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Liberalism, attitude, philosophy, or movement that has as its basic concern the development of personal freedom and social progress. Liberalism and democracy are now usually thought to have common aims, but in the past many liberals considered democracy unhealthy because it encouraged mass participation in politics. Nevertheless, liberalism eventually became identified with movements to change the social order through the further extension of democracy. A distinction must therefore be made between liberalism, in which social change is conceived of as gradual, flexible, and adaptive, and radicalism, in which social change is seen as fundamental and based on new principles of authority.

The course of liberalism in a given country is usually conditioned by the character of the prevailing form of government. For example, in countries in which the political and religious authorities are separate, liberalism connotes, mainly, political, economic, and social reform; in countries in which a state church exists or a church is politically influential, liberalism connotes, mainly, anticlericalism. In domestic politics, liberals have opposed feudal restraints that prevent the individual from rising out of a low social status; barriers such as censorship that limit free expression of opinion; and arbitrary power exercised over the individual by the state. In international politics, liberals have opposed the domination of foreign policy by militarists and military considerations and the exploitation of native colonial people, and they have sought to substitute a cosmopolitan policy of international cooperation. In economics, liberals have attacked monopolies and mercantilist state policies that subject the economy to state control. In religion, liberals have fought against church interference in the affairs of the state and attempts by religious pressure groups to influence public opinion.

A distinction is sometimes made between so-called negative liberalism and positive liberalism. Between the mid-17th and the mid-19th centuries, liberals fought chiefly against oppression, arbitrariness, and misuses of power and emphasized the needs of the free individual. About the middle of the 19th century many liberals developed a more positive program stressing the constructive social activity of the state and advocating state action in the interests of the individual. The present-day defenders of the older liberal policies deplore this departure and argue that positive liberalism is merely authoritarianism in disguise. The defenders of positive liberalism argue that state and church are not the only obstructors of freedom, but that poverty may deprive the individual of the possibility of making significant choices and must therefore be controlled by constituted authority.


In postmedieval European culture liberalism was perhaps first expressed in humanism, which redirected thinking in the 15th century from the consideration of the divine order of the world and its reflections in the temporal social order to the conditions and potentialities of people on earth. Humanism was furthered by the invention of printing, which increased access of individuals to the classics of antiquity. The publication of vernacular versions of the Bible stimulated individual religious experience and choice. During the Renaissance in Italy the humanist trend affected mainly the arts and philosophic and scientific speculation. During the Reformation in other countries of Europe, particularly those that became Protestant, and in Britain, humanism was directed largely against the abuses of the church.

As social transformation continued, the objectives and concerns of liberalism changed. It retained, however, a humanist social philosophy that sought to enlarge personal, social, political, and economic opportunities for self-expression by removing obstacles to individual choice.


In England in the 17th century, during the Great Rebellion, Englishmen in the New Model Army of Parliament began to debate liberal ideas concerning extension of the suffrage, parliamentary rule, the responsibilities of government, and freedom of conscience. The controversies of this period produced one of the classics of liberal thinking, Areopagitica (1644), a treatise by the poet and prose writer John Milton in which he advocated freedom of thought and expression. One of the opponents of liberal thinking, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, contributed significantly to liberal theory, although he favored strong and even unrestrained government. He argued that the sole test of government was its effectiveness rather than its basis in religion or tradition. Hobbes’s pragmatic view of government, which stressed the equality of individuals, opened the way to free criticism of government and the right to revolution, ideas that Hobbes himself opposed. See British Political and Social Thought.


An influential early liberal was the English philosopher John Locke. In his political writings, which deeply influenced the framers of the U.S. Constitution, he argued for popular sovereignty, the right of rebellion against oppression, and toleration of religious minorities. According to the thought of Locke and his many followers, the state exists not to promote people’s spiritual salvation, but to serve its citizens and to guarantee their life, liberty, and property under a constitution.

Much of Locke’s philosophy is reflected in the writings of the Anglo-American political philosopher and writer Thomas Paine, who argued that the authority of one generation should not be considered binding on its successors, that the state is perhaps necessary but still an evil, and that a belief in divine order was all the religion that need be demanded of free people. Thomas Jefferson also echoed Locke in the Declaration of Independence and in later pronouncements defending revolutions, attacking paternalistic government, and upholding free expression of unpopular opinions.

In France, Locke’s philosophy was taken over by the leaders of the French Enlightenment, notably by the author and philosopher Voltaire. He insisted that the state should be supreme over the church and demanded universal religious toleration, abolition of censorship, lenient punishment of criminals, and a strong state acting only under general rules of law against forces obstructive of social progress and individual liberty. For Voltaire as for the French philosopher and dramatist Denis Diderot, the state is a machine for the creation of happiness and a positive instrument designed to check a strong nobility and a strong church, the two forces they considered most uncompromisingly dedicated to the conservation of old institutions.


In Britain, liberalism was elaborated by the utilitarian school, chiefly the jurist Jeremy Bentham and his disciple, the economist John Stuart Mill. The utilitarians reduced all human experiences to pleasures and pains, maintaining that the only function of the state was to increase pleasure and reduce pain and that legislation was acceptable as an evil designed to reduce worse evils. Utilitarian liberalism had an especially beneficial effect on the reform of British criminal law. Bentham demonstrated that the harsh penology of the 18th century was uneconomical and that leniency was shrewd as well as decent. Mill defended the individual’s right to act freely, even to the person’s own detriment. His essay “On Liberty” (1859) is one of the most eloquent defenses of free speech.


By the middle of the 19th century, liberal thought concerning constitutionalism, wider suffrage, toleration of dissent, absence of arbitrariness, and policies designed to promote happiness had acquired powerful advocates in Britain and other European countries and in the United States. Despite a prevalent tendency to find fault with the U.S., European visitors considered that nation an exemplar of liberalism because of its popular culture, emphasis on equality, and wide suffrage. Nevertheless, liberalism reached a stage of crisis at this time, in relation to democracy and economic power, that was important to its later development. On the one hand, some democrats such as the French philosopher and author Jean Jacques Rousseau were not liberals. Rousseau objected to the network of voluntary, private groups that many liberals considered essential to the movement. On the other hand, most early liberals were not democrats. Neither Locke nor Voltaire had believed in universal suffrage, and even most 19th-century liberals feared mass participation in politics, holding that the so-called lower classes were uninterested in the principal values of liberalism, that is, that they were indifferent to freedom and hostile to the expression of diversity in society. As suffrage steadily widened in the 19th century, with the successive reform acts in Britain in 1832, 1867, 1884, and 1885, many liberals became concerned chiefly with preserving the individual values that they identified with an aristocratic social and political order. Their place as social critics and reformers soon was taken by more radical groups such as the socialists.


The crisis concerning economic power was more profound. One branch of liberal philosophy was its economics as developed by the so-called classical economists, notably the Britons Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Economic liberals opposed mercantilist restrictions on economic activity and favored unhampered private enterprise. Such thinkers as the British statesman John Bright argued against such legislation as maximum-hour laws on the ground that it infringed on liberty and that society, particularly its economy, would flourish best when it was regulated least. As industrial capitalism developed in the 19th century, economic liberalism continued to be characterized by a negative attitude toward state authority. The working classes began to suspect that the philosophy protected the interests of powerful economic groups, particularly manufacturers, and that it encouraged a policy of indifference and even of brutality toward the working classes. These classes, which had begun to acquire political status and organized strength, turned to the political liberalism that was more concerned with their needs—that of the socialist and labor parties.

The outcome of this crisis in economic and social thinking was the development of positive liberalism. As noted, certain modern liberals, like the Austrian-born economist Friedrich August von Hayek, consider the positive attitude an essential betrayal of liberal ideals. Others, such as the British philosophers Thomas Hill Green and Bernard Bosanquet, known as the “Oxford Idealists,” devised a so-called organic liberalism designed to “hinder hindrances to the good life.” Green and Bosanquet advocated positive state action to promote self-fulfillment, that is, to prevent economic monopoly, abolish poverty, and secure people against the disabilities of sickness, unemployment, and old age. They came also to identify liberalism with the extension of democracy.


In the U.S., positive liberalism was further extended, with such developments as the social criticism of the muckrakers, the agitation for and enactment of legislation curbing trusts and extending the suffrage to women, the trade-union movement, the “New Freedom” of President Woodrow Wilson, and the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Gradually these programs, movements, and laws prepared the way and provided sanctions for government intervention in the economy. The U.S. Supreme Court, which had long maintained a sturdy defense against such intervention, heard eloquent defense for state regulation of hours and wages by both conservatives, such as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and liberals, such as Justice Louis Dembitz Brandeis. Their opinions were accepted by the majority after 1936, when the Court sustained one act of New Deal legislation after another, asserting that individual citizens must be protected against overpowering economic groups and from disasters they have not brought on themselves. Legislative enactments provided for old-age and survivors insurance, unemployment insurance, federal control of various financial interests, minimum wages, supervision of agricultural production, and the right of labor unions to organize and bargain collectively.

Despite the metamorphosis in the philosophy of liberalism since the mid-19th century, almost all modern liberals agree that their common objective is enlargement of the individual’s opportunity to realize full potentialities.

Contributed By:
Peter Gay

Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

One Response

  1. […] since dawn of civilizations. Democracy is probably the oldest known ideology. Another ideology, Liberalism, became notable in the 18th […]

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