Liberalism Theory

Origins and development

  • A breakdown of feudalism in Europe resulted in liberalism.
  • Advocated constitutional, and later, representative government.
  • As industrialisation spread, liberal ideas triumphed: industrialised and market economic order ‘free’ from government interference.
  • Has undoubtedly been the most powerful ideological force shaping the western political tradition.
  • Early liberalism – wanted government to interfere as little as possible in the lives of citizens. Seeks to maximise the realm of unconstrained individual action, typically by establishing a minimal state and a reliance on market economics.
  • Modern liberalism – believed that government should be responsible for delivering welfare services such as health, housing, pensions and education, as well as at least regulating the economy. A tradition within liberalism that provides a qualified endorsement for social and economic intervention as a means of promoting personal development.
  • Liberalism can be seen as dominating political and social development in the West: Fukuyama: “We are witnessing the end of history [...] Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. Backed up by Bobbitt who stated that liberalism defeats communism etc. etc., however, at the very point of its ‘triumph’, liberalism was confronted with the rose of illiberal forces – religious fundamentalism.

Core values

  • The individual – As feudalism was displaced, individuals were confronted by a broader range of social possibilities Creation of society in which each person is capable of developing and flourishing to the fullness of their potential.
  • Freedom – Individual liberty – supreme political value. Ability to think or act as one wishes. Do not believe in the right to absolute freedom – becomes ‘licence’ – right to abuse others. Mill – accepts minimal restrictions on freedom, and only in order to prevent harm to others: self-regarding and other regarding (can restrict freedom of others or do damage). Although individual may be sovereign over his or her body, each must respect the fact that every individual enjoys an equal right to liberty: Rawls – everyone is entitled to the widest possible liberty consistent with a like liberty for all.
  • Reason – Liberalism remains very much part of the Enlightenment project. Reason – strong bias against paternalism. Reason gives humans the ability to make their own destiny. Promotes personal development.
  • Justice – Particular kind of moral judgement – distribution of rewards and punishment. Individualism implies a commitment to foundational equality – humans are seen to be ‘born’ equal in the sense that each individual is of equal moral worth. Also implies formal equality – individuals should enjoy the same formal status in society. Liberals thus fiercely disapprove of social privileges or advantages. Liberalism is ‘difference blind’. Equality of opportunity – same chance. Not of outcome – social equality is undesirable – meritocracy.
  • Toleration – willingness to accept and celebrate moral, cultural and political diversity. Acceptance of pluralism – diversity or choice.  Commitment to toleration – Voltaire – “I detest what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it”. Liberal case for toleration first emerged from Milton and Locke to defend religious freedom. Argued that since the proper function of government is to protect life, liberty and property, it has no right to meddle in “the care of men’s souls”. J. S. Mill desired toleration of difference to keep society changing to avoid “dull conformism” of democracy.

Types of Liberalism

Early Liberalism

  • Natural Rights theory supported by Locke Rousseau Jefferson. Citizens have certain inalienable rights such as life, liberty and property. These need to be protected by the state and for Locke this formed an important social contract.
  • Government cannot interfere with people’s rights unless allowed. If this continues the people can dissolve the government.
  • People must give their permission before the government can exercise power, which is the beginning of more liberal democracies

Classical Liberalism

  • Based primarily on the idea of Freedom as promoted by Mill.
  • Freedom would maximise human progress by promoting innovation, creativity and self fulfilment
  • He saw this occurring through minimal state intervention therefore the individual should have “sovereignty over mind and body”
  • Led to political tolerance and the idea of respecting everybody's freedom
  • Mill did say that freedom of speech should be limited only if it incites others to violence though
  • Although they did not believe democracy was the answer it could lead to tyranny of the majority and worst still dull conformity. Mill believed in votes for all but the more intelligent should have multiple votes.
  • Belief in free markets but expected government to prevent monopolies

Social Darwinism

  • Took Darwin’s views on evolution and applied them to social theory with Herbert Spencer using the phrase “survival of the fittest” as we are all unequal in abilities. For him it was about the individual being free to pursue whatever they wanted and those who were unable or unwilling would fall by the wayside.
  • Some of these ideas were used by the New Right in the 1980s where the individual was given freedom to achieve with little state control in economic areas.

New Liberalism

  • Developed in the 1870s this idea fought to be different from dominant idea of the time where selfishness and pursuit of the individual were of paramount importance.
  • T H Green called for a social conscience as we are not completely free to pursue our own interests and self-realisation, there needs to be an understanding of what our impact is on society
  • Capitalism and industrialisation had caused many social problems that needed tackling
  • Large parts of society needed help to benefit from classical liberalism’s economic ideas
  • New Liberals such as Lloyd-George Churchill and Asquith pushed for change through their emphasis on Pension provision and National Insurance
  • It was a movement away from small state to one where they had a positive influence on people’s lives with an attempt to ensure greater equality.


  • As part of coalition government in 1940 William Beveridge a Liberal was given the job of creating welfare state
  • He saw liberty as removing the deprivations of poverty unemployment and a lack of education
  • This system expanded equality of opportunity and positive freedom, through the state maximising people’s potential
  • Adoption of state controlled Keynesain economics enabled greater control of individual benefit by the state furthering the cause of equality of opportunity
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