Liberalism Research Paper

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Liberalism is a family of political philosophies, and a set of associated institutions and policies. All liberal philosophies give primacy to the protection of basic liberty. Competing versions of liberalism—such as democratic liberalism and libertarianism—differ in their answers as to what basic liberty is, and what institutions best protect it. Since its origins, liberalism itself has been an object of controversy. At the same time, liberalism has been committed to defending the set of freedoms—of speech, press, conscience, and association—that support the rights of all parties to carry on such controversies in public.

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1. Origins

Although the term ‘liberalism’ was not used until the early nineteenth century, major elements of liberal political philosophy originate in the seventeenth century. The first systematic defense of a politics that gives priority to individual liberty was John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government ([1690] 1988). Against Thomas Hobbes’s defense of absolute sovereignty (Le iathan 1651), Locke argued that individuals have a set of natural rights to life, liberty, and property that they do no alienate to any government, and they therefore have a right to revolt against a government that violates those rights. The American Revolution of 1776 has Lockean liberal roots, as does the political thought of James Madison and other framers of the US Constitution.

Adam Smith offered the first systematic exposition of liberal economic theory (Wealth of Nations 1776). Social wealth is generated not by direct state action but by the invisible hand of free competition among producers and consumers. Smith presents a liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice that links commercial freedom to a constitutional political order protective of civil and political liberties. Although Smith uses ‘liberal’ in its then everyday sense of openmindedness of spirit, he links open-mindedness to a political program that grants individuals the greatest freedom from interference compatible with a like freedom for all.

On the Continent, liberal political theory also developed throughout the eighteenth century: The major liberal thinkers of the French Enlightenment criticized the ancien regime; Voltaire championed individual freedom of thought and religion (Lettres philosophiques 1734); and Montesquieu defended a system of checks and balances and separation of powers as means of protecting individual freedom (L’Esprit des Lois 1748). In Germany, Wilhelm von Humboldt defended limited government as a means to facilitate the development of human powers to their highest level in Ideen zu einem Versuch, die Grenzen der Wirksamkeit des Staats zu bestimmen (Ideas Toward an In estigation to Determine the Proper Limits of the Activity of the State 1792).

Not until 1812, however, was the term ‘liberalism’ actually used in politics. The Spanish political party, the Liberales, mounted a Lockean defense of constitutional monarchy, parliamentary government, and human rights against absolute monarchy. Ironically, Tory politicians in England called their domestic opponents ‘liberales’ rather than ‘liberals’ in order to suggest that liberal politics were un-English. Before long, however, the term ‘liberal’ became widely associated throughout the Anglo-Saxon world with a defense of individual liberty and a critique of absolutist government.

2. Development Of Conceptions And Controversies

As the influence of liberalism increased throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, different conceptions of liberalism developed, as did controversies between them, and between liberals and their critics. Three major controversies, each discussed below, are the debate between liberalism and libertarianism; conservative, radical, and communitarian critiques of liberalism; and the emergence of political liberalism as an alternative to comprehensive liberalism.

2.1 Democratic Liberalism vs. Libertarianism

The early nineteenth century French philosopher Benjamin Constant contrasted ‘the liberty of the moderns’—freedom of speech, religion, and association, and other legal protections of the individual from outside interference—with ‘the liberty of the ancients’—the freedom of citizens who collectively exercise popular sovereignty (1819 1988). All forms of liberalism affirm the liberty of the moderns, and therefore give primacy to protecting basic individual liberties against the tyranny of any political authority, no matter how popular. But democratic liberalism puts fewer constraints on popular government than libertarianism.

Two related concerns—about how to protect individual freedom and how to realize the full value of individual freedom—lead many liberal thinkers to ally liberalism closely with democracy. Individuals who are preoccupied with their own private lives may neglect the need to guard their political guardians and they also may be prevented by their government from developing some important part of their own potential. An antidote to these dangers, according to Constant, is political liberty, which will have the effect of enlarging the vision and spirit of citizens, and opening up more public offices and activities to ordinary citizens.

Democratic liberalism condemns the tyranny of the majority but defends representative democracy (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty 1859 and Considerations on Representative Government 1861). Along with Alexis de Tocqueville (Democracy in America 1835), Mill argues that without effective opportunities to participate in political and civic associations, ordinary people will be easily manipulated by demagogues and public opinion, and individual freedom will become a hollow ideal. Democratic liberalism therefore includes both political and personal freedoms among the most basic individual liberties.

The modern model of liberal democracy differs in two important ways from ancient Athenian democracy. First, most citizens do not directly participate in policy making but are represented by public officials (who are to be held accountable by frequent, free, and fair elections). Second, government is constitutionally required to respect individuals’ personal liberties of individuals, not only their political freedoms.

Contemporary conceptions of democratic liberalism support taxation for many public purposes, not only to provide for the common defense and the education of children, but also to maximize the worth of liberty for the least advantaged citizens, as John Rawls argues in A Theory of Justice (1971). The power of government is limited for the sake of protecting basic individual liberties, but the limits on government are viewed as compatible with regulating the economy in order to protect the worth of liberty for all individuals. Equality and democracy are regarded as allies of liberty. The overarching aim of liberalism, according to Ronald Dworkin’s ‘Liberalism’ (1978), is to treat free individuals as equals, but not equally. Judith Shklar (1998) argues that liberalism requires democracy, because political rights and freedoms are needed to defend freedom. Other liberals defend an increasingly popular conception called deliberative democracy, which defends a politics that respects the basic freedoms and opportunities of all individuals and also encourages publicly accountable deliberation to help resolve political disagreements and promote mutual respect among citizens amidst the disagreements that remain unresolved (Gutmann and Thompson 1996).

Libertarianism, by contrast, downplays both democracy and equality. The classical libertarian Herbert Spencer(1894/1981)defends the unfettered economy on pragmatic grounds—as a way of maximizing social wealth—but also on principled grounds as a reward for individual desert, which he argues is best measured by a free market. Libertarians accept the need for a minimal level of taxation to provide necessary public goods such as a common defense. But taxation for the purposes of redistribution, as contemporary libertarians like Robert Nozick argue (1974), is on a par with forced labor, a clear violation of basic liberty. Libertarians begin with a premise of self-ownership. If individuals own themselves, then they have a right to their natural assets. More controversially, libertarians argue that individuals also have a right to whatever flows from the politically unfettered use of those assets in society.

Democratic liberals and libertarians are united in defending a broad set of civil liberties (freedom of speech, press, association, conscience, and religion), a market economy, and the right to own personal property, but they part company over taxation for social welfare purposes. Whereas democratic liberals subscribe to the American revolutionary slogan ‘no taxation without representation’, libertarians—who often identify as ‘conservatives’ in US politics—defend freedom from taxation except when absolutely necessary to support the minimal—‘night watchman’—state. This dispute can be viewed as a family quarrel, and US politics is often characterized as an arena of conflict among competing versions of Lockean liberalism (Hartz 1955).

2.2 Conservative, Radical, And Communitarian Critiques

Conservative, radical, and communitarian political perspectives each pose a different challenge to the liberal emphasis on the priority of individual liberty. The disagreement between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine ([1992] [1792] 1995) over the French Revolution reveals the basic tension between conservatism and liberalism. Whereas the American revolutionaries, according to Burke, were fighting to preserve their traditional birthright (the rights of Englishmen), the French revolutionaries were trying to remake their society, a treacherous task, which would ‘like a palsy’ attack ‘the fountain of life itself’ (Burke, The Revolution in France 1790). Paine avidly supported both revolutions in the name of the kind of liberal philosophy—a universalistic defense of human rights–that is anathema to conservatives like Burke and more recently Michael Oakeshott (1991 Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays) who develops a more philosophical version of the conservative critique of liberal rationalism. Liberalism today is defended in theory as in practice on both particularistic and universalistic grounds.

Whereas conservatives argue that liberalism goes too far in defending individual rights, radicals argue that it does not go far enough. According to the radical critique, inspired by the early Marx, liberalism’s defense of individual freedom is sorely insufficient to the aim of actually liberating individuals from the oppressive power relationships that are endemic to a capitalistic economy, to which liberalism is committed. Liberal egalitarians (Gutmann 1980) meet radicals on their own ground by arguing that liberalism supports whatever economic system will best secure the worth of liberty for the least advantaged citizens, not just the most advantaged. Other radical critics argue that the coercive and manipulative powers of the state apparatus, modern media, and mass public opinion combine to undermine any possibility of individual liberation. Radical feminists mount a more focused attack on the liberal right to publish pornography, arguing that it furthers the oppression of women.

Drawing upon a conception of humans as historically conditioned beings, communitarians attack liberalism at its foundations for giving priority to individual freedom over the communal values—such as a shared religious faith—that give meaning to human lives. Liberalism defends the priority of individual rights over the preservation of communal values. It accepts the idea of human beings as historically conditioned and still consistently defends individual liberty as a primary value that politics should protect. The enforcement of individual rights, liberals argue, is necessary to protect people against the contemporary equivalents of witch hunting. Speculation that communal bonds of fraternity can take the place of justice in a modern pluralistic society has not been strong enough to undermine the liberal defense of individual rights (Gutmann in Avineri and de-Shalit 1992).

2.3 Political Liberalism As An Alternative To Comprehensive Liberalism

John Rawl’s Political Liberalism (1993) marked an important new development in liberal theory. Other conceptions of liberalism—such as the perfectionist and autonomy-based theory of Joseph Raz (1986)— offer comprehensive philosophies of life, which include ideals of personal character, friendship, and association. By contrast, political liberalism is a moral conception concerned only with the basic structure of a society, and presented as a view that is independent of any comprehensive doctrine. Its fundamental terms—such as the idea of individuals as free and equal citizens—are derived from the public political culture of a liberal democracy. Political liberalism recommends its principles as a way of fairly resolving disagreements in a pluralistic society; it does not expect free and equal citizens to agree on one comprehensive conception. Political liberalism instead locates an overlapping consensus in the midst of reasonable pluralism. Like liberalism itself, political liberalism is a family of conceptions, which share the aim of finding fair terms of social cooperation among free and equal members of a democratic society.

Accompanying the development of political liberalism are other conceptions of liberalism, including feminist liberalism and multicultural liberalism. These build on the basic premises of either political or comprehensive liberalism, and explicitly address the concern that women and cultural minorities should not be excluded from enjoying the full benefits of liberal freedoms and opportunities by virtue of their gender, race, ethnicity, or cultural identity. The family of different conceptions of liberalism continues to grow rapidly at the same time as various forms of liberal democracy multiply around the world.


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