This section describes the ideology of liberalism. Liberalism values individual freedom, open economic systems, and democracy. As you read this section, consider how the ideology of liberalism compares to socialism or fascism. What sets liberalism apart? Also, pay close attention to the distinction between classical liberalism and modern liberalism.
Liberalism is a broad political ideology or worldview founded on the ideas of liberty and equality.
Discuss the central tenets and principles of liberalism as a political philosophy
Sources of Liberal Thought
Liberalism, from the Latin liberalis, is a broad political ideology or worldview founded on the ideas of liberty and equality. Liberalism espouses a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, and can encompass ideas such as free and fair elections, free trade, private property, capitalism, constitutionalism, liberal democracy, free press, and the free exercise of religion.
Liberalism first became a powerful force during the Enlightenment , when it became popular among philosophers and economists in the Western world. Liberalism rejected the notions, common at the time, of hereditary privilege, state religion, absolute monarchy, and the Divine Right of Kings. The early liberal thinker John Locke, who is often credited with the creation of liberalism as a distinct philosophical tradition, employed the concept of natural rights and the social contract to argue that the rule of law should replace both tradition and 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.
Liberalism and Revolution
The revolutionaries in the American and France used liberal philosophy to justify the armed overthrow of what they saw as tyrannical rule. The nineteenth century saw governments established around liberalist political ideology in nations across Europe, Latin America, and North America. Liberalist ideas spread even further in the twentieth century, when liberal democracies were on the winning side in both World Wars I and II, and when liberalism survived major ideological challenges from fascism and communism. Today, liberalism remains a political force with varying degrees of power and influence in many countries.
Classical vs. Modern Liberalism
Classical liberalism is a political philosophy and ideology belonging to liberalism in which primary emphasis is placed on securing the freedom of the individual by limiting the power of the government. The philosophy emerged as a response to the Industrial Revolution and urbanization in the 19th century in Europe and the United States. It advocates civil liberties with a limited government under the rule of law, private property, and belief in laissez-faire economic policy.
Both modern American conservatism and social liberalism split from Classical Liberalism in the early 20th century. At that time conservatives adopted the Classic Liberal beliefs in protecting economic civil liberties. Conversely social liberals adopted the Classical Liberal belief in defending social civil liberties. Neither ideology adopted the pure Classical Liberal belief that government exists to protect both social & economic civil liberties. Conservatism shares an ideological agreement on limited government in the area of preventing government restriction against economic civil liberties as embodied in the ability of people to sell their goods, services or labor to anyone they choose free from restriction except in rare cases where society's general welfare is at stake.
While many modern scholars argue that no particularly meaningful distinction between classical and modern liberalism exists, others disagree. According to William J. Novak, liberalism in the United States shifted in the late 19th and early 20th century from classical liberalism (endorsing laissez-faire economics and constitutionalism) to "democratic social-welfarism" (endorsing such government involvement as seen in the New Deal). This shift included qualified acceptance of government intervention in the economy and the collective right to equality in economic dealings. These theories came to be termed "liberal socialism", which is related with social democracy in Europe. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "In the United States, liberalism is associated with the welfare-state policies of the New Deal program of the Democratic administration of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt, whereas in Europe it is more commonly associated with a commitment to limited government and laissez-faire economic policies". Consequently in the U.S., the ideas of individualism and laissez-faire economics previously associated with classical liberalism, became the basis for the emerging school of right wing libertarian thought.
Liberalism and Socialism
Some confusion remains about the relationship between social liberalism and socialism, despite the fact that many variants of socialism distinguish themselves markedly from liberalism by opposing capitalism, hierarchy and private property. Socialism formed as a group of related yet divergent ideologies in the 19th century such as Christian socialism, Communism and Social Anarchism. These ideologies — as with liberalism — fractured into several major and minor movements in the following decades. Marx rejected the foundational aspects of liberal theory, hoping to destroy both the state and 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.
Social democracy, an ideology advocating progressive reform of capitalism, emerged in the 20th century and was influenced by socialism. Yet unlike socialism, it was not collectivist nor anti-capitalist. It was not against the state; rather it was broadly defined as a project that aims to correct, through government reformism, what it regards as the intrinsic defects of capitalism by reducing inequalities. Several commentators have noted strong similarities between social liberalism and social democracy, with one political scientist even calling American liberalism "bootleg social democracy".
American Tradition and Liberal Heritage
Many fundamental elements of modern society have liberal roots. The early waves of liberalism popularized economic individualism while expanding constitutional government and parliamentary authority. One of the greatest liberal triumphs involved replacing the capricious nature of royalist and absolutist rule with a decision-making process encoded in written law. Liberals sought and established a constitutional order that prized important individual freedoms, such as the freedoms of speech and association, an independent judiciary and public trial by jury, and the abolition of aristocratic privileges. These sweeping changes in political authority marked the modern transition from absolutism to constitutional rule.
Later waves of liberal thought were strongly influenced by the need to expand civil rights. In the 1960s and 1970s, feminism in the United States was advanced in large part by liberal feminist organizations. Many liberals also have advocated for racial equality, and the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1960s strongly highlighted the liberal crusade for equal rights.
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