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A doctrine with roots in eighteenth century thought, liberalism emerged in the nineteenth century as the prevailing ideology of Western capitalist societies and democracies. Though much transformed by the social and political developments of the twentieth century and seriously challenged by the various movements associated with them, especially fascism and socialism in the ﬁrst half of the century and feminism, ecologism, and multiculturalism in the second, liberalism has retained its dominant place. It combines philosophical, social, and political elements. Philosophically, liberalism consists of a commitment to the ideals of equality, liberty, individuality, and rationality. However, liberals have combined these concepts in numerous and often opposed conﬁgurations, which reﬂect diﬀerent social assumptions. Many liberals have believed these values to be inscribed within the very fabric of modern societies, reﬂecting the innovative technologies, social diﬀerentiation, and free movement of labor, goods, and capital characteristic of the commercial and industrial age and its aftermath. Others have thought the links between the two are fortuitous and contingent, and that these and other related social changes, such as the growth of bureaucracy, potentially threaten liberalism. Politically united against traditional and hierarchical societies, liberals have diﬀered, therefore, over whether liberalism requires various kinds of political support, such as the state regulation of markets, or merely the absence of any interference by either the state or others to the spontaneous and autonomous social activities of individuals. Meanwhile, critics of liberalism have either blamed it for all contemporary social ills, or regarded it as a transitory phase to be replaced by superior forms of social organization. Liberalism has featured in social science in correspondingly divergent ways: as the ‘natural’ value system of modern societies, as a historically and culturally speciﬁc phase of social development, as either pernicious or expressive of basic human goods.
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1. Liberalism Deﬁned
For analytical purposes it is convenient to break liberalism down into its philosophical, social, and political components, though these form a package that diﬀerent liberals have interpreted in diverse ways.
1.1 Liberal Philosophy
At a philosophical level, liberals seek the maximal equal liberty possible for all individuals to rationally and freely choose and realize their various projects and preferences without interfering with each other. This position draws together the concepts of equality, liberty, individuality, and rationality in a distinctive way. Liberals value equality in the sense of denying that anyone is the natural subordinate of others. This view does not entail regarding people as the same, merely that everyone has equal moral worth. Instead of seeking equality of outcome like certain socialists, liberals simply desire that all should have an equal opportunity to deploy what talents they do possess on the same basis as everyone else. Their attachment to liberty follows from this interpretation of equality and its implicit endorsement of the moral primacy of the individual. Among moral equals, individuals should be allowed to pursue their own good in their own way to the extent that is compatible with a like liberty for others. Finally, as rationalists, liberals believe that individuals should behave in a coherent and consistent manner and that decisions in the public domain should be open to critical scrutiny and amendment and capable of attaining the reasoned assent of those they aﬀect.
Though liberals share a moral ethos and broadly agree on the conceptual relationships between liberalism’s core values, they oﬀer very diﬀerent interpretations of them reﬂecting a wide variety of epistemological and ontological perspectives. Thus, liberals include methodological individualists such as Adam Smith or Herbert Spencer and holists such as Emile Durkheim, materialists such as John Locke and idealists such as T. H. Green or Benedetto Croce, utilitarians such as J. S. Mill and natural rights theorists such as Tom Paine, abstract universalists such as Kant, and historicist relativists such as Herder, and so on. Moreover, their main practical diﬀerences stem less from these considerations than from contrasting social visions and political judgements. Though individual thinkers naturally relate these last to their particular metaphysical and methodological views, the connections between them are far from clear cut. Similar theoretical perspectives often generate quite diﬀerent practical stances, while thinkers of quite diverse theoretical positions may often be in substantial practical agreement.
1.2 Liberal Society
Historically, the most signiﬁcant social inﬂuence on the formation of liberalism was the passage from feudalism to capitalism from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. This fuelled the liberal attack on ascribed status and its commitment to equality of opportunity. The closed feudal order of inherited rights, with its hierarchical system of aristocratic privileges, was to give way to an open and egalitarian capitalist order, in which an individual’s social position and success supposedly mirrored his or her ability and eﬀort—a way of life they felt was best realized in a free market economy.
Some contemporary liberals and many of liberalism’s critics regard the ethos resulting from such social origins as essentially materialist, instrumental, and egoistic. Traditionally, however, liberals have been extremely wary of such attitudes and have sought to avoid them. The liberal conception of economic behavior emerged from the experience of the entrepreneurs, traders, shopkeepers, and artisans of early capitalism, and invokes the image of an idealized market order in which rewards are closely linked to eﬀort. This linkage was codiﬁed in the labor theory of value and, in the British and North American context at least, drew additional support from the religious beliefs of certain Protestant sects that encouraged industriousness as a mark of salvation. The market also acts as a discovery mechanism, with competition and the proﬁt motive weeding out bad practices and poor products whilst stimulating the search for new processes and commodities, and so promoting the progress of society.
Liberals have disagreed, however, over how far a policy of laissez-faire can secure these advantages, and doubts have grown as capitalism has taken on a more corporate form. Most have accepted the need for some regulation to protect the market against itself and maintain its freedom—such as anti-trust and monopolies legislation. Others have sought to distinguish between the economic and social disadvantages that individuals are responsible for and those they are not, supporting quite extensive unemployment insurance and state-supported training schemes, for example, to get the unintentionally out of work back into jobs. Finally, liberals have always acknowledged certain public goods will be badly provided or even neglected by market mechanisms, even if some have believed state provision could employ market elements such as competitive tendering—defense and certain infrastructural goods, such as light-houses, were the classic cases. Clean air, education, and a health service serve as more recent and contentious examples.
1.3 Liberal Politics
The political face of liberalism follows on from the philosophical and social elements outlined above but was additionally inﬂuenced by the wars of religion and the rise of modern science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which fuelled calls for religious toleration and the related belief in rationalism and the moral equality of individuals. Along with the shift from social structures based on status to contractual relations between civic equals, these commitments led to the demand that politics reﬂect liberal principles. The state, like society as a whole, came to be seen as a voluntary association held together by the mutual consent of its members rather than the ties of deference to social superiors—a conception of political order summed up in the theory of the Social Contract.
The basic components of a liberal political system were established in the wake of the British, American, and French revolutions of 1688, 1776, and 1789, respectively. All three gave rise to new constitutional settlements and bills of rights. Two criteria informed these arrangements. First, laws were to be framed and applied impartially and universally. There were to be no special exemptions for particular groups, such as clerics and nobles, as in the past. Second, the laws were to guarantee to the greatest extent possible the equal right of each individual to pursue their own plan of life. For the majority of liberals, the most basic rights in this respect were traditionally the rights to private property and freedom of belief. These rights were essential to their understanding of the virtues of the market mechanism and of toleration, which they regarded as the embodiments of the new ethos.
At the heart of liberal politics is a distinction between the state and civil society. The purpose of the state is to facilitate social interaction rather than to substitute for individual initiative through state control of social institutions. The latter is the mark of dictatorships in liberal eyes. However, social liberals nevertheless believe economic intervention and state provision of certain social goods can have an enabling role, though market liberals contend such steps undermine liberalism. Liberals are also often said to favor a related distinction between the public and private sphere, allowing behavior in the latter they would ban or restrict in the former. However, this distinction has never come out cleanly. To the extent liberals do distinguish between the two it is as a corollary of their views of the state’s role in regulating society. The marriage contract, for example, oﬀers a quintessential liberal device of a public character with a clear impact on private behavior. Just as liberals of diﬀerent hues dispute the degree to which workers are free to sell their labor and the extent to which a valid contract implies certain standards of pay and conditions, so they have also debated whether and in what ways the marriage contract constrains the behavior of couples and grants women, in particular, rights to common property and protection against rape and abuse.
We have already disputed the view of liberalism as promoting possessive individualism in the socioeconomic sphere. A related objection contends that liberals advocate subjectivism, skepticism, and relativism in the political sphere, with all views treated as little more than personal opinions. However, the liberal insistence on the individual’s right to follow his or her own path does not entail regarding all ways of life as equally valuable. Drawing on the experimental method in modern science and the Protestant defense of freedom of conscience, liberals contend that truth and morality emerge through individuals being allowed to call into question accepted doctrines and try out new and occasionally eccentric or potentially oﬀensive pursuits. Ideas have to be tested for their validity while personal virtue only comes from our taking responsibility for our lives. For the state or any group to paternalistically impose its views on the rest of society risks falling into dogmatic error, demoralizes the population, and produces stagnation. Individuals must be able to make mistakes so that they can learn from them and emerge morally and materially improved.
Nevertheless, liberals have seen no need to tolerate the ‘intolerable,’ deﬁned as views that are incompatible with treating others as moral equals. Some critics have regarded this position as inconsistent with liberalism’s claims to openness. Yet certain limits are clearly implicit in liberalism and would otherwise render it incoherent. Where exactly these boundaries lie and their legitimacy and justiﬁability are more contentious matters, however. Liberalism has been accused of a gendered, imperialist, and Euro-centric bias, and historically this has often been the case, albeit to diﬀering degrees and with certain important if qualiﬁed exceptions, such as J. S. Mill’s attack on the Subjection of Women. How far gender and multiculturalism remain a blind spot is less clear. Many contemporary liberals maintain that multicultural, gay, and feminist demands for recognition and respect, like other appeals against unjust discrimination, implicitly invoke liberal norms of equality and tolerance. They have simply revealed these principles to have a broader application than certain past liberals had appreciated.
The complexities of the liberal position emerge when we consider their ambivalent view of democracy. Liberals have recognized that democracy oﬀers a means for holding governments to account, obliging policies to be justiﬁed and improved through critical debate, and allowing politicians to be peacefully removed when they prove incompetent, biased, or corrupt. However, past liberals sought to limit political citizenship to those with the intellectual attainment and economic resources they believed were required for ‘independent’ rational decision making—criteria that usually had the eﬀect of ruling out workers and women. Even so, liberals worried about the ‘tyranny of the majority’ as represented by an irrational and dependent mass, whose votes could be bought by unscrupulous populists willing to pander to their prejudices and interests. As a result, liberals hav etended to insist on the need for constitutional safeguards to protect liberal values from being overturned by democratic decisions.
2. Liberalism And Modern Society
Social scientists have seen liberalism as either an inherent and deﬁning characteristic of modernity or as threatened by it. Amongst the ﬁrst camp, moreover, there are those who see it as symptomatic of modernity’s ills rather than its advantages, identifying liberalism with a possessive individualism that is not only antisocial but anti sociological as well.
2.1 Liberalism As The Ethos Of Modernity
The view of liberalism as the ethos of modernity was best expressed by British social scientists such as Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer, J. S. Mill, T. H. Green, and L. T. Hobhouse, and to a lesser extent French thinkers such as Benjamin Constant, Francois Guizot, and Emile Durkheim. For these thinkers, liberalism’s philosophical commitment to expanding equal individual liberty was underwritten by a theory of social evolution whereby potential conﬂicts between diﬀerent liberties would be harmonized. This latter thesis idealized the market relations between small-scale entrepreneurs characteristic of early capitalism. These were taken as a model of a meritocratic society of selfreliant and responsible citizens, who freely contract with each other for mutual advantage. Liberal politics was conceived as the superstructural products of these social and economic changes. Freedom, reason, morality, and progress came in this way to be identiﬁed, with an optimistic account of social development supporting an implicitly ethical naturalist philosophical belief in the compatibility of diﬀerent forms of self-realization.
Adam Smith’s doctrine of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market and Herbert Spencer’s characterization of the ‘industrial’ form of organization as realizing the ‘Law of Equal Freedom’ oﬀer classic examples of this position. The ﬁrst a product of the commercial society of the eighteenth century, the second of the early industrial age of the 1840s, by the late nineteenth century the concentration of capital and the rise of organized labor had made liberals rather less sanguine about the inevitability of their vision. To the dismay of Spencer and other adherents of the earlier ‘classical’ liberalism, liberals began to envisage a more proactive role for the state in sustaining favorable social conditions. T. H. Green and L. T. Hobhouse, for instance, saw policies such as factory hours regulation and unemployment insurance as mechanisms for promoting freedom of contract and freeing individuals from certain structural constraints. Importantly, though, both saw the state as reducing the mutual interferences between individuals and fostering autonomy. In a similar manner, Durkheim argued that the liberal ‘cult of the individual’ was inherent to industrial societies and that the modern division of labor fostered an organic solidarity between autonomous agents. However, he had to confront various commercial crises, bankruptcies, and conﬂicts between capital and labor that suggested a less harmonious picture. He attributed these disturbances to contemporary societies being in a ‘transitional phase’ in which people had yet to fully assimilate liberal social norms. He too saw a role for the state in fostering these attitudes, with various ‘intermediary institutions’ serving to inform state policies as to social needs and act as a counter weight to state oppression of the individual.
Critics of liberalism sometimes portray this supposed relationship between liberalism and modernity in negative terms. They associate liberalism with a naturally instrumental and individualist model of human behavior, a disposition they believe is encouraged by the liberal conception of the market and democracy. They also claim it produces a view of social science as following the physical sciences by elaborating general laws of social development on the basis of various constant human passions. Some commentators have even argued that it was only radical and conservative opponents of liberalism who appreciated the distinctiveness of the human sciences by noting, respectively, how human behavior was modiﬁed by social structures and by culture, and the capacity of individuals to interpret and evaluate circumstances in diﬀerent ways. At best, liberalism results in a positivistic bourgeois ideology that ignores the impact on human thought and action of material conditions and productive forces, historically evolving communal traditions and conventions, and the possibility for reﬂective criticism. Thus liberalism is associated with certain behaviorist versions of political science and economics but not with sociology or anthropology. These arguments result from a highly selective and tendentious reading of the liberal tradition whereby, for example, De Tocqueville becomes a ‘conservative,’ Durkheim either a ‘conservative’ or a ‘socialist,’ and Herbert Spencer, read as an advocate of egoistic possessive individualism, becomes the exemplar of liberal social science. The liberal tradition, however, is much more diverse than this caricature, both methodologically and substantively. The vast majority of liberals distinguished respect for ‘individuality’ from ‘egoism’ and even positivist behaviorists, such as J. S. Mill, appreciated that autonomy only ﬂourished given certain material conditions, cultural values, and economic structures and played a part in its turn in how these were fashioned in the future. This awareness of the social and historically contingent character of liberalism is no more evident than in those liberals who saw it as being undermined by modernity.
2.2 Liberalism As Threatened By Modernity
The threat posed to liberalism by elements of modernity was especially evident in countries such as Italy and Germany, where a modernizing economy and society went along with fragile and incomplete liberal regimes which ultimately succumbed to fascism. The challenge these developments posed for liberal social science is powerfully illustrated by the ‘frustrated’ liberalism of the Italian Vilfredo Pareto and the ‘disenchanted’ liberalism of Weber. Though commonly categorized as sociologists, their work ranges over the whole gamut of the social sciences, covering economics, politics, and, in Pareto’s case, social psychology. Pareto was in many respects a sophisticated exponent of the instrumentally rational actor model of liberal individualism and was initially a strong advocate of both laissez-faire economics and a libertarian and democratic politics. However, he became convinced that what he called ‘logico-experimental’ thinking was the exception rather than the rule. Instead, most conduct was ‘nonlogical’ and arose from certain common psychological dispositions of either a conservative or more inventive kind. Politics simply consisted of the manipulation of these psychic states, a process that had been greatly aided by contemporary mass democracy. The electorate was too large and poorly informed and the decisions needed too numerous and diverse for rational debate to be possible. Democracy simply allowed populist leaders to legitimize their rule via emotive appeals to a popular will that was largely of their own making. He even brieﬂy supported fascism as a possible way of breaking free from this system and establishing a liberal market order from above.
Weber, by contrast, oﬀered a more historically and sociologically nuanced account of similar phenomena. He disputed that economic development per se fostered liberalism or that liberal values could be justiﬁed a priori. Liberalism’s apparent basis in natural law had been historically contingent, reﬂecting the peculiar social and political experiences of early modern Europe outlined above. Not only was this constellation of factors unlikely to reappear, but even within established liberal regimes liberalism was threatened by the spread of economic instrumentalism, bureaucratic rationality, and corporate organization resulting from the further development of capitalism. The chances of liberal democracy being established in societies such as Russia, which had not beneﬁted from the earlier favorable historical experiences, were minimal, therefore. Quite diﬀerent cultural values were likely to shape the modernizing processes of such societies, as indeed has occurred throughout Asia where capitalism has by and large taken a nonliberal form. Meanwhile in already existing liberal societies, the autonomous action characteristic of liberalism was possible only for the political leaders and entrepreneurs who controlled and gave direction to the various political and economic administrative structures that govern our lives.
Most contemporary liberal thinkers regard Weber as too pessimistic and many believe liberal values can be justiﬁed on grounds distinct from their historical and social origins. However, the possible disjunction between late modernity and liberalism, on the one hand, and the search for liberal foundations that appeal to reasons that ought to be accessible to all and so compatible with a variety of diﬀerent cultures and ideals, on the other, remain the prime challenges a viable liberal theory has to meet.
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