Liberalism arose amongst the educated middle classes in the 18th century, and was characterised by a desire to maximise the freedoms and opportunities for individuals to grow, develop and maximise their talents and skills. It is closely linked to the Enlightenment, the moving from traditional, faith-based beliefs towards scientific methods and intellectual enquiry.
Liberalism is in many ways the ideology of the industrialised West. It is so deeply embedded that liberalism and ‘western civilisation’ are difficult to distinguish from each other. Early liberalism proposed that liberal values would progress and ‘triumph’, and the nature of liberalism was quite radical and revolutionary when it first emerged, as it was a threat to the existing order.
By the 20th century it had become characterised as morally neutral- liberalism attempts to provide conditions in which people can pursue the good life, but what is ‘good’ is not prescribed. However, it would be misleading to portray liberalism as ‘just do your own thing’, as there is a moral basis to liberal ideas, and there are distinctive principles to liberalism.
The focus of liberalism as a political ideology is its focus on the individual person as a primary political unit. In medieval feudal times, there was little importance placed on individual people. People were identified as members of their social grouping rather than as individuals (such as by village, family or social class). As feudalism was replaced by a free market (capitalism) people suddenly had choices in their lives – and were encouraged to think for themselves. The choices such as where to work, what to do for a living and who to marry suddenly meant thinking, and being treated, as sovereign individuals. Philosophers began to examine life by looking at individuals and their own abilities to make choices and think for themselves. Political philosophies began to develop to adapt to these theories such as the ideas of ‘natural rights’ (meaning that every person, because they were human had their own rights, given to them at birth). Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, expressed the idea of the individual and thought of people as ‘ends in themselves’, and not merely as part of a greater grouping.
The stressing of people as individuals means that people are different from each other and have unique tastes and characters. Each person, no matter how different to others, has the same status and therefore rights as everyone else. Liberalism therefore believes in the ‘primacy of the individual’, although this has been expressed in different ways. Classical liberals believe in egoistical individualism, where individuals look after their own interests ahead of any collective interest, and therefore ‘society’ does not exist. Modern liberals more support developmental individualism, where freedom means that people can grow and develop, fulfilling their potential. This suggests that some state intervention may be needed to help this happen. People still think as individuals, but as result wish to look after each other to create a better world. Therefore, toleration will be a feature of a liberal society. Toleration is the acceptance of different views and ideas, for example religious beliefs. This is best summed up in the quote attributed to the French thinker Voltaire- ‘I detest what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it’.
Freedom / Liberty
Liberals believe in the individual, so also believe in individual freedoms as individuals can’t exist if they are not entitled to certain rights. Many early liberals called this freedom ‘liberty’ and said it was a ‘natural right’ of a human. It provided the individual with the ability to make the free choices that were so important for them to live how they wanted to live. They said that if you were not free you could not express your individuality or uniqueness. This was influenced by the concept of utilitarianism, where human motivation is explained by the desire to maximise ‘utility’ (pleasure/happiness) and avoid pain. Since each person is the best judge of what gives them pleasure, they should be allowed to decide how to live their lives. Liberals argue that liberty should only be limited if an individual is going to limit someone else’s liberty (commit a crime, or make them do something against their will). Such a view is called libertarian and is represented by the philosopher John Stuart Mill.
Mill stressed that freedom could be classified by making ‘self-regarding’ rules (the amount of freedom people should have to do things to themselves, for instance wear a seat belt or not) and ‘other regarding’ (the freedom to do things to others, for instance physical violence). Mill argued that ‘self-regarding’ actions should never be limited. This is known as negative freedom – the absence of restrictions on an individual’s freedom to act, by bodies such as the state.
By the late 19th century, liberals saw this idea of freedom as too restrictive. Thinkers such as TH Green argued that people do not simply pursue their own interests, but also common goals for the good of society. From this came the concept of positive freedom – the ability of individuals to decide what they can or can’t/will or won’t do, as they have been allowed to develop their potential. This may involve help and action by others such as the state.
The State Is a Necessary Evil
Liberals do not believe that a free, balanced and tolerant society will just naturally develop. They disagree with anarchists about this who believe that laws and government are unnecessary and corrupting. Liberals believe that free individuals may use that freedom to exploit others and so limit their freedom. They think that the liberty of one person is always naturally a threat to another person, even if they are not being threatening deliberately. They think that a sovereign state is the only way in which individual freedom can be persevered for all.
Although liberals are convinced of the need for government they are also aware of the dangers it entails. There are two main reasons that they fear governments. Firstly, a sovereign government operates with sovereign power and is therefore capable of restricting liberty and controlling individuals. Secondly, they are convinced of an individual’s capacity for selfishness, and therefore their ability to exploit or harm others. They claim that an individual who gains power will naturally try to use it for their own benefit. They are therefore convinced that power corrupts individuals and leads them to use government to limit the freedoms of others. This is best summed up by a quote from the Victorian historian Lord Acton: ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.
Liberals therefore believe that there should be a limited government where there are checks and balances on government power. This can be achieved through a constitution. A constitution is a set of rules that sets out duties, powers and functions for various institutions of government. It governs the government. It defines the extent of what the government can do, its power, and therefore, limits it. These limits could be expressed in a legal document or written constitution, such as the US Constitution. They could also be achieved through in-built checks on power, such as a separation of the executive, legislature and judiciary, to ensure not one branch of government is overly dominant.
In addition to this, state activity should be limited in the economic sphere, as competition between individuals who are seeking profit is beneficial to all. The economist Adam Smith supported laissez-faire capitalism, where the economy is organised by the market, there is a free exchange of goods and services, and wealth is privately owned.