Liberalism as a coherent social philosophy dates from the late 18th century. At first there was no distinction between political and economic liberalism (economics was not considered a separate discipline until about 1850). Classic liberal political philosophy has continued to develop - after 1900 as a purely conservative philosophy.
Liberalism (from the Latin liberalis, "of freedom") is the belief in the importance of individual libertyand equal rights. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but most liberals support such fundamental ideas as constitutions, liberal democracy, free and fair elections, human rights, capitalism, free trade, and the separation of church and state. These ideas are widely accepted, even by political groups that do not openly profess a liberal ideological orientation. Liberalism encompasses several intellectual trends and traditions, but the dominant variants are classical liberalism, which became popular in the eighteenth century, and social liberalism, which became popular in the twentieth century.
Liberalism first became a powerful force in the Age of Enlightenment, rejecting several foundational assumptions that dominated most earlier theories of government, such as hereditary status, established religion, absolute monarchy, and the Divine Right of Kings. The early liberal thinker John Locke, who is often credited for the creation of liberalism as a distinct philosophical tradition, employed the concept ofnatural rights and the social contract to argue that the rule of law should replace absolutism in government, that rulers were subject to the consent of the governed, and that private individuals had a fundamental right to life, liberty, and property.
The revolutionaries in the American Revolution and the French Revolution used liberal philosophy to justify the armed overthrow of tyrannical rule. The nineteenth century saw liberal governments established in nations across Europe, Latin America, and North America. Liberal ideas spread even further in the twentieth century, when liberal democracies triumphed in two world wars and survived major ideological challenges from fascism and communism. Conservatism, fundamentalism, and military dictatorship remain powerful opponents of liberalism. Today, liberals are organized politically on all major continents. They have played a decisive role in the growth of republics, the spread of civil rightsand civil liberties, the establishment of the modern welfare state, the institution of religious toleration and religious freedom, and the development of globalization. Political scientist Alan Wolfe wrote, "liberalism is the answer for which modernity is the question".
The history of liberalism spans the better part of the last four centuries, beginning in the English Civil War and continuing after the end of theCold War. Liberalism started as a major doctrine and intellectual endeavor in response to the religious wars gripping Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, although the historical context for the ascendancy of liberalism goes back to the Middle Ages. The first notable incarnation of liberal unrest came with the American Revolution, and liberalism fully exploded as a comprehensive movement against the old order during the French Revolution, which set the pace for the future development of human history.
Classical liberals, who broadly emphasized the importance of free markets and civil liberties, dominated liberal history for a century after the French Revolution. The onset of the First World War and the Great Depression, however, accelerated the trends begun in late 19th century Britain towards a new liberalism that emphasized a greater role for the state in ameliorating devastating social conditions. By the beginning of the 21st century, liberal democracies and their fundamental characteristics—support for constitutions, civil rights and individual liberties,pluralistic society, and the welfare state—were widespread in most regions around the world.
The emergence of the Renaissance in the 15th century helped to weaken unquestioning submission to the institutions of the Middle Ages by reinvigorating interest in science and in the classical world. In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation developed from sentiments that viewed the Catholic Church as an oppressive ruling order too involved in the feudal and baronial structure of European society. The Church launched a Counter Reformation to contain these bubbling sentiments, but the effort unraveled in the Thirty Years War of the 17th century. InEngland, a civil war led to the execution of King Charles I in 1649. Parliament ultimately succeeded—with the Glorious Revolution of 1688—in establishing a limited and constitutional monarchy. The main facets of early liberal ideology emerged from these events, and historians Colton and Palmer characterize the period in the following light:
The unique thing about England was that Parliament, in defeating the king, arrived at a workable form of government. Government remained strong but came under parliamentary control. This determined the character of modern England and launched into the history of Europe and of the world the great movement of liberalism.
The early messenger for that movement was the English philosopher John Locke, frequently identified as the Father of Liberalism, whose Two Treatises (1690) established the liberal idea that government acquires consent to rule from the governed, not from supernatural authorities. The intellectual journey of liberalism continued beyond Locke with the Enlightenment, a period of profound intellectual vitality that questioned old traditions and influenced several monarchies throughout the 18th century. The ideas circulating in the Enlightenment had a powerful impact in North America and in France.
The American colonies had been loyal British subjects for decades, but they declared independence from rule under the monarchy in 1776 as a result of their dissatisfaction with lack of representation in the governing parliament overseas, which manifested itself most directly and dramatically through taxation policies that colonists considered a violation of their constitutionallyguaranteed rights as Englishmen. The American Revolution was primarily a civil and political matter at first, but escalated to military engagements in 1775 that were largely complete by 1781. After the war, the new nation held a Constitutional Convention in 1787 to resolve the problems stemming from the first attempt at a confederated national government under the Articles of Confederation. The resulting Constitution of the United States settled on a republic with a federalstructure. The United States Bill of Rights quickly followed in 1789, which guaranteed certainnatural rights fundamental to liberal ideals. The American Revolution predicated a series of drastic socio-political changes across nations and continents, collectively referred to as the "Atlantic Revolutions", of which the most famous is probably the French Revolution.
hree years into the French Revolution, German writer Johann von Goethe reportedly told the defeated Prussian soldiers after the Battle of Valmy that "from this place and from this time forth commences a new era in world history, and you can all say that you were present at its birth".Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history, and the onset of the Revolution in 1789 is considered by some to mark the end of the early modern period.
The French Revolution is often seen as marking the "dawn of the modern era," and its convulsions are widely associated with "the triumph of liberalism".For liberals, the Revolution was their defining moment, and later liberals approved of the French Revolution almost entirely—"not only its results but the act itself," as two historians noted. The French Revolution began in May 1789 with the convocation of the Estates-General. The first year of the Revolution witnessed, among other major events, the Storming of the Bastille in July and the passage of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in August.
The next few years were dominated by tensions between various liberal assemblies and aconservative monarchy intent on thwarting major reforms. A republic was proclaimed in September 1792. External conflict and internal squabbling significantly radicalized the Revolution, culminating in the brutal Reign of Terror. After the fall of Robespierre and the Jacobins, the Directory assumed control of the French state in 1795 and held power until 1799, when it was replaced by the Consulate under Napoleon Bonaparte.
Napoleon ruled as First Consul for about five years, centralizing power and streamlining the bureaucracy along the way. The Napoleonic Wars, pitting the heirs of a revolutionary state against the old monarchies of Europe, started in 1805 and lasted for a decade. Along with their boots and Charleville muskets, French soldiers brought to the rest of the European continent the liquidation of the feudal system, the liberalization of property laws, the end of seigneurial dues, the abolition of guilds, the legalization of divorce, the disintegration of Jewish ghettos, the collapse of the Inquisition, the permanent destruction of the Holy Roman Empire, the elimination of church courts and religious authority, the establishment of the metric system, and equality under the law for all men. Napoleon wrote that "the peoples of Germany, as of France, Italy and Spain, want equality and liberal ideas," with some historians suggesting that he may have been the first person ever to use the word liberal in a political sense. He also governed through a method that one historian described as "civilian dictatorship," which "drew its legitimacy from direct consultation with the people, in the form of a plebiscite". Napoleon did not always live up the liberal ideals he espoused, however. His most lasting achievement, the Civil Code, served as "an object of emulation all over the globe," but it also perpetuated further discrimination against women under the banner of the "natural order".The First Empire eventually collapsed in 1815, but this period of chaos and revolution introduced the world to a new movement and ideology that would soon crisscross the globe.
Liberals in the 19th century wanted to develop a world free from government intervention, or at least free from too much government intervention. They championed the ideal of negative liberty, which constitutes the absence of coercion and the absence of external constraints. They believed governments were cumbersome burdens and they wanted governments to stay out of the lives of individuals. Liberals simultaneously pushed for the expansion of civil rights and for the expansion of free markets and free trade. The latter kind of economic thinking had been formalized by Adam Smith in his monumental Wealth of Nations (1776), which revolutionized the field of economics and established the "invisible hand" of the free market as a self-regulating mechanism that did not depend on external interference. Sheltered by liberalism, the laissez-faire economic world of the 19th century emerged with full tenacity, particularly in the United States and in the United Kingdom.
Politically, liberals saw the 19th century as a gateway to achieving the promises of 1789. In Spain, the Liberales, the first group to use the liberal label in a political context, fought for the implementation of the 1812 Constitution for decades—overthrowing the monarchy in 1820 as part of the Trienio Liberal and defeating the conservative Carlists in the 1830s. In France, the July Revolution of 1830, orchestrated by liberal politicians and journalists, removed the Bourbon monarchy and inspired similar uprisings elsewhere in Europe.
Frustration with the pace of political progress, however, sparked even more gigantic revolutions in 1848. Revolutions spread throughout the Austrian Empire, the German states, and the Italian states. Governments fell rapidly. Liberal nationalists demanded written constitutions, representative assemblies, greater suffrage rights, and freedom of the press. A second republic was proclaimed in France. Serfdom was abolished in Prussia, Galicia, Bohemia, and Hungary. Metternich shocked Europe when he resigned and fled to Britain in panic and disguise.
Eventually, however, the success of the revolutionaries petered out. Without French help, the Italians were easily defeated by the Austrians. Austria also managed to contain the bubbling nationalist sentiments in Germany and Hungary, helped along by the failure of the Frankfurt Assembly to unify the German states into a single nation. Under abler leadership, however, the Italians and the Germans wound up realizing their dreams for independence. The Sardinian Prime Minister, Camillo di Cavour, was a shrewd liberal who understood that the only effective way for the Italians to gain independence was if the French were on their side. Napoleon III agreed to Cavour's request for assistance and France defeated Austria in the Franco-Austrian War of 1859, setting the stage for Italian independence. German unification transpired under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck, who decimated the enemies of Prussia in war after war, finally triumphing against France in 1871 and proclaiming the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, ending another saga in the drive for nationalization. The French proclaimed a third republic after their loss in the war, and the rest of French history transpired under republican eyes.
Just a few decades after the French Revolution, liberalism went global. The liberal and conservative struggles in Spain also replicated themselves in Latin American countries like Mexico and Ecuador. From 1857 to 1861, Mexico was gripped in the bloody War of Reform, a massive internal and ideological confrontation between the liberals and the conservatives. The liberal triumph there parallels with the situation in Ecuador. Similar to other nations throughout the region at the time, Ecuador was steeped in turmoil, with the people divided between rival liberal and conservative camps. From these conflicts, García Moreno established a conservative government was eventually overthrown in the Liberal Revolution of 1895. The Radical Liberals who toppled the conservatives were led by Eloy Alfaro, a firebrand who implemented a variety of sociopolitical reforms, including the separation of church and state, the legalization of divorce, and the establishment of public schools.
Although liberals were active throughout the world in the 19th century, it was in Britain that the future character of liberalism would take shape. The liberal sentiments unleashed after the revolutionary era of the previous century ultimately coalesced into the Liberal Party, formed in 1859 from various Radical and Whig elements. The Liberals produced one of the most influential British prime ministers—William Ewart Gladstone, who was also known as the Grand Old Man. Under Gladstone, the Liberals reformed education, disestablished the Church of Ireland (with the Irish Church Act 1869), and introduced the secret ballot for local and parliamentary elections. Following Gladstone, and after a period of Conservative domination, the Liberals returned with full strength in the general election of 1906, aided by working class voters worried about food prices. After that historic victory, the Liberal Party shifted from its classical liberalism and laid the groundwork for the future British welfare state, establishing various forms of health insurance, unemployment insurance, and pensions for elderly workers. This new kind of liberalism would sweep over much of the world in the 20th century.
The 20th century started perilously for liberalism. The First World War proved a major challenge for liberal democracies, although they ultimately defeated the dictatorial states of the Central Powers. The war precipitated the collapse of older forms of government, including empires and dynastic states. The number of republics in Europe reached 13 by the end of the war, as compared with only three at the start of the war in 1914. This phenomenon became readily apparent in Russia. Before the war, the Russian monarchy was reeling from losses to Japan and political struggles with the Kadets, a powerful liberal bloc in the Duma. Facing huge shortages in basic necessities along with widespread riots in early 1917, Czar Nicholas II abdicated in March, ending three centuries of Romanov rule and allowing liberals to declare a republic. Under the uncertain leadership of Alexander Kerensky, however, the Provisional Government mismanaged Russia's continuing involvement in the war, prompting angry reactions from the Petrograd workers, who drifted further and further to the left. TheBolsheviks, a communist group led by Vladimir Lenin, seized the political opportunity from this confusion and launched a second revolution in Russia during the same year. The communist victory presented a major challenge for liberalism because it precipitated a rise in totalitarian regimes, but the economic problems that rocked the Western world in the 1930s proved even more devastating.
The Great Depression fundamentally changed the liberal world. There was an inkling of a new liberalism during the First World War, but modern liberalism fully hatched in the 1930s as a response to the Depression, which inspired John Maynard Keynes to revolutionize the field of economics.Classical liberals, such as economist Ludwig von Mises, posited that completely free markets were the optimal economic units capable of effectively allocating resources—that over time, in other words, they would produce full employment and economic security. Keynes spearheaded a broad assault on classical economics and its followers, arguing that totally free markets were not ideal, and that hard economic times required intervention and investment from the state. Where the market failed to properly allocate resources, for example, the government was required to stimulate the economy until private funds could start flowing again—a "prime the pump" kind of strategy designed to boost industrial production.
The social liberal program launched by President Roosevelt in the United States, the New Deal, proved very popular with the American public. In 1933, when Roosevelt came into office, the unemployment rate stood at roughly 25 percent. The size of the economy, measured by the gross national product, had fallen to half the value it had in early 1929. The electoral victories of Roosevelt and theDemocrats precipitated a deluge of deficit spending and public works programs. Despite this, by 1935 the level of unemployment had only fallen to around 20 percent. Additional state spending and the gigantic public works program sparked by the Second World War eventually pulled the United States out of the Great Depression. From 1940 to 1941, government spending increased by 59 percent, the gross domestic product skyrocketed 17 percent, and unemployment fell below 10 percent for the first time since 1929. By 1945, after vast government spending, public debt stood at a staggering 120 percent of GNP, but unemployment had been effectively eliminated. Most nations that emerged from the Great Depression did so with deficit spending and strong intervention from the state.
The economic woes of the period prompted widespread unrest in the European political world, leading to the rise of fascism as an ideology and a movement that heavily criticized liberalism. Broadly speaking, fascist ideology emphasized elite rule and absolute leadership, a rejection of equality, the imposition of patriarchal society, a stern commitment to war as an instrument of natural behavior, and the elimination of supposedly inferior or subhuman groups from the structure of the nation. The fascist and nationalist grievances of the 1930s eventually culminated in the Second World War, the deadliest conflict in human history. The Allies prevailed in the war by 1945, and their victory set the stage for the Cold War between communist states and liberal democracies. The Cold War featured extensive ideological competition and several proxy wars. While communist states and liberal democracies competed against one another, an economic crisis in the 1970s inspired a temporary move away from Keynesian economics across many Western governments. This classical liberal renewal, known asneoliberalism, lasted through the 1980s and the 1990s, bringing about economic privatization of previously state-owned industries. However,recent economic troubles have prompted a resurgence in Keynesian economic thought. Meanwhile, nearing the end of the 20th century, communist states in Eastern Europe collapsed precipitously, leaving liberal democracies as the only major forms of government. At the beginning of the Second World War, the number of democracies around the world was about the same as it had been forty years before. After 1945, liberal democracies spread very quickly. Even as late as 1974, roughly 75 percent of all nations were considered dictatorial, but now more than half of all countries are democracies. However, liberal democracies still confront several challenges, including the proliferation of terrorism and the growth of religious fundamentalism. The rise of China is also challenging Western liberalism with a combination of authoritarian government and capitalism.
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. 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 recognized a number of principles familiar to contemporary liberals in the works of several Sophists and in the Funeral Oration by Pericles. Liberal philosophy symbolizes an extensive intellectual tradition that has examined and popularized some of the most important and controversial principles of the modern world. Its immense scholarly and academic output has been characterized 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.
Though 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 adjectives 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. 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 marginalizes 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 from attacks by thinkers such as Rousseau, who believed that human attempts to improve themselves through social cooperation would fail. Describing the liberal temperament, Gray claimed that it "has been inspired by skepticism 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". 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 recognizing the importance of related values such as pluralism, toleration, autonomy, and consent.
Liberals accept that war is sometimes necessary, but in contrast to neoconservatives, liberals believe that applying unilateral force is wrong, and will only initiate a cycle of violence that will be impossible to stop.
Classical and modern
arly liberals, including Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Baruch Spinoza, attempted to determine the purpose of government in a liberal society. To these liberals, securing the most essential amenities of life—liberty and private property among them—required the formation of a "sovereign" authority with universal jurisdiction. 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 in their opinion of 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 that "government even in its best state is a necessary evil".
As part of the project to limit the powers of government, various liberal theorists—such as James Madison and the Baron de Montesquieu—conceived the notion of separation of powers, a system designed to equally distribute governmental authority among the executive, legislative, and judicialbranches. Governments had to realize, 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, urging 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 from the state.
Beyond identifying a clear role for government in modern society, liberals also have obsessed over the meaning and nature of the most important principle in liberal philosophy: liberty. From the 17th century until the 19th century, liberals—from Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill—conceptualized 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 that "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. Beginning in the late 19th century, however, a new conception of liberty entered the liberal intellectual arena. This new kind of liberty became known as positive liberty to distinguish it from the prior negative version, and it was first developed by British philosopher Thomas Hill Green. Green rejected the idea that humans were driven solely by self-interest, emphasizing instead the complex circumstances that are involved in the evolution of our moral character. In a very profound step for the future of modern liberalism, he also tasked social and political institutions with the enhancement of individual freedom and identity. Foreshadowing the new liberty as the freedom to act rather than to avoid suffering from the acts of others, Green wrote the following:
Rather than previous liberal conceptions viewing society as populated by selfish individuals, Green viewed society as an organic whole in which all individuals have a duty to promote the common good. His ideas spread rapidly and were developed by other thinkers such as L. T. Hobhouse and John Hobson. In a few short years, this New Liberalism had become the essential social and political program of the Liberal Party in Britain, and it would encircle much of the world in the 20th century. In addition to examining negative and positive liberty, liberals have tried to understand the proper relationship between liberty and democracy. As they struggled to expand suffrage rights, liberals increasingly understood that people left out of the democratic decision-making process were liable to the tyranny of the majority, a concept explained in Mill's On Liberty and in Democracy in America (1835) by Alexis de Tocqueville. As a response, liberals began demanding proper safeguards to thwart majorities in their attempts at suppressing the rights of minorities.
Besides liberty, liberals have developed several other principles important to the construction of their philosophical structure, such as equality, pluralism, and toleration. Highlighting the confusion over the first principle, Voltaire commented that "equality is at once the most natural and at times the most chimeral of things".All forms of liberalism assume, in some basic sense, that individuals are equal. In maintaining that people are naturally equal, liberals assume that they all possess the same right to liberty. In other words, no one is inherently entitled to enjoy the benefits of liberal society more than anyone else, and all people are equal subjects before the law. Beyond this basic conception, liberal theorists diverge on their understanding of equality. American philosopher John Rawls emphasized the need to ensure not only equality under the law, but also the equal distribution of material resources that individuals required to develop their aspirations in life. Libertarian thinker Robert Nozickdisagreed with Rawls, championing the former version of Lockean equality instead. To contribute to the development of liberty, liberals also have promoted concepts like pluralism and toleration. By pluralism, liberals refer to the proliferation of opinions and beliefs that characterize a stable social order. Unlike many of their competitors and predecessors, liberals do not seek conformity and homogeneity in the way that people think; in fact, their efforts have been geared towards establishing a governing framework that harmonizes and minimizes conflicting views, but still allows those views to exist and flourish. For liberal philosophy, pluralism leads easily to toleration. Since individuals will hold diverging viewpoints, liberals argue, they ought to uphold and respect the right of one another to disagree. From the liberal perspective, toleration was initially connected to religious toleration, with Spinoza condemning "the stupidity of religious persecution and ideological wars".Toleration also played a central role in the ideas of Kant and John Stuart Mill. Both thinkers believed that society will contain different conceptions of a good ethical life and that people should be allowed to make their own choices without interference from the state or other individuals.
Criticism and support
Liberalism has drawn both criticism and support in its history from various ideological groups. For example, some scholars suggest that liberalism gave rise to feminism, although others maintain that liberal democracyis inadequate for the realization of feminist objectives. Liberal feminism, the dominant tradition in feminist history, hopes to eradicate all barriers to gender equality—claiming that the continued existence of such barriers eviscerates the individual rights and freedoms ostensibly guaranteed by a liberal social order. British philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft is widely regarded as the pioneer of liberal feminism, with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) expanding the boundaries of liberalism to include women in the political structure of liberal society. Less friendly to the goals of liberalism has been conservatism. Like liberalism, conservatism is complex and amorphous, laying claims to several intellectual traditions over the last three centuries. Edmund Burke, considered by some to be the first major proponent of modern conservative thought, offered a blistering critique of the French Revolution by assailing the liberal pretensions to the power of rationality and to the natural equality of all humans. Conservatives have also attacked what they perceive to be the reckless liberal pursuit of progress and material gains, arguing that such preoccupations undermine traditional social values rooted in community and continuity. However, a few variations of conservatism, like liberal conservativism, expound some of the same ideas and principles championed by classical liberalism, including "small government and thriving capitalism".
Even more uncertain is the relationship between liberalism and socialism. Socialism began as a concrete ideology in the 19th century with the writings of Karl Marx, and it too—as with liberalism and conservatism—fractured into several major movements in the decades after its founding. Marx rejected the foundational aspects of liberal theory, hoping to destroy the liberal distinction between society and the individual while fusing the two into a collective whole designed to overthrow the developing capitalist order of the 19th century. After Marx, the most prominent branch of socialism eventually became social democracy, which can be broadly defined as a project that aims to correct what it regards as the intrinsic defects of capitalism by reducing the inequalities that exist within an economic system. Several commentators have noted strong similarities between social liberalism and social democracy, with one political scientist even callingAmerican liberalism "bootleg social democracy" due to the absence of a significant social democratic tradition in the United States that liberals have tried to rectify. Another movement associated with modern democracy, Christian democracy, hopes to spread Catholic social ideas and has gained a large following in some European nations. The early roots of Christian democracy developed as a reaction against the industrialization and urbanization associated with laissez-faire liberalism in the 19th century. Despite these complex relationships, some scholars have argued that liberalism actually "rejects ideological thinking" altogether, largely because such thinking could lead to unrealistic expectations for human society.
The basic principles of all liberal philosophy are:
- Liberals believe that the form of society should be the outcome of processes. These processes should be interactive and involve all members of society. The market is an example, probably the best example, of what liberals mean by process. Liberals are generally hostile to any 'interference with process'. Specifically, liberals claim that the distribution of wealth as a result of the market is, in itself, just. Liberals reject the idea of redistribution of wealth as a goal in itself.
- Liberals therefore reject any design or plan for society - religious, utopian, or ethical. Liberals feel that society and state should not have fixed goals, but that 'process should determine outcome'. This anti-utopianism became increasingly important in liberal philosophy, in reaction to the Communist centrally-planned economies: it anticipated the extreme deregulation-ism of later neoliberalism.
- Liberalism is therefore inherently hostile to competing non-liberal societies - which it sees not simply as different, but as wrong. In the last 10 years, Islamic society has replaced the Communist state, as the perceived 'opposite' to a liberal society.
- Nevertheless liberalism has compromised with one specific form of non-liberal ideology: nationalism, in the ethno-national form which underlies most present nation states. A political community based on common origin, history and language is not liberal, but liberals never tried to form the voluntarist, contractual, non-historical state - which liberalism would logically imply. The nation state was simply taken for granted, as the political and economic arena for liberal process.
- Liberals define liberalism itself as 'freedom', so they rarely think consent is required for the imposition of a liberal society. In fact, most would say it can not be imposed, inherently. After the Cold War this belief has acquired a geostrategic significance: many western liberal-democrats now believe, that a war to impose a liberal-democratic society is inherently just. This belief influences interventionist policy, but as yet no war for the sole purpose of liberalisation has been fought.
- Classic political liberals reject the idea that there are any external moral values: they say that there are only opinions. They feel that these opinions should be 'expressed' in public, and that in some way this 'market of opinions' will favour the truth. (The idea that truth can be revealed by discourse is much older than liberalism).
- The liberal rejection of external moral values is formally expressed in the liberal idea of human rights: both good and evil humans have equal rights, which apply equally when they facilitate good or evil actions. Classic liberal philosophy advocated 'liberty' as a value, even if they did not call it a value. In effect it places liberty as a value above good (and evil).
- Liberals believe in formal equality among participants in a liberal society, but almost all liberals also believe in inequality of talent. Many liberals were therefore sympathetic to biological theories of inequality. (Theories of hereditary racial differences in intelligence are now popular among US neoliberals).
Liberalism is a universal ideology, and in principle liberals seek to apply it to the entire planet, and the entire human population. Most liberals have supported the expansion of liberal society, although in the 19th century that meant among the 'civilised nations'. For a long time the free market was considered the only cross-cultural and 'exportable' element of liberalism. Only recently have liberals advocated, that African and Asian societies should become 100% liberal-democratic societies. 'Liberal missionaries', such as George Soros, were unknown or marginal in the 19th century.
The free market is not simply 'exchange' or 'trade'. Two people who exchange products can not form a free market in the liberal sense, even if their transactions are monetarised. The element of competition is missing in this two-person society.
A minimal liberal free market needs at least three parties, with two of them in competition - for instance, two competing sellers and one buyer. The resultant pressure on the two sellers to lower prices, is the simplest type of 'market force'. Such a force comes into existence without any conscious action on the part of the three parties. In modern markets there are millions of parties, and complex market forces. Market-liberals value this characteristic of the market. Their belief in the moral necessity of market forces in the economy, is probably the first defining feature of market liberalism. The second is the belief in entrepreneurs themselves, as a good and necessary social group. To summarise:
- For all liberals, interactive process legitimises outcome: in market liberalism, the market is the primary process, and market transactions are the interaction.
- Market liberals believe that economic transactions should take place in a framework which maximises the effect of each transaction on every other transaction. (That is an abstract definition of the free market, but it makes the later transition from liberalism to neoliberalism easier to understand).
- Liberals see the market as good, and often as semi-sacred. They want the market to be as large as possible, involving all of society. In modern liberal-democratic states almost all adults participate in the market. A private club in a Communist state, where members can hold a closed free market, would satisfy no liberal.
- Liberals are hostile to economic self-sufficiency - so strongly, that they believed in war to 'open up markets'. The most famous example is the Opium War, when Britain forced the Chinese Empire to allow the import of opium. This liberal belief in market expansionism has revived after the end of the Cold War.
- Market liberals are hostile to trade barriers: "free trade" is a classic slogan of market liberalism. That meant traditionally, the free flow of goods and capital: neoliberalism later developed a more diffuse version, where 'flow' and 'interaction' are treated as quasi-ethical values.
- Market liberals believe that important aspects of society should be determined by the market, certainly the distribution of income and wealth. Neoliberalism later extended this belief, claiming that all social life should be determined by the market.
- All market liberals are hostile to interference in the market, by church, state or others - although since the 19th century only the state has sufficient power to interfere. Market liberals are clearly anti-utopian, in the sense of opposing economic planning, especially centralised state control of the entire economy. They believe that the market produces the best 'design for society', and that is is wrong to substitute any other design.
- However, market liberalism is itself a utopia, despite its anti-utopianism. In the 'ideal world' of market liberalism, no goods or services exist which are not the product of market forces, but all goods or services which are market-responsive do exist. This is in itself a utopian project, implying a total structuring of society. Neoliberalism goes even further - extending the market principle beyond the production of goods and services.
- The social institution of the entrepreneur is central to market liberalism. An entrepreneur is a person whose profession is, to respond to market forces. In the 19th century most entrepreneurs were still private individuals, later the business firm took over this function. The enterprise/firm is a permanent organisation, structured to respond to market forces. An entrepreneur is not a farmer, or a manufacturer, or a consultant: in theory an entrepreneur changes activities in accordance with the market. In reality most entrepreneurs retained a specialisation for some specific products or services: but neoliberalism now demands, that the theoretical flexibility should become standard practice.
- Without the entrepreneur there is no free market, therefore market liberals demand a privileged social status for the entrepreneur. The early liberal theorists were hostile to the urban guild economy of mediaeval Europe: they saw it, in effect, as a conspiracy not to compete. In their historical vision, the entrepreneur rescued Europe from the poverty of the Middle Ages. (This vision was shared by Karl Marx, who admired the cultural dynamism of the free market). Not just mediaeval Europe, but all societies without an entrepreneurial caste, were seen as failures.
A central but rarely explicit political demand of market liberals is therefore, that entrepreneurs should have control of the economy. This has not only been accepted, but has become so incorporated into the culture of western liberal-democratic societies, that few people ever think about it. But it would not be any less logical, to hand the economy to engineers, or priests - or not to privilege any one group. The choice depends on underlying values, and liberals value the entrepreneur. This value preference of liberals, and its widespread acceptance, has created what in the US is called 'the business community'. That is a real and identifiable social elite - with specific cultural preferences, specific clothing, and often a specific form of language (sociolect). It does in fact control the economy, in liberal-democratic states. Although this was probably not foreseen by early liberals, market liberalism has become an ideology in support of this elite. Their culture, attitudes, and ethics have greatly influenced neoliberalism.
Since the 1990's activists use the word 'neoliberalism' for global market-liberalism ('capitalism') and for free-trade policies. In this sense, it is widely used in South America. 'Neoliberalism' is often used interchangeably with 'globalisation'. But free markets and global free trade are not new, and this use of the word ignores developments in the advanced economies. The analysis here compares neoliberalism with its historical predecessors. Neoliberalism is not just economics: it is a social and moral philosophy, in some aspects qualitatively different from liberalism.