John Charvet. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 3. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
It is widely agreed that fundamental to liberalism is a concern to protect and promote individual liberty. This means that individuals can decide for themselves what to do or believe with respect to particular areas of human activity such as religion or economics. The contrast is with a society in which the society decides what the individual is to do or believe. In those areas of a society in which individual liberty prevails, social outcomes will be the result of a myriad of individual decisions taken by individuals for themselves or in voluntary cooperation with some others.
Liberalism in the political sphere cannot be a simple application of individual liberty, because decisions have to be taken collectively and are binding on all. Political liberalism means, first, that individual citizens are free to vote for representatives of their choice and to form voluntary associations to promote their ideas and interests in the realm of collective decision-making. Second, it means the adoption of constitutional procedures for limiting government power and making it accountable to the citizens.
In discussing liberalism, it is important to distinguish between liberal practices and liberal theories. Liberal practices are those institutional and customary arrangements that support individual liberty. Of prime importance are individual legal rights to engage in certain activities such as to practice the religion of one’s choice, to use one’s property and labor as one pleases, and to enjoy freedom of opinion, expression, association, and movement. Political rights and constitutional procedures designed to put limits on government power, such as the independence of the judiciary, the separation of legislative and executive power, freedom of the press, and electoral accountability, are liberal practices insofar as they are designed to protect or express individual liberty.
Individual nonpolitical rights are necessarily limited by the equal rights of others. A religion or other association, or a use of property, that violates the rights of others, cannot be protected. Individual rights may also be limited by consideration of the public good, such as limits on public meetings that will produce disorder. A liberal account of such public-good constraints must limit them to whatever arrangements are necessary to protect a liberal society.
In talking about individual rights, it is essential to note, in order to understand liberalism, that the liberal individual is a human being not otherwise differentiated by status, class, race, religion, or gender. This formulation describes an ideal—implicit in liberalism and eventually standardly affirmed—rather than the actual practice of liberalism as it originally developed. With respect to the latter, many individual rights were variously restricted in different countries: universally at first to men, in America to white men. Nevertheless, the standard justifications for the exclusions were the incapacity of the excluded class of human beings to make effective use of the liberal freedoms or their existence as a threat to the established liberal order. In this way, it was still possible to say that all human beings capable of freedom and not threatening public order were entitled to rights.
As the practice of particular societies, liberal individual rights, although proclaimed as the rights of human beings, would be restricted to members of that society and to resident aliens only under the developing provisions of international law. The standard justification for such limitations was that the rights could be given practical effectiveness only through the legal and political systems of particular states. Liberal practices emerged in the states of northern Europe and North America in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and contributed substantially to their dynamic international power through the early twenty-first century despite the life-threatening challenges to them in the twentieth century by the fascist and communist powers. The liberal societies of the West, above all the United States, have given liberalism as a practice and a theory a dominant status in the contemporary world.
While the aforementioned legal and institutional arrangements are important for the constitution of a liberal society, they are not enough. A fully liberal society requires a tolerant public opinion as well. This is one of the main points of John Stuart Mill’s famous essay On Liberty (1859), in which he seeks to defend individuality and difference from the coercive pressure of public opinion.
Liberalism as a social practice is a matter of degree along three dimensions. First, a society may be more or less liberal according to how many aspects of its life are governed by the principle of individual liberty. A society may be very liberal in matters of belief but illiberal in the economic and/or the political sphere or conversely. It may be liberal in all these areas but illiberal with regard to sexual conduct. Second, a society may be more or less liberal with regard to each of these spheres. It may allow only a limited degree of economic freedom or a limited degree of freedom of belief. Finally, a society may be more or less inclusive of its adult population in the scope of the liberal freedoms.
Liberal theories are theories designed to show that the liberal organization of society is the best for human beings with regard to their fundamental nature and interests. The Western intellectual tradition includes several discourses of major importance that have this aim. It is widely held that the principles of liberalism can be traced back to the seventeenth-century natural rights and social contract theorists who attach primary significance in just interaction between persons to an equal individual liberty and who derive the constraints of organized society from an agreement by individuals to submit to such constraints for the sake of the protection of their liberty and other natural rights.
A radically different type of liberal theory, which was very scornful of the idea of natural rights, was the utilitarian one. This flourished in the nineteenth century, particularly in Great Britain, and remains influential in English-speaking countries. This theory holds that the best organization of society is the one that produces the greatest amount of utility or happiness, taking equally into account every individual’s utility. Such a theory is liberal only insofar as it argues, as the classic British utilitarians did, that the liberal order of society would best satisfy the utilitarian principle.
The theory that has been most influential in liberal thought on the continent of Europe and also on contemporary thought in English-speaking countries is that of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and German idealism. This theory seeks to provide a rational deduction of the natural rights principle of equal individual liberty from human beings’ capacity for autonomy, which is understood as a capacity to govern one’s conduct by laws or principles that one freely imposes on oneself.
Modern Western political theory from the seventeenth century is largely dominated by liberal ideas. Even thinkers who have been thought to be fundamentally illiberal, such as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Edmund Burke (1729-1797), and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) are really illiberal, if at all, only in regard to the state and not in regard to society. A liberal society may, thus, be supported on very different theoretical bases within Western thought, including religious ones. Indeed, the dominant status of liberalism in the contemporary world, together with the high importance attached to recognizing the equal worth of non-Western cultures, has led to many attempts to construct support for liberal practices from within religious systems of belief. Thus, there exist forms of liberalism that can be called Confucian, Islamic, and Buddhist.
The Historical Development of the Liberal Idea
From the discussion of liberalism above, one might assume that the term itself came into use in seventeenth-century northern Europe. In fact the term liberal was first used in connection with politics in Spain in the early nineteenth century to describe a political movement whose object was to establish constitutional constraints on government power. The term rapidly came to be applied to movements and ideas aimed at promoting individual liberty of choice, and it is now generally considered reasonable to use the term retrospectively to describe thinkers such as John Locke (1632-1704), Adam Smith (1723-1790), and many others whose thought exhibited this character.
Natural rights theories
As claimed earlier, liberalism was nurtured in the natural rights doctrines of the seventeenth century. The Dutch scholar Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) is widely held to be the main innovator of the modern doctrine, and his mode of theorizing, involving the idea of a prepolitical state of nature and a social contract as the ground for political society, was taken up and given major formulations by Hobbes and Locke in England and Benedictus de Spinoza (1632-1677) and Samuel von Pufendorf (1632-1694) on the European continent. The reason for holding these theories to be the ground in which liberalism grew is that they start with a presumption in favor of individual liberty and limit liberty only to protect the equal rights of others or to provide the public order considered necessary to secure everyone’s liberty to the greatest extent. These theorists refer to other natural rights besides liberty, as in Locke’s classic formulation of rights to life, liberty, health, and possessions. All these rights, however, are to be understood as negative in character. The rights to life and health are rights not to be deprived of one’s life or health by the actions of others and are thus rights to go about one’s business as one thinks fit without being killed or injured. The right to possessions is again a negative right not to be hindered in the exercise of one’s liberty to acquire possessions in order to preserve and enhance one’s life. Furthermore, all individuals are held to have the natural right to govern themselves in accordance with their own judgment of their entitlements under natural law.
All these theorists recognize that constraints on individual liberty are necessary if people are to enjoy the maximum of equal liberty in a peaceful society, so it is rational for them to agree to establish a political society on the basis of their natural interests in liberty. This is a new and essentially liberal mode of thinking about a just society, because the aim is to leave people as free as possible to form their own lives as they think fit compatibly with a peaceful and orderly society. The contrast is with conceptions of just order that are based on a substantive conception of the good. In the latter view, one starts with a conception of how human beings should live in order to achieve the good life, such as that of Plato, and then organizes society politically to enable its members to realize this end. Individual liberty, in such a view, is only what is left over after the structure of the good life is in place.
The natural rights theorists explicitly adopted the primacy of liberty conception because they were especially impressed by the quarrelsome nature of human beings and by the devastating consequences of the contemporary disputes over religion involving Protestants and Catholics and the skepticism about the good that could thereby be engendered. These theorists’ aim, therefore, was to construct a minimal social ethics that all could agree on while leaving as much room as possible for each to decide for him-or herself what to believe and how to live. Of course, it is always possible to say that the liberal view of just interaction still involves a conception of the good life, namely one of maximum equal liberty. But this is a very thin conception of the good that leaves people as free as possible to make their own choices.
The natural rights theorists developed the central ideas of a liberal society. Their politics, however, was in many cases far from being liberal. Despite the grounding of political society in a social contract and thus apparently basing it on the consent of all, Grotius, Hobbes, and Pufendorf defended absolute monarchy, while Locke and Spinoza restricted political rights to property owners. A crucial argument of the absolutists was that, although the ruler’s authority was based on a contract, the contract necessarily involved the surrender by the contractors of their natural right to interpret the natural law for themselves to the sovereign whose judgment could not subsequently be questioned without undermining political society itself and returning everyone to a lawless state of nature. It is for this reason that Hobbes, and later the conservative thinker Burke, can appear to be so illiberal. Although they do not deny that human beings have natural interests in an equal liberty and that sovereigns are well advised to respect that liberty, sovereigns cannot be held to account for not respecting it. Hence, their subjects’ enjoyment of their liberties can only be at the discretion of the ruler or the political traditions of the society.
The partial political liberalism of Locke is presented as an attack on the absolutists and consists of making the government responsible to the property owners who are taxed to support it and who are held to be the more rational members of society; and additionally an embryonic version of the idea of the separation of government powers in different hands. Nevertheless, absolute sovereignty still lurks in Locke’s theory insofar as citizens who are aggrieved at the actions of a legitimately constituted government have to appeal to the members of political society as a whole whose decision, in principle by majority will, is presented as necessarily binding. Thus, Locke’s political theory contains an unelaborated majoritarian democratic principle that could be and was seized on by more radical thinkers and movements concerned to develop the egalitarian implications of liberal rights to promote political democracy.
Rousseau can be understood as one of these radical egalitarian Lockean thinkers in some respects, and his theory was very influential in inspiring the French revolutionaries of the late eighteenth century. But Rousseau is rarely regarded as a liberal. This is largely because his theory of the general will and his belief in direct rather than representative democracy were seen, especially in the light of the actions of the French revolutionaries and through the criticism of the early-nineteenth-century French liberal thinker Benjamin Constant, as wholly antipathetic to individual liberty. He is said to identify liberty with participation in collective decision-making rather than individual choice. However, this is to misunderstand the general will. The general will is supposed to be aimed inherently at securing laws that equally protect the individual liberty of all. Insofar as it is a collective will through participation in which all persons equally impose general laws with a liberal character on themselves and others, its collective nature and positive conception of freedom is merely the necessary political element in a self-governing liberal society.
Rousseau does depart radically from the economic liberalism implicit or explicit in most natural rights theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For Rousseau the equality element in the doctrine of equal rights requires a rough equality of all as property owners and an opposition to capitalist ownership and market society. Because the foundational liberal principle affirms both the equality and liberty of all, Rousseau’s interpretation of it would seem to be a possible one while its egalitarian commitments have become more and more influential.
Other notable figures in the democratic development natural rights theory are Thomas Paine (1743-1809) and the Marquis of Condorcet (1743-1794). They played noteworthy parts in the political revolutions that transformed America and France at the end of the eighteenth century and produced important theoretical works justifying a liberal-democratic order.
Rights-based liberalism has two apparent weaknesses: It is not clear where the natural rights come from, and no principled account of conflicts involving rights is given or seems to be possible. Utilitarian-based liberalism offers a single solution to both. The principle of utility, which tells moral agents to do those acts that will produce the greatest amount of utility, is interpreted by the great liberal utilitarians to mean that one should act to bring about a society in which individuals enjoy the standard liberal rights enumerated earlier in this entry. At the same time what to do when rights conflict is to be settled by appeal to the principle of utility, which establishes a suitable hierarchy of rights in such cases.
The most important liberal utilitarians are Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and Mill. To get a defense of liberalism from the principle of utility, Bentham adopts a number of secondary principles reflecting the fundamental interests of individuals. One of these is that individuals are the best judges of their own interests. So, there must be a presumption on the part of government that social outcomes will be better if individuals are left as free as possible to decide for themselves what to believe and do. His other secondary principles were those of security (or liberty), subsistence, abundance, and equality. Security of person and property involves the protection of people’s liberty while ensuring that both subsistence and the possibility of abundance are best accomplished by leaving people free economically. Equality, arising from the fact that in the utilitarian calculus each is to count for one and no one for more than one, might suggest redistribution from rich to poor were that not to conflict in an unacceptable way with the operation of the other secondary principles and so is outweighed by them.
Unlike most of his contemporary rights-based liberals, Bentham believed that the only way of ensuring that governments followed policies that best promoted the general utility rather than their own interest was to establish a representative democracy. He thought that the great majority would see that their interests lay in the institution of a liberal society and polity, a view repudiated by those partially political liberals who doubted that non-property owners could be trusted to support liberty because they lacked the necessary independence and rationality.
Mill introduced significant modifications to the liberal theory he inherited from Bentham. One of these is his extension of the liberty principle, which requires persons to be allowed to pursue their own good in their own way so long as they do not harm others, to cover the coercive pressure of public opinion mentioned earlier. Furthermore, the area of conduct falling within this principle includes what Mill calls experiments in living. People should be encouraged to experiment (so long as they do not harm others) in order to promote the long-term utility of the human race. Underlying these views is a belief in the fundamental importance of individuality to a person’s happiness. This is the capacity to make choices for one’s life that express one’s own individual nature. A liberal society will be one that promotes the development in its members of this capacity. Adult human beings and whole societies will not necessarily manifest it and can benefit up to a point from the tutelage of others.
Kant and post-Kantian liberal idealism
Kant, the deeply anti-utilitarian and still very influential German philosopher, identifies human beings’ capacity for autonomy as the grounds for claiming the existence of a natural right to an equal liberty. Autonomy is the capacity to govern oneself by freely imposing rational laws on the operation of one’s natural inclinations. In following one’s inclinations even through rational calculation, one is bound by causal laws operating independently of one’s will. One is free and self-determining only insofar as one’s end is rational and self-imposed. One achieves this in willing principles that are universal and apply to everyone. In subjecting one’s natural self-interested maxims of conduct to the requirement of a universal legislation for its own sake and not for any advantage, one is treating rational being in oneself and others as an end in itself and of absolute worth. The laws one wills from that perspective will be ones that could be willed by every rational human being, who is not only a rational being but also a natural one. One will then be participating as an equal colegislator in willing rational laws to govern the pursuit by each of his or her natural ends.
Among the fundamental laws such beings will legislate is one bestowing the universal right to an equal liberty. Human beings as rational beings embodied in a particular natural being are ends in themselves, and this means that their will insofar as it is rational and thereby conforms to rational universal law must not be coerced but must be left free to pursue its natural ends as it chooses. To the extent that a person’s will violates the equal freedom of another, however, that will itself may be coerced, and in order to ensure the precision and effectiveness of this fundamental law, human beings must rationally will their entry into political society and their formation of a public order and sovereign will.
Kant’s significance lies not so much in his working out the implications of the principle of equal liberty but in his invention of a new rational ground in autonomy for it. Contemporary liberals who still seek to provide justifications for preferring liberalism to other social and political schemes are largely either Kantians or utilitarians, with Kantians for the moment predominating.
Post-Kantian idealism, most elaborately developed by Hegel in Germany but also influential in Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century through the writings of Thomas Hill Green, Francis Herbert Bradley, and Bernard Bosanquet, historicizes and socializes the Kantian scheme. The general idea is that historical forms of society and the reflective philosophies that arise in them are the result of the struggle of human beings to grasp and actualize the free will inherent in their nature as rational beings. This struggle culminates in the development of a liberal civil society and a partially liberal state. A liberal self-organizing civil society in which all persons are responsible for their own life economically and socially is necessary to develop in all the idea and partial actualization of their autonomy. This society, however, can exist only within the framework of a system of legislation that is the ultimate locus of the self-determining free will of human beings through their participation in and identification with the general will of the state. This theory socializes the individualist character of the liberal philosophy, because although individuals are the beings within which free will is realized, this is achieved only through their development in and membership of liberal social forms.
Twentieth-century liberalism and the influence of Rawls
A striking characteristic of twentieth-century political theory is its loss of belief in the possibility of finding rational foundations for moral and political prescriptions. Adherence to liberal or antiliberal principles became a matter of espousing an ideology.
Liberal practices were, nevertheless, deeply embedded in English-speaking societies but, as it turned out, less so in the societies of Continental Europe, above all Germany and Russia. In those nations, in the chaos of the aftermath of World War I and the economic misfortunes of the 1920s and 1930s, the powerful antiliberal political movements of fascism and communism seized power, destroyed the forms of liberal society, and threatened the very survival of liberalism in the Western world. The victory of the liberal states (together with the Soviet Union) in World War II led to their strong reaffirmation of the individualist values of liberalism. This was least marked in the economic sphere, where the apparent industrial success of Stalinist Russia encouraged many Western and developing states to adopt extensive policies of economic socialism in the form of the nationalization of major industries. The postwar liberal states also for the most part greatly expanded the provision of state welfare to their subjects. While such policies were contrary to the principles of classical liberalism, they were perfectly justifiable under the revision of liberal theory that took place in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Political and moral theory remained marooned in the swamp of ideological contestation largely between liberalism and communism until the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice in 1971 and the collapse of the other great antiliberal power in the 1980s (that is, the Soviet Union). The former generated an extraordinary revival of political theory based on the belief that Rawls had invented a new rational justification of liberalism. Rawls supposes that persons engaged in social interaction have the need and the desire to justify their actions to those affected by them and that this justification must take the form of everyone agreeing from an initially fair position to a set of cooperative principles that will then be seen to be fair. The initially fair position is one in which the contractors are understood to be free and equal persons—free because they have the capacity to form conceptions of the good and govern themselves by these conceptions, and equal because no one has any more power than another to secure favorable terms for him-or herself. The contractors would choose two principles. The first is a principle of equal liberty by which each is to have as much liberty as is compatible with a like liberty for all. This principle takes priority over the second principle, which is concerned with fair equality of opportunity and the distribution of income and wealth. With regard to the latter Rawls holds that the contractors would choose that distribution that maximizes the long-run position of the worst-off group in society. These principles are commonly taken to justify a liberal welfare state with a leaning toward egalitarian outcomes.
One of Rawls’s main claims about liberalism is that it is a method of political cooperation that is neutral between different conceptions of the good. Rawls believes, as did the original natural rights theorists, that human beings differ and tend to quarrel disastrously about the good. Any attempt to establish a coercive state on the basis of a particular conception is bound to generate conflict and be unfair to those holding different conceptions because there is no way of conclusively establishing the truth of any one conception. Liberalism, as Rawls understands it, and as presented in this entry, is a way of achieving peaceful social cooperation on the basis of agreement on principles that leave people as free as is compatible with allowing a like freedom to others.
In A Theory of Justice, however, Rawls claims that the ultimate ground for accepting his liberalism is that it expresses the Kantian idea of free and equal autonomous persons cooperating together in a social order. Rawls later came to accept the criticism that to base the theory on a Kantian conception of autonomy, which some persons could reasonably reject, violated the neutrality of the scheme. So in Political Liberalism (1993) he holds that the burdens of judgment regarding the good are such that it is unreasonable to seek to impose one’s own conception on others by making it the basis of the state’s order. But this claim raises the question of whether the unreasonableness of imposing one’s conception of the good is solely pragmatic or whether it is based on principle, and, if the latter, what that principle is if it is not the Kantian one. Taking the former view would force one to abandon the belief that Rawls has effectively countered the general twentieth-century skepticism regarding foundations.
Some Issues in Liberal Theory and Practice
Liberalism has deep internal tensions primarily between the claims of equality and those of liberty arising from its equal commitment to both these principles. The tensions are held by some thinkers who are not well-disposed towards liberalism to be contradictions that prevent liberalism from living up to its own principles. Some of these issues are discussed briefly below together with some important distinctions between types of liberalism.
Liberalism and cultural difference
Liberalism prides itself on its toleration of cultural and other differences. Some cultural groups, however, are internally illiberal. They do not treat their members as free and equal autonomous individuals with rights but as having identities defined by their membership in and place within the group, and by relation to the group’s values. They are communal selves rather than individual ones. People so identifying themselves cannot easily flourish in liberal society by taking advantage of its freedoms. Hence, it is said that liberalism cannot treat such minority cultures fairly in accordance with its own principles.
Liberalism can tolerate such groups provided that they do not harm others and provided that their members are free to leave without suffering unjust discrimination. The problem is whether persons formed in such groups are really free to leave unless they have had a liberal education that enables them to think of themselves as individuals with the power and right of choice. But if they do think of themselves in this way, they will no longer be the communal selves they were. The liberal education of its members would undermine the group’s illiberal identity and force it to reconstitute itself in liberal terms. It is clear also that illiberal groups could not be specially represented in the political realm without turning that realm from a principled association into what would be at best a pragmatic compromise between conflicting groups. There is no reasonable compromise between liberalism and illiberalism. In the end one must seek to show the superiority of a liberal society by appealing to some foundational principle and by reiterating that there is no possible social scheme compatible with a principled order that is more tolerant of difference than liberalism.
A more modest claim for the special recognition of cultural difference would be that of cultural minorities whose values are not incompatible with liberalism but whose members are disadvantaged relative to the majority in terms of their ability to compete on fair terms to obtain the benefits of liberal society. The demand would be in part for the preferential treatment of the members of such groups so that they could enjoy fair equality of opportunity. But this would not be to give special recognition to the culture as such but to its members as disadvantaged individuals. Some cultural minorities might also reasonably claim to be given symbolic public recognition as distinct and loyal members of the polity in public ceremonies celebrating the history of the nation and the contributions of its various citizens.
Liberalism and women’s difference
In the beginning, feminism was just the application of liberal principles to women. Women were conceived as having fundamentally the same nature and interests as men and thereby entitled to the same rights.
Radical feminists from the 1970s, however, opposed the liberal assimilation of women’s claims on the grounds that the liberal conception of the person did not reflect women’s nature. This nature had been obscured by millennia of patriarchal rule and needed liberation from patriarchal society before its true content could be revealed. But whatever it turned out to be, the radical feminists were certain that it would not be a liberal individual. They held that whereas the liberal individual was based on impersonal rationality and abstraction, women’s ethical life was rooted in her body and its emotions.
Insofar as women’s difference amounts to an illiberal nature opposed to liberal man, the same issues are raised as those that occur in the cultural case, although compounded by the fact that men and women would seem to have to live together in the private realm if the race is to be satisfactorily continued. Women cannot be treated as a self-reproducing cultural group. Nevertheless, illiberal women could be specially represented in the public sphere. Yet, this would turn it once again into a reasonable compromise between the representatives of conflicting values.
Women could, of course, be seen as a disadvantaged group whose members need preferential treatment in order to achieve fair equality of opportunity. But this is not incompatible with liberalism. Some contemporary women writers claim that it is incompatible on the grounds that if women are given special treatment because of their difference, for example, their maternal being, then liberalism’s claim to treat all persons equally without respect for gender will be breached. Nevertheless, because the ground for special treatment is to achieve fair equality of opportunity for different individuals in regard to their different circumstances, this argument seems invalid.
The radical feminists belief in a special women’s nature was subverted by the postmodernist feminists, who reject the idea of essential selves. Identities are socially produced and always subject to challenge and change. This view would seem to make it impossible to claim that women as such are oppressed in patriarchal or liberal society because there is no such thing as women as such. Nevertheless, postmodern feminists believe that it is still possible within particular discourses to resist established conventions and develop alternative discourses regarding women. But to what end is unclear.
Economic liberalism is the view that the best economic order is a free market. This view may be justified by utilitarian considerations, as in those of Bentham, or by a combination of natural rights and utilitarian consequences, as in the theory of Adam Smith.
Fundamental to Smith’s view is the idea of a natural order. This is the social order that develops when individuals are allowed to pursue their interests through specialization and exchange of goods and services. It is an expression of human beings’ natural right to liberty. But it is also the best way for a society to promote the accumulation of wealth and national power.
Individuals are motivated in the natural order by the desire to improve their material condition, and given a suitable economic environment competition among them will normally produce beneficial consequences. Such an environment requires the free movement of labor, capital, and goods; many buyers and sellers; sound information among buyers and sellers; security of person and property; and the abolition of monopolies, tariffs, and government regulation of production and consumption. Yet Smith acknowledges that there exists a class of public goods that it is the function of government to provide, including the administration of justice, defense, and education.
Smith is not blind to the defects of the liberal economic individual and society but thinks liberal society is still preferable to aristocratic society. In particular, he deplores the condition of the poor but believes that their only hope lies in the accumulation of wealth. Furthermore, he distrusts the capacity and interests of the poor to make political decisions in the general interest, which he identifies with the system of liberal liberty. So, like many other early liberals, he wants a liberal polity to be restricted to property owners.
Smith is the founder of classical economics, which is committed to free markets and hence economic liberalism. Another major figure in this school is David Ricardo (1772-1823), whose Principles of Political Economy and Taxation dominated the subject until the end of the nineteenth century. However, in Ricardo the subject becomes more technical and abstract and less concerned with its connections with liberal values more generally.
Economic liberalism of the Smithian kind is commonly thought to have been practiced by the British government during the nineteenth century and to a lesser extent by others. But this is far from being unqualifiedly true. The British government interfered in market outcomes during this period by regulating working conditions, trade unions, and the rates of utility companies, and by imposing an income tax and maintaining a monopoly of the money supply. The general spirit of economic liberalism is better described as a strong presumption in favor of laissez faire unless it was clear that intervention was to the general benefit.
Classical and revisionist liberalism
Classical liberalism is the liberalism that prevailed mainly in northern Europe and North America up to the second half of the nineteenth century. It consisted of minimal government intervention in economy and society. But it was by no means politically democratic, especially in Europe where liberals were for the most part and for a long time strongly resistant to the inclusion of the propertyless in the benefits and burdens of a liberal polity. Its principles received notable political expression in the declarations of the rights of man and the citizen of the American and French Revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century, while the extremes of the latter revolution confirmed many middle-class liberals in their hostility to democracy. Because of its economic and political association with the middle classes, classical liberalism can easily be represented as the ideology of the capitalist class, a position taken by Karl Marx (1818-1883) and other socialists. As presented in this entry, however, the fundamental tenets of classical liberalism go far wider and deeper than that claim implies. This is shown by the way the application of its principles was revised in the course of the nineteenth century to accommodate what most liberals came to accept as inevitable, namely the arrival of democracy.
The revision in practice took the form of increasing government intervention in the economy to protect the interests and promote the welfare of workers. Government resources, obtained through general taxation, are used to provide for the basic needs of the population. The revision in liberal theory that justified the change to big government involved a shift from the belief of the classical liberals that normal adult human beings would automatically have developed the capacity to exercise their freedom in their own interests to the view that this capacity needed suitable economic, educational, and social conditions for its development—a belief found in the works of Mill and especially the nineteenth-century idealists. If individuals cannot provide these conditions for themselves, then fellow citizens must do so through state action. In general the move is to a greater emphasis on the equality aspect of equal liberty, as exemplified in Rousseau’s thought, a change requiring more protection for workers and the poor.
Rather than as an abrupt and radical break, this revision of classical liberalism should be considered a movement along a continuum of possible social forms, all based on the liberal principle of equal liberty. At one extreme of this continuum is libertarian anarchy with no government at all, which is followed by the minimal state as described above in Smith’s theory, and increasing levels of government intervention all the way to the government ownership of the means of production at the other extreme. The latter can still be called liberal provided that individual freedom prevails in all but the economic realm and that economic socialism is understood as the best means of assuring an equal liberty. Classical liberalism shares with revisionist liberalism the belief that government intervention can be justified if it works out to the general advantage.
Liberalism and nationalism
Liberalism and a weak form of nationalism developed together. Liberalism was a way of organizing society for the benefit of its members in a manner that promoted, better than any alternative, the society’s harmony, prosperity, and power in a world of independent states. The nation here is just the collection of people organized in a state and thereby sharing common interests in their peace, prosperity, and power.
A strong form of nationalism holds that a nation is an ethnocultural group sharing a common ancestry, history, and culture and that membership in such a group is fundamental to the identity and value of the individual. Nationalism in this sense is totally antithetical to liberalism, for which individual identity is deeper than national identity.
A form of nationalism intermediate between the two is to be found in Mill and the contemporary thinker David Miller. According to this view a democratic liberal state will work better—be more harmonious and just—if the great majority share a nationality in the ethnocultural sense.
Liberalism has also been allied with imperialism. The argument here is that the rule of a liberal state over other peoples, such as the rule of Britain over India, may be justified if it serves to develop the subject peoples’ capacity to become self-governing individuals and a self-governing people—in other words to develop in them the culture of liberalism. It is held by some that cultural imperialism of this kind, if not political imperialism, has been pursued by the Western powers after World War II through the United Nations program on Human Rights. Ultimately, the only justification for pursuing a liberal program domestically or internationally is that liberalism describes a better way for human beings to live together than any alternative because it better expresses and actualizes their fundamental nature and interests.