As previously seen, liberals see a state as necessary. Individuals would recognise that it would be in their interests to sacrifice a portion of their freedom to have protection through a system of laws. Therefore, there is a (hypothetical) ‘social contract’ between the state and the people. This theory was explained by John Locke in Two Treatieses of Civil Government (1690).
Social contract theory suggests that political authority comes from below- from the people. The people in a society create the state by and for individuals, and it exists to protect and serve their interests. It arises out of their consent and so implies that they do not have an absolute obligation to obey all state action and decisions. When government breaks the terms of their contract the people have the right to refuse it and rebel. The state’s key role is to be a neutral arbiter (umpire) in society, not to represent the interests of one group in society over others. Its role is to enforce the laws of the land, particularly agreements between individuals (contracts), and not to take sides.
Liberals support democracy as it gives consent, and therefore legitimacy, to government. It is a useful protection against the tyranny of government, as the people effectively have a say in what the government is doing, for example how taxes are being spent (‘no taxation without representation’). It is also the only way to achieve ‘utility’- promoting the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number. Mill suggested that, if unrestrained, democracy leads to tyranny. But without democracy, ignorance and brutality prevail. Democracy promotes participation and education- an idea known as developmental democracy. Finally, democracy is the only way of creating harmony in a modern society, as it reflects the interests of various groups.
Despite the close link between liberalism and democracy, some early liberals saw democracy as dangerous. This is because it amounts to rule by ‘the masses’ at the expense of individual wisdom, and it does not allow for the fact that some people may be much better informed and educated than others, yet everyone receives one vote. Mill even advocated the granting of more votes to the educated as a way of addressing this. Democracy also rejects the concept of the individual in favour of will of the group, as it is a form of majoritarianism, or the rule of ‘the 51%’. Democracy can lead to a ‘tyranny of the majority’ (quote by Alexis de Tocqueville), as whatever the majority vote is, will be the decision that is made. However, modern liberals would reject these criticisms, suggesting that as long as democracy is limited and monitored by a constitutional framework, then it is the best way of protecting the freedoms and promoting the views of the greatest number of people.
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 an 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.