Liberalism is the conviction in the significance of freedom and impartiality of rights and privileges of every individual (Rawls 1). Liberalism, as defined by Heywood, is a political ideology whose central theme is a commitment to the individual and to the construction of a society in which individuals can satisfy their interests or achieve fulfillment (60). Central to liberalism in comparison with other political philosophies, is the hope that human beings will shed their traditional allegiances and their local identities and unite in a universal civilization grounded in generic humanity and a rational morality (Engebretson 28).
The core values of liberalism as enumerated by Heywood are individualism, rationalism, freedom, justice and toleration (60). The liberal notion that human beings are, first and foremost, individuals, endowed with reason, implies that each individual should enjoy the maximum possible freedom consistent with a like freedom for all (D’Anieri 74). In spite of this, although persons are born equal in the sense that they are of equal moral worth and should have the benefit of formal impartiality and equivalent chances, liberals generally stress they should be bestowed according to their differing levels of talent or motivation to work, and thus, favor the principle of meritocracy (Arditi 1). Simply, liberals deemed to give each and every individual what is due him or her (Hobhouse 11). A liberal society as highlighted by Heywood is distinguished by diversity and pluralism and is organized politically around the twin values of consent and constitutionalism, combined to form the structures of liberal democracy (60).
Classical Liberalism is characterized by a belief in a minimal state, whose function is limited to the maintenance of domestic order and personal security (Heywood 61). Classical liberals stressed that human beings are intrinsically self-motivated and are greatly self-reliant; as far as possible, people should be accountable to their own lives and situations.
As an economic doctrine, classical liberalism exalts the advantages of a self-regulating market in which government intervention is seen as both unnecessary and damaging (Heywood 61). Classical liberal ideas are expressed in particular natural rights theories and utilitarianism and provide one of the foundations of libertarianism.
Modern liberalism is sometimes depicted as social or welfare liberalism demonstrates a more sympathetic attitude towards the state, born out of the belief that unregulated capitalism merely produces new forms of injustice (Heywood 61). State intervention can therefore expand liberty by safeguarding individuals from the communal immoralities that ruin their subsistence. Modern liberals associate independence to individual development and self-actualization. This produces obvious overlaps between modern liberalism and social democracy.
Libertarianism is an ideological stance that gives strict priority to liberty or freedom over other values such as authority, tradition and equality (Heywood 62). Hence, libertarians seek to maximize the realm of individual freedom and minimize the scope of public authority, typically, seeing the state as the principal threat to liberty. The two best known libertarian traditions are founded in the notion of individual rights and laissez faire, which literally means “leave to do” or in other words, unconstrained by government, economic doctrines. Libertarian theories of rights generally emphasize that the individual is the owner of his or her person and thus, people have a total entitlement to the property that their labor produces.
Libertarian economic theories highlight the self-regulating nature of the market mechanism and portray government intervention as always uncalled for and counter-productive. Although all libertarians disapprove the attempts of a government to redistribute wealth and to deliver social justice, a division can nevertheless be drawn between those libertarians who subscribe to anarcho-capitalism and view the state as a gratuitous evil, and those who recognize the need for a minimal state, sometimes, styling themselves as monarchists (Heywood 63).
Significance of Liberalism
Liberalism has undoubtedly been the most dominant ideological force shaping the Western political tradition (Heywood 61). Liberalism took up various forms as time passed by. Liberalism is a political doctrine that attacked absolutism and feudal privilege; however, it advocated constitutional and representative government. Liberalism in its economic form extolled the virtues of laissez faire capitalism and condemned all forms of government intervention. Later on, liberalism emerged in its social or modern form, which looked more favorably upon welfare reform and economic intervention.
The attraction of liberalism is its unrelenting commitment to individual freedom, reasoned debate and to balance within diversity; hence, it continues to exist in today’s contemporary ideologies and exercised by various countries all throughout the world. Liberalism is often portrayed as a meta-ideology, that is, a body of rules that lays down the grounds upon which political and ideological debate can take place (Heywood 62). This reflects that liberalism is founded on the belief of giving priority to the right over the good (Heywood 62). In conclusion, liberalism endeavors to ascertain circumstances in which people and groups can engage in the good life as each defines it, but it does not stipulate or attempt to uphold any specific principle of what is good.
Arditi, Benjamin. Politics on the edges of liberalism: difference, populism, revolution, agitation.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd., 2007.
D’Anieri, Paul. International Politics: Power and Purpose in Global Affairs. Boston, USA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2011.
Engebretson, Kath. International Handbook of Inter-religious Education. New York: Springer Science + Business Media, 2010.
Heywood, Andrew. Key Concepts in Politics. New York: PALGRAVE, 2000.