Liberalism: core ideas and principles, Key Thinkers within liberalism,…
Liberalism: core ideas and principles
- We are all born with equal entitlement.
- Equal status for all members of society regardless of social background.
Equality of opportunity
- Liberals endorse measures designed to break down those barriers that hold people back, such as racism, homophobia, sexism and transphobia.
- A common term within political discourse which refers to an invisible contract between the people and the state. Both parties to the contract should behave as if it was tangible and real.
- strives to ensure that we are defined by merit and ability rater than the social circumstances of our birth.
- The state is akin to an artificial machine and is created by individuals with the express purpose to protect their freedoms.
- Liberals celebrate the right of the individual to create their own path in life. Society must welcome the vast array of lifestyle choices provided no-one is being harmed by such actions.
- A government in which the powers of the state are limited by law, usually in a written/codified constitution.
- the primacy of the individual in society over any group.
The key principle of liberalism
J.S. Mill "Over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."
Liberals are suspicious of the state and how it might use its power.
High degree of trust in individuals.
Individuals are rational human beings who are responsible for their own behaviour.
In recent years, many liberals (especially in the US) have come under fire from the 'religious right' because of the association between individualism and possible immortality.
- The ability and right to make decisions in your own interests.
Expressing our own personal liberty must be exercised with a degree of responsibility.
It is permissible to hold illiberal thoughts provided they do not lead towards behaviour inconsistent with liberalism.
Individual rights should only apply to rational and responsible human beings. As such, children are not entitled to be in possession of full rights.
Liberalism seeks to open people's minds to new and exciting possibilities. It often challenges conventional wisdom and seeks the emancipation of the individual from outdated conventions.
All liberals believe that the capitalist system represents the fullest expression of individualism. This is because the marketplace is based on the fundamental liberal principle of free choice.
- 'Necessary' to avoid disorder, but 'evil' as it has potential to remove individual liberty, thus should be limited.
Liberals believe that we should place our faith firmly on the shoulders of the individual - therefore, the state is the principle enemy of liberals.
All liberals fear that the state may act in an arbitrary manner to persecute certain groups.
Even a moderate form of paternalism is inconsistent with liberal ideology.
The role of the state must be limited via constitutionalism, an independent judiciary and the rule of law.
The state must enable full religious expression.
All liberals accept the need for some state involvement within society and the economy; this marks a fundamental point of departure between liberals and anarchists.
Under the social contract, the existence of government is justified upon the basis of consent.
- a belief that humans are rational creatures, capable of reason and logic.
Our behaviour is determined by rational interest rather than irrational emotions and prejudice; we are
therefore governed by reason and should be entrusted with as much freedom as possible.
We are free to choose our own path in life regardless of what society dictates as the ‘norm.’
We should be allowed to express ourselves fully as guided by our own free will.
Liberals instinctively welcome those fleeing from persecution and discrimination in their native homeland because freedom of movement is a central tenant of liberalism, and the only logical conclusion amongst people who place reason above prejudice.
Liberals emphasise human happiness.
Liberalism is on a collision course with religious fundamentalists of all faiths.
- The belief that individuals are of equal value and that they should be treated impartially and fairly by society.
Focus on equality of opportunity.
Whilst liberals fully accept that individuals are of equal value, they also recognise that any attempt to impose equality of outcome would inevitably lead to an excessive degree of state intervention. This would undermine our individual liberty and freedom.
Social justice can be defined as those policies and measures designed to ensure a fairer distribution of
life chances within; liberals who use this term are social rather than classical liberal.
- a democracy that balances the will of the people, as shown through elections, with limited government and a respect for civil liberties in society.
Democracy is most commonly associated word with the ideology of liberalism.
Democratic values such as accountability, open government, a codified constitution and the
separation of powers are all endorsed by liberals.
This rests upon a deep commitment to people power and an optimistic view of human nature.
It is absolutely central to the liberal outlook that politicians who exercise power must be held
accountable for their actions to the people and their elected representatives.
The decision-making process should be as transparent and open as possible.
Liberals also believe in the need to protect and guarantee our civil liberties under a codified
Liberals support a system of checks and balances.
Key Thinkers within liberalism
- John Stuart Mill (1859) made a clear distinction between self-regarding and other- regarding actions. He argued that the individual is free to engage in self-regarding actions even when society considers those actions to be improper. However, a sanction may be imposed when such actions impinge upon the freedom of others i.e. when their actions harm others.
- All liberals believe vociferously in the rights of the individual; for liberals, history warns us that the biggest threat to individual liberty is the state. The liberal outlook is a permissive one that facilitates the pursuit of personal pleasure.
- Those on the libertarian-left of the political spectrum argue that the state should accept some level of responsibility towards meeting our welfare needs. According to the social liberal perspective, the welfare state is entirely consistent with liberal goals such as the maximisation of freedom and equal opportunities. Those who are disadvantaged within society require a degree of state assistance in order to truly experience a life of liberty. The state is therefore entirely justified in allocating a modest redistribution of wealth within society. In order to fund the welfare state. social liberals favour a degree of progressive taxation. Whilst this enables a modest level of wealth redistribution, there is no justification whatsoever within liberal ideology for punitive levels of taxation.
Joe Locke (1632-1704)
Social contract theory
- society, state and government are based on a theoretical voluntary agreement.
- that government should be limited and based on consent from below.
His most significant contribution is his work on the social contract.
Consent may be provided on a formal basis via an election or on an informal setting as a consequence of tacit consent.
Individuals are rational entities
When offering their consent to the state, they are at the same time promoting their own self-interest.
As rational entities, we fully acknowledge that our liberties are best protected via governance by the state.
It is only the state that can properly uphold our basic liberties and protect us from the threat of foreign invasion and social disorder.
The social contract imposes duties on both sides.
The state is obliged to protect its citizens; if the state were to act in violation of the contract, the people are entitled to withdraw their consent.
Citizens must accept the laws of the land.
We need a state to protect our freedom - this is a rejection of the anarchist perspective.
According to Locke, a stateless society is one in which we would be devoid of freedom.
Locke also placed great emphasis upon property rights.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97)
- women are rational and independent beings capable of reason.
- in order to be free, women should enjoy full civil liberties and be allowed to have a career.
She is regarded as a feminist, and a leading figure in liberal feminism.
Her work 'A vindication of the rights of woman'
She argued that both men and women should be treated equally as rational human beings.
She also claimed that women were not naturally inferior to men, but may appear to be because they've been denied educational opportunities.
Wollstonecraft advocated formal equality in which women were entitled to the same civil liberties as men.
Women would be able to experience a life of genuine liberty free from the constraints of patriarchy.
This would even extend towards women being allowed to have a career outside of the home, an argument that was well ahead of its time.
Her unconventional lifestyle is perhaps one reason why her work was taken less seriously than perhaps it should have been.
John Stuart Mill (1806-73)
- that individuals should be free to do anything except harm other individuals.
- belief that the popularity of a view does not necessarily make it correct.
He contributed the most to liberalism, with insights offered into the harm principle, free will, the despotism of custom, experiments in living, utilitarianism, the marketplace of ideas and electoral reform.
The harm principle, Mill makes a crucial distinction between self regarding and other-regarding actions.
We should be free to pursue those action that in no way constrain the liberty of others i.e. be able to engage in self-regarding actions.
We should accept responsibility for charting our own path in life.
We need to be wary of public opinion, because the 'despotism of custom'.
We must avoid forcing our opinions on others unless we are certain of their truth.
Majority opinion can be wrong as the majority holds no true authority and no absolute certainty.
Mill was a passionate advocate of electoral reform, and could be regarded as one of very few male theorists who could credibly be labelled as a feminist.
John Rawls (1921-2002)
Theory of justice
- opinion that society must be just and guarantee each citizen a life wirth living.
The veil of ignorance
- a hypothetical scenario where individuals agree on the type of society they want, from a position where they lack knowledge of their own position in society.
The veil of ignorance
requires us to place ourselves in the position of others and requires us to consider the danger of being born into poverty.
Rather than take that risk, Rawls assumed that people would want a fairer society with adequate housing, safe neighbourhoods, a good education system and an unbiased criminal justice system.
Society can be said to be fair when we can state than no-one would care what circumstances we would be born into.
The principles of justice are those everyone would agree to from a position of ignorance. To create a just society, we first need to agree on the principles behind justice. These can be established from his thought experiment.
The original position means we are all equal in our ignorance.
Under these conditions, we would agree to the liberty principle (such as freedom of expression and freedom from arbitrary arrest).
We would also agree to the difference principle (in which inequalities are permitted provided they are positions open to all and benefit the least advantaged within society).
Betty Friedan (1921-2006)
- women are as capable as men and that oppressive laws and social views must be overturned.
- women are being held back from their potential because of the limited number of jobs that are 'acceptable' for women.
Regarded as the mother of women's liberation.
Her most important contribution towards the ideology of feminism is 'The Feminine Mystique' in which she sought to highlight the issues facing the American housewife, particularly the stifling boundaries placed upon women and the frustrations of those who felt trapped by social expectations of the role of women.
Friedan claimed that women were prevented from fulfilling their potential in life due to the confines of this cultural myth.
During a conservative time, Friedan argued that women were as capable as men in terms of performing any type of work or career path, and advocated raising consciousness and lobbying in favour of legislative reform to address gender inequality.
Friedan and others believe there is sufficient scope within the political process' boundaries for women to advance the feminist position
Liberalism - Differing views and tensions within liberalism
- Associated with classical liberalism. Individuals aim to satisfy their own wants and needs. As such, there is no such thing as society. This should result in a minimal state.
- Associated with social liberals, who adopt a more developed view of humanity which recognises our desire to live in harmony with one another. It assumes that we may choose to make social progress and express a degree of altruism.
- Freedom from something i.e. laws to combat discrimination. Supported by classical liberals, and linked to laissez-faire economics.
- Freedom to do something i.e. policy that enables those on limited incomes to lead a more fulfilled and meaningful existence. Supported by social liberals, and linked to the welfare state.
- An economic system based upon private ownership and market forces. Classical liberals argue that a free-market facilitates the optimum allocation of scarce resources within an economy.
- Keynes argued that government intervention was vital to uphold the capitalist system. He rejected the argument that the market is a self-correcting mechanism naturally inclined towards reaching a state of equilibrium.
- early liberals who believed that individual freedom would be best achieved with the state playing a minimal role.
The classical liberal school of thought is opposed to an expansion in the role of the state.
Classical liberals believe that social problems should be solved by market forces.
The privatisation of essential public services.
- This emerged as a reaction against free-market capitalism, believing this had led to many individuals not being free. Freedom could no longer simply be defined as 'being left alone'.
A mixed economy became preferable to a
system in which the marketplace was left alone.
According to many historians, the laissez-faire approach became associated with causing the Great Depression of the 1930s. Individuals could not be described as free when exposed to the whims of the marketplace. Free-market capitalism had failed to provide freedom to all; and a very different approach was required. This led to a shift away from classical economics towards a form of Keynesianism.
Comparing Classical and Modern Liberalism
Role of the State
- The economy should have free exchange of labour, and consumer choice is important.
J.S. Mill warned that when people expect the state to provide for them, they then blame the state - rather than themselves - for every misfortune that they face.
- Free-market capitalism fails to provide freedom to all (“a starving man is not free”) and so there is some role for a welfare state.
Definition of freedom
- Support negative liberty i.e. the absence of obstacles or barriers, so that one is free to make their own decisions.
- Support positive liberty i.e. the right to do something.
Individualism vs Constructivism
- Individualism: liberty is the result of placing
restrictions on the state.
- Constructivism: liberty comes from new
rights created by the state.
- Closely linked with the conservative approach of natural justice; the state is merely a night watchman.
- Believe in social justice i.e. a ‘better’ distribution of resources with a focus on human rights and greater equality of opportunity.