Liberalism

Robert Bain
Note by Robert Bain, updated more than 1 year ago
Robert Bain
Created by Robert Bain over 6 years ago
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Liberalism History: ·           Liberalism rose out of the breakdown of Feudalism in Europe. The “rising middle class” of the time challenged the authority of absolute monarchies and rooted aristocracies. ·           Liberalism in the 19th century was rooted in industrial capitalism, where businesses were encouraged to be free of government control, and states were also encouraged to trade freely. ·           Liberalism became less revolutionary and more conservative with each advance. o   “Standing less for change and reform, and more for the maintenance of – largely liberal – institutions”. P.26 (Heywood, 2012) ·         As industrialisation went on, classical liberal theory turned to modern liberal theory, where liberals came to accept that the state had a role in welfare provision and economic management. ·         Some have come to argue that liberalism is not a coherent ideology, believing in contradictory beliefs over time. Core beliefs: ·         Individualism: o    Human beings are unique and possess attributes that are only applicable to them. The individual is central to liberalism. o   The individual is more important than the collective body, and all political decisions should revolve around what is best for the individual. ·         Freedom: o   People must have freedom of choice to do what they want within the constraints of the law. o   Classical liberals saw freedom as a fundamental human right, the only real way in which a human can live their lives. o    Modern liberals however see it more as a way for people to develop their skills and potential. o   Most Liberals however accept that individual freedom must be curbed when it interferes on the rights and wellbeing of others. John Stuart Mills in “On Liberty” wrote that “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”. o   When it comes to a person damaging themselves, either physically or morally, however, a persons’ freedom should not be curbed. o   Two types of freedom, Isaiah Berlin “Two Concepts of Liberty”: §  Negative: The complete absence of exterior restrictions. §  Positive: The ability to be completely self-sufficient and autonomous. ·         Reason: o   (Andrew Heywood, 2012) P.24: “Liberals believe, first and foremost, [that] individuals, [are] endowed with reason”. o   Liberals believe that reason is central to human advancement. Closely linked to the Enlightenment where the abandonment of superstition and ignorance is central to progress. o   The Liberal view on human nature is that we are creatures of reason and are perfectly capable of making rational decisions that are in our best self-interest. Liberals strongly reject the idea of paternalism, where people need guidance. o   Most Liberals however reject the idea that humans are completely infallible. ·         Justice: o   Liberals believe strongly in ‘social justice’, the idea that all humans are born morally equally and equal before the law. Political equality, ‘one person, one vote’, is also a strong belief. o   Everyone in society should enjoy the same distribution of rights and entitlements. o   Oppose a persons’ status in society being elevated through their social background, race, gender, or creed. o   Equality of opportunity. Everyone should have an equal chance to succeed in life upon birth. o   Meritocracy. A person’s position in life should depend on how hard they are prepared to work for what they want. ·         Toleration: o   Since Liberals views each individual as unique and different, it naturally follows that Liberals celebrate the idea of toleration and diversity. o   Each person is equal before the law, and therefore everyone in society, regardless of who they are, has equal rights. o   If every competing interest and individual is equally recognised, social harmony will emerge, as everyone in society needs eachother for it to work. Liberalism and the State: ·         Government: o   Although Liberals place strong importance on the freedom of the individual, they also believe that protection of rights can only be achieved through the establishment of a sovereign state. o   Individuals must be, by law, prevented from abusing the rights of others and developing a license over them (slavery), through a state which has the power to back up these laws. o   Everyone in society has a ‘social contract’ with government, where they respect the laws and authority of the state, and in return benefit from the protection of their rights and property. o   Political authority comes ‘from below’, where everyone in society is given an equal say in who they want to govern them. o   The state should be a ‘neutral referee’, where government is created by individuals, for individuals. Andrew Heywood, “Liberals thus regard the state as a neutral arbiter amongst the competing individuals and groups within society.   ·         Constitutionalism: o   Since Liberals see the danger of government’s becoming too powerful and infringing on the rights of the individual, they see constitutionalism as a way to prevent this, as it puts the rights of the citizens higher up than the power of the government. o   A codified constitution is one aspect of constitutionalism as it sets out the extent to which governments can act on the power they have been given. Since it is a single authouritive document, it is hard to challenge. o   Liberals also believe in power being dispersed between several autonomous political establishments to act as checks on eachother. For example the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the US government.  Liberalism and the Economy: Free Enterprise: ·         Liberalism was an ideology born out of the middle-class. Therefore, it naturally developed into an ideology that supports free-enterprise, as they wanted to replace the old aristocracy and establish economic power for themselves. ·         Encourages free trade between individuals in nations, and between countries in the wider world. ·         Supports the establishment of property rights. ·         Protects people who want to accumulate wealth, and pass it onto future generations of their family. ·         Places great emphasis on the voluntary actions between agents in an economy; employees, employers, consumers all have freedom of contract. ·         The ‘free-market’ core of Liberalism was founded by Scotsman Adam Smith: o   Most famous work “The Wealth of Nations” was essentially the first book written on capitalism. o   Seen as the ‘father of economic liberalism’ as he pleads for the freedom of the individual from state control and promoted the market system. The Moral Case: ·         Many Liberals hold a strong moral case for the establishment of a free-market economy. ·         They see economic freedom as a strong defence for the individual against the state. ·         Since Liberals see any involvement of the Government as a road to tyranny, minimal government interference in the economy is a way to safeguard the individual. Classical Liberalism v Modern Liberalism: ·         Much of the classical liberal economic rhetoric relies on a free-market stance. ·         Many modern Liberals hold a much more left of centre stance when it comes to economics. o   They see the government as the efficient distributor of public goods. Roads, schools, emergency services etc. o   Many modern Liberals parties are actually much more to the left than classical Liberals. For example the modern ‘Liberal Democrat’ party in the UK believes in state healthcare and a strong welfare state.

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