest and self-reliance.
View of the state
Classical (and modern) liberals support the principle of self-government- that groups of people should have the power to rule themselves- to help protect civil liberties. They also see the state as something which has been created by the people as a way of protecting rights and interests (mechanistic theory). Classical liberals strongly support a minimal state, whereby the state just lays down the conditions for an orderly existence but, as far as possible, does not get involved in people’s lives. The state’s role is to maintain order, enforce contracts between individuals, and protect its citizens from outside attack. Anything more than this runs the risk of infringing people’s liberties. Some liberals support the idea of social Darwinism, which is the ‘survival of the fittest’ principle applied to society. The idea is that people will rise and fall in society depending on their own merits and efforts, so it is not the responsibility of the state to help those at the bottom of society, for example through welfare. Classical liberals support a laissez-faire capitalist economy, which allows for personal freedom and provides benefits for all of society.
This arose as a reaction to the effects of capitalism, which had created large inequalities of wealth and social circumstance. Modern liberals recognised that, in conditions of extreme poverty, people were prevented from rising in society, no matter how talented they were or how hard they worked.
View of freedom
TH Green (1836-82) believed that the unrestrained pursuit of profit had caused new forms of poverty and injustice, and that economic liberty had blighted the life chances of many. Green suggested that individuals possess social responsibilities, not just individual ones, and are linked to others. He and other modern liberals were critical of the classical liberal notion of negative liberty- giving freedom of choice would lead to unjust actions and exploitation (‘freedom to starve’). Modern liberals saw freedom as the ability of the individual to develop and realise their potential, and achieve fulfilment (positive freedom). This recognises that liberty may be threatened by social disadvantage and inequality, so it is not enough for individuals to be ‘left alone’ to ensure liberty.
View of the state
Modern liberals differ from classical liberals in that they support an enabling state. This is where the state helps to protect individual freedoms by exercising a wider range of social and economic responsibilities than a minimal state. This involves reducing inequality, to help provide equality of opportunity for all, even the least well-off. Modern liberalism therefore supports welfarism. This was seen through the actions of the Liberal government of the early 1900s, which introduced old-age pensions and National Insurance. The Beveridge Report of 1942 reported that much of the British population were held back by the ‘five giants’: want (poverty), ignorance (lack of education), disease (ill health), squalor (poor living conditions) and idleness (unemployment). Modern liberals suggest that the government had a responsibility to remove these, as they were barriers to freedom.
Modern liberalism also supports ‘Keynesianism’- a rejection of classical liberal laissez-faire economics, based on the ideas of the economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946). Keynes rejected a self-regulating market and said that governments can influence ‘aggregate demand’ (the total amount people are spending in the economy) by spending its own money in the economy. The way to boost an economy would therefore be to increase spending OR cut taxes- to encourage people to spend more. Economic problems can be solved by government intervention, for example running a budget deficit (spending more than you have coming in). Keynes was not opposed to capitalism; he just acknowledged that an unrestricted market would not always be workable. His ideas became accepted practice for western countries by the mid-20th century, until the 1970s.
How far does modern liberalism depart from classical liberalism?
Although there are differing ideas over the conception of freedom and the role of the state, there remains some common ground between the different types of liberalism. Both types want to promote freedom, although the way the state should do this is different. Also, despite the support for welfarism, modern liberalism does not place society before the individual. The state cannot force people to be good, but should help provide conditions in which they can make responsible moral decisions- the individual therefore retains autonomy. It can be seen therefore that the underlying commitment to the needs of the individual and individual freedom remains- the central thrust of modern liberalism is to help individuals help themselves. In addition, both types are suspicious of an over-powerful state, supporting limited government as the best way to protect the liberties of individuals.
Liberal Views On:
- Human nature: a positive and progressive view of human nature based on rationalism, rejecting the view that humans are limited. Views all individuals as unique and highly capable and if given opportunity will advance. Views humans from a standpoint of equality and so rejects superiority based on birth right and prior social conditioning.
- State: early liberals distrusted the state, especially as it was often the rule of a single person or small cohort. Classical liberals understood the need for a state but felt it had to be kept to a minimum (‘nightwatchman’ state). Modern liberals see the need for a state as an enabler, to provide opportunity for others to advance and progress.
- Society: society is a collective body which is comprised largely of self-reliant individuals. Sees the need for contractual obligations, for instance so that business can operate with confidence. Understands the work of voluntary groups in society in the belief that as a natural order emerges with the market economy so a natural order will emerge in society as people promote the common good.
- Economy: very pro-market, support capitalism believing that incentives make people strive harder to advance and they like rewards for effort. Classical liberals favour a laissez faire approach to the economy. Modern liberals feel that an unregulated free market can cause social problems and are supportive of state intervention to curb the excesses of the market economy to promote social justice and equality of opportunity.
- Explain and analyse three ways in which liberals have viewed state intervention. (9 marks) - 9 marks calls for 3 paragraphs!
- Your answer should include: Limited / Intervention / Nightwatchman / Negative / Freedom / Positive / Welfarism