A broad body of political theory based on the significance of the individual.
Individuals are to enjoy liberty, including the liberty to own and produce wealth, to conduct themselves in private as they please, and to associate with others and publish and discuss opinions in public as freely as is consistent with the avoidance of harm to others.
Government’s principal responsibility is to safeguard this.
Government is therefore a secondary and artificial activity, but a necessary one.
David Miller et al., eds, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought (Oxford, 1987)
Etymology and definition
Words such as liberal, liberty, libertarian and libertine all trace their history to the Latin liber, which means “free”. One of the first recorded instances of the word liberal occurs in 1375, when it was used to describe the liberal arts in the context of an education desirable for a free-born man. The word’s early connection with the classical education of a medieval university soon gave way to a proliferation of different denotations and connotations. Liberal could refer to “free in bestowing” as early as 1387, “made without stint” in 1433, “freely permitted” in 1530 and “free from restraint”—often as a pejorative remark—in the 16th and the 17th centuries. In 16th century England, liberal could have positive or negative attributes in referring to someone’s generosity or indiscretion. In Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare wrote of “a liberal villaine” who “hath […] confest his vile encounters”. With the rise of the Enlightenment, the word acquired decisively more positive undertones, being defined as “free from narrow prejudice” in 1781 and “free from bigotry” in 1823. In 1815, the first use of the word “liberalism” appeared in English. In Spain, the liberales, the first group to use the liberal label in a political context, fought for decades for the implementation of the 1812 Constitution. From 1820 to 1823 during the Trienio Liberal, King Ferdinand VII was compelled by the liberales to swear to uphold the Constitution. By the middle of the 19th century, liberal was used as a politicised term for parties and movements worldwide.
Over time, the meaning of the word liberalism began to diverge in different parts of the world. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica: “In the United States, liberalism is associated with the welfare-state policies of the New Deal programme of the Democratic administration of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt, whereas in Europe it is more commonly associated with a commitment to limited government and laissez-faire economic policies”. Consequently, in the United States the ideas of individualism and laissez-faire economics previously associated with classical liberalism became the basis for the emerging school of libertarian thought[better source needed] and are key components of American conservatism.
Unlike Europe and Latin America, the word liberalism in North America almost exclusively refers to social liberalism. The dominant Canadian party is the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party is usually considered liberal in the United States.
Liberalism—both as a political current and an intellectual tradition—is mostly a modern phenomenon that started in the 17th century, although some liberal philosophical ideas had precursors in classical antiquity and in Imperial China. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius praised, “the idea of a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed”. Scholars have also recognised a number of principles familiar to contemporary liberals in the works of several Sophists and in the Funeral Oration by Pericles. Liberal philosophy symbolises an extensive intellectual tradition that has examined and popularised some of the most important and controversial principles of the modern world. Its immense scholarly and academic output has been characterised as containing “richness and diversity”, but that diversity often has meant that liberalism comes in different formulations and presents a challenge to anyone looking for a clear definition.
Continental European liberalism is divided between moderates and progressives, with the moderates tending to elitism and the progressives supporting the universalisation of fundamental institutions such as universal suffrage, universal education and the expansion of property rights. Over time, the moderates displaced the progressives as the main guardians of continental European liberalism.
Political philosopher John Gray identified the common strands in liberal thought as being individualist, egalitarian, meliorist and universalist. The individualist element avers the ethical primacy of the human being against the pressures of social collectivism, the egalitarian element assigns the same moral worth and status to all individuals, the meliorist element asserts that successive generations can improve their sociopolitical arrangements and the universalist element affirms the moral unity of the human species and marginalises local cultural differences. The meliorist element has been the subject of much controversy, defended by thinkers such as Immanuel Kant who believed in human progress while suffering criticism by thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who instead believed that human attempts to improve themselves through social cooperation would fail. Describing the liberal temperament, Gray claimed that it “has been inspired by scepticism and by a fideistic certainty of divine revelation […] it has exalted the power of reason even as, in other contexts, it has sought to humble reason’s claims”.Although all liberal doctrines possess a common heritage, scholars frequently assume that those doctrines contain “separate and often contradictory streams of thought”. The objectives of liberal theorists and philosophers have differed across various times, cultures and continents. The diversity of liberalism can be gleaned from the numerous qualifiers that liberal thinkers and movements have attached to the very term “liberalism”, including classical, egalitarian, economic, social, welfare state, ethical, humanist, deontological, perfectionist, democratic and institutional, to name a few. Despite these variations, liberal thought does exhibit a few definite and fundamental conceptions. At its very root, liberalism is a philosophy about the meaning of humanity and society.
The liberal philosophical tradition has searched for validation and justification through several intellectual projects. The moral and political suppositions of liberalism have been based on traditions such as natural rights and utilitarian theory, although sometimes liberals even requested support from scientific and religious circles. Through all these strands and traditions, scholars have identified the following major common facets of liberal thought: believing in equality and individual liberty, supporting private property and individual rights, supporting the idea of limited constitutional government, and recognising the importance of related values such as pluralism, toleration, autonomy, bodily integrity and consent.
Classical and modern
John Locke and Thomas Hobbes
Enlightenment philosophers are given credit for shaping liberal ideas. These ideas were first drawn together and systematized as a distinct ideology by the English philosopher John Locke, generally regarded as the father of modern liberalism. Thomas Hobbes attempted to determine the purpose and the justification of governing authority in a post-civil war England. Employing the idea of a state of nature — a hypothetical war-like scenario prior to the state — he constructed the idea of a social contract that individuals enter into to guarantee their security and in so doing form the State, concluding that only an absolute sovereign would be fully able to sustain such a peace. Hobbes had developed the concept of the social contract, according to which individuals in the anarchic and brutal state of nature came together and voluntarily ceded some of their individual rights to an established state authority, which would create laws to regulate social interactions to mitigate or mediate conflicts and enforce justice. Whereas Hobbes advocated a strong monarchical commonwealth (the Leviathan), Locke developed the then radical notion that government acquires consent from the governed which has to be constantly present for the government to remain legitimate. While adopting Hobbes’s idea of a state of nature and social contract, Locke nevertheless argued that when the monarch becomes a tyrant, it constituted a violation of the social contract, which protects life, liberty and property as a natural right. He concluded that the people have a right to overthrow a tyrant. By placing life, liberty and property as the supreme value of law and authority, Locke formulated the basis of liberalism based on social contract theory. To these early enlightenment thinkers, securing the most essential amenities of life—liberty and private property among them—required the formation of a “sovereign” authority with universal jurisdiction.
His influential Two Treatises (1690), the foundational text of liberal ideology, outlined his major ideas. Once humans moved out of their natural state and formed societies, Locke argued as follows: “Thus that which begins and actually constitutes any political society is nothing but the consent of any number of freemen capable of a majority to unite and incorporate into such a society. And this is that, and that only, which did or could give beginning to any lawful government in the world”. The stringent insistence that lawful government did not have a supernatural basis was a sharp break with the dominant theories of governance which advocated the divine right of kings and echoed the earlier thought of Aristotle. One political scientist described this new thinking as follows: “In the liberal understanding, there are no citizens within the regime who can claim to rule by natural or supernatural right, without the consent of the governed”.
Locke had other intellectual opponents besides Hobbes. In the First Treatise, Locke aimed his arguments first and foremost at one of the doyens of 17th century English conservative philosophy: Robert Filmer. Filmer’s Patriarcha (1680) argued for the divine right of kings by appealing to biblical teaching, claiming that the authority granted to Adam by God gave successors of Adam in the male line of descent a right of dominion over all other humans and creatures in the world. However, Locke disagreed so thoroughly and obsessively with Filmer that the First Treatise is almost a sentence-by-sentence refutation of Patriarcha. Reinforcing his respect for consensus, Locke argued that “conjugal society is made up by a voluntary compact between men and women”. Locke maintained that the grant of dominion in Genesis was not to men over women, as Filmer believed, but to humans over animals. Locke was certainly no feminist by modern standards, but the first major liberal thinker in history accomplished an equally major task on the road to making the world more pluralistic: the integration of women into social theory.
Locke also originated the concept of the separation of church and state. Based on the social contract principle, Locke argued that the government lacked authority in the realm of individual conscience, as this was something rational people could not cede to the government for it or others to control. For Locke, this created a natural right in the liberty of conscience, which he argued must therefore remain protected from any government authority. He also formulated a general defence for religious toleration in his Letters Concerning Toleration. Three arguments are central: (1) earthly judges, the state in particular, and human beings generally, cannot dependably evaluate the truth-claims of competing religious standpoints; (2) even if they could, enforcing a single “true religion” would not have the desired effect because belief cannot be compelled by violence; (3) coercing religious uniformity would lead to more social disorder than allowing diversity.
Locke was also influenced by the liberal ideas of Presbyterian politician and poet John Milton, who was a staunch advocate of freedom in all its forms. Milton argued for disestablishment as the only effective way of achieving broad toleration. Rather than force a man’s conscience, government should recognise the persuasive force of the gospel. As assistant to Oliver Cromwell, Milton also took part in drafting a constitution of the independents (Agreement of the People; 1647) that strongly stressed the equality of all humans as a consequence of democratic tendencies. In his Areopagitica, Milton provided one of the first arguments for the importance of freedom of speech—”the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties”. His central argument was that the individual is capable of using reason to distinguish right from wrong. To be able to exercise this right, everyone must have unlimited access to the ideas of his fellow men in “a free and open encounter” and this will allow the good arguments to prevail.
In a natural state of affairs, liberals argued, humans were driven by the instincts of survival and self-preservation and the only way to escape from such a dangerous existence was to form a common and supreme power capable of arbitrating between competing human desires. This power could be formed in the framework of a civil society that allows individuals to make a voluntary social contract with the sovereign authority, transferring their natural rights to that authority in return for the protection of life, liberty and property. These early liberals often disagreed about the most appropriate form of government, but they all shared the belief that liberty was natural and that its restriction needed strong justification. Liberals generally believed in limited government, although several liberal philosophers decried government outright, with Thomas Paine writing “government even in its best state is a necessary evil”.
James Madison and Montesquieu
As part of the project to limit the powers of government, liberal theorists such as James Madison and Montesquieu conceived the notion of separation of powers, a system designed to equally distribute governmental authority among the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Governments had to realise, liberals maintained, that poor and improper governance gave the people authority to overthrow the ruling order through any and all possible means, even through outright violence and revolution, if needed. Contemporary liberals, heavily influenced by social liberalism, have continued to support limited constitutional government while also advocating for state services and provisions to ensure equal rights. Modern liberals claim that formal or official guarantees of individual rights are irrelevant when individuals lack the material means to benefit from those rights and call for a greater role for government in the administration of economic affairs. Early liberals also laid the groundwork for the separation of church and state. As heirs of the Enlightenment, liberals believed that any given social and political order emanated from human interactions, not from divine will. Many liberals were openly hostile to religious belief itself, but most concentrated their opposition to the union of religious and political authority, arguing that faith could prosper on its own, without official sponsorship or administration by the state.
Beyond identifying a clear role for government in modern society, liberals also have argued over the meaning and nature of the most important principle in liberal philosophy, namely liberty. From the 17th century until the 19th century, liberals (from Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill) conceptualised liberty as the absence of interference from government and from other individuals, claiming that all people should have the freedom to develop their own unique abilities and capacities without being sabotaged by others. Mill’s On Liberty (1859), one of the classic texts in liberal philosophy, proclaimed, “the only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way”. Support for laissez-faire capitalism is often associated with this principle, with Friedrich Hayek arguing in The Road to Serfdom (1944) that reliance on free markets would preclude totalitarian control by the state