Political Theories for Students. Editor: Matthew Miskelly & Jaime Noce. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
Liberalism is not a precise ideology. It does not have clear system of beliefs or a set of texts to which its adherents must subscribe. It is rather a set of attitudes, including particularly an emphasis on the recognition of the rights of the individual and tolerance, which permits considerable diversity of views among liberals. It can be described but not prescribed.
Liberalism is a term that was first used in England the early nineteenth century. It is now used in much of the world to indicate a political system characterized by freedom of association, the rule of law, and the rejection of arbitrary authority. Liberalism also provides for individual freedom, equality before the law, possession of private property, clear constitutional limits on governmental power, and representative and democratic political decision making. Many of the richest societies are liberal—including the major Anglophone countries of the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—and, with some qualifications, most of the countries of the European Union.
The term “liberal” has a somewhat different usage in the U.S. to most of Europe and elsewhere in the English-speaking world. In the U.S., liberal is often used in a way that elsewhere would mean leftist, or one who supports the expansion of the power of the state or government. In Europe, this is reserved for the terms socialist, social democrat, or leftist, and liberal there usually means some one who does not support the expansion or use of the power of the state in political or economic affairs.
Liberalism can be understood as a political tradition that has varied in different countries. In England, the birthplace of liberalism, the liberal tradition in politics has centred on individual rights, religious toleration, government by consent, and personal and economic freedom. In France, liberalism has been more closely associated with secularism and democracy. In the U.S., liberals often combines a commitment to personal liberty with an antipathy to capitalism, while liberals in Australia tend to be much more sympathetic to capitalism, but often less enthusiastic about the state defending civil liberties.
Liberalism is a doctrine that emerged from the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. It became particularly strong in England, but also in the U.S., France, and later, other Anglophone societies like Australia. In each of these countries it assumed slightly different forms.
The major philosophers of liberalism belong to a number of groups of theorists. The first includes several theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who preceded liberalism proper but who anticipated its doctrines. These were followed by the political and economic theorists of classical liberalism in the mid-nineteenth century. Later, other liberal theorists modified those doctrines of the classical liberals and are often called “social liberals.” There also emerged in the twentieth century defenders of classical liberalism including, in the economic sphere, the “Austrian School.”
A History of Liberal Theory: The Precursors of Liberalism
Until the seventeenth century, most European political philosophy was chiefly set in theological terms. One of its principal concerns was the achievement of God’s will on earth and the protection of the Christian religion.
The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement during the eighteenth century which believed humans had the ability to discern truth without appeal to religious doctrine. This marked: the beginning of scientific history; the need to justify doctrine by reason; freedom is necessary to advance progress; historical criticism as necessary to determine the historical legacy; the need for critical philosophy; and the use of ethics as separate and independent from the authority of religion and theology. It also entailed a suspicion of all truth claiming to be grounded in some kind of authority other than reason, like tradition or divine revelation.
In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) the leading German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) asserted all that can be known, is things as they are experienced. Other Philosophers attempted to know God as he is in himself by reasoning up to Him. This was, according to Kant, a vain attempt. God could not be experienced by man. Kant did not entertain the possibility that God could break into the realm of history and reveal himself.
But Kant was not an atheist. He postulated the existence of God, but denied the possibility of any cognitive knowledge of him. It was man’s conscience that testified of God’s existence, and He was to be known through the realm of morality. Kant published another work, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793), which set forth his conception that religion could be reduced to the sphere of morality. For Kant, this meant living by the categorical imperative— which he summarized in two maxims: “Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law”; and “Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature.”
In other words, every action of humanity should be regulated in such a way that it would be morally profitable for humanity if were elevated to the status of law.
The Federalist Debates and the U.S. Constitution
In terms of political philosophy, the defining moment of the seventeenth century was the English Revolution. The two revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century, in America and then in France, established substantial monuments to the intellectual debates about constitutionality. The Thirteen Colonies in America revolted against the English Crown and enforced their Declaration of Independence (1776) in a revolutionary war. There then ensued debate among and between the former colonies about what system of government should prevail. This was resolved at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, 1786-1787, in favor of the Federalists.
What form of government best suited a commercial civilization in the New World? Somewhat ironically, the British Constitution figured largely in discussion of that issue because the Americans appreciated that the British, whatever their other failings, had made most progress in that respect. The interpretation Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755) and the founding fathers of the American state placed on the English Constitution, was that the separation of powers limited the power of the state and should be adopted as a principle of American government. The next great debate concerned which interests could be represented, and this was progressively resolved in favor of universal franchise in the New World, and then in the other liberal states.
Montesquieu has been called “the godfather” of the American constitution. In eighty-five Federalist Papers, 1787-1788, Montesquieu’s temper and spirit is omnipresent and is often cited by anti-Federalists and Federalists alike. The anti-Federalists contended that Montesquieu had argued that a republic which extended over too large a territory would come unstuck. The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton (1757- 1804) and James Madison (1751-1836), responded by arguing that Montesquieu had seen that the way to overcome this was to establish a confederation of republics. They also cited Montesquieu that representation should be proportional to the size of the population.
Madison said that Montesquieu “has the merit of displaying and recommending” the doctrine of the separation of powers “most effectually to the attention of mankind,” but also that politics is about the institutional balancing of social forces. That very approach to the problem of politics explains the extremely different character of The Federalist Papers from the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration, penned by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), is a general statement about rights and love of freedom. Jefferson’s politics was essentially driven by a republican conception of honor, by a deep faith not only in man, but in revolutionary action itself, by a mistrust of commercial society, by a desire to preserve an agrarian economy, and by an essentially populist distrust of institutions. Despite this, he nonetheless kept slaves.
The concerns of Hamilton in The Federalist Papers were different and governed by the desire to create peace and commercial prosperity, to provide a strong industrial base for America and thus to make her a strong military power, to provide institutions which could mediate conflict by providing a balance between local and national interests. He was as practical as Jefferson was romantic, and was as afraid of democratic abuses as of monarchical abuses. Hamilton’s republicanism was not borne out of a belief in high minded ideals, but out of the reality of the American situation. Ultimately Jefferson’s charge that Hamilton was a monarchist amounted to Hamilton’s seeing the need for a head of state to have executive powers, which were not reducible to the powers of the legislature. Hamilton was a follower of Montesquieu, but not of the British monarchy.
The delegates to the Constitutional Convention, of course, had a restricted conception of the scope of proper interests, being themselves almost exclusively slave-owning southerners or wealthy northern merchants. The constitution they created was not primarily intended to be democratic and it restricted the franchise to property-owning males, thereby excluding women, the working classes and the slaves from the political community. But nonetheless they did embody in the new Republic’s political system the notion that legitimate interests would conflict and needed a process of resolution.
The solution of the Federalists was not one which guaranteed immediate liberties for dominated social groups. It was, however, one which was able to provide a compromise between the strongest interests of the day, by taking the strongest interests in the New World vying for political power and forging a new political system. This would provide: a strong defensive capacity; a strong central government, able for the most part to provide commercial and political stability for a vibrant industrial society; and a form of government in which local interests still had strong representation, and in which more people than ever in history had freedom.
This solution, then, did not lay in a political elimination of the diversity that sprang from the dispersal of interests, talents, desires, and sentiments, but of realizing that a large distribution of interests would, in general, counteract the danger of factionalism itself. “Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.” Or break the society “into so many parts, interests and classes of citizens that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.”
This argument was also a way of defending the Federalists program of a confederate republic. For a confederate republic would also aid this process of dispersion by adding another geographical layer to the interests that would be formed at either a local or state level. Thus linkages of interests could be formed between social groups, which constituted a minority in some states while being a majority in others. Further, alliances of social interests cutting along geographical lines would tend to protect minority groups. At the same time, interests based upon geographical factors might take on greater relevance at one time, while at another time, social factors which were operating nationally may dominate. The great value of Confederalism, then, was that the polymorphic nature of factionalism would aid the minority.
But while the Federalists argued that the large territory of America combined with “the multiplicity of interests” made it highly unlikely that a majority would pursue a common and unjust cause, that was only true with respect to those peoples included in the franchise. The lack of franchise would mean that those people without political representation—particularly indigenous Americans and slaves, and to a lesser extent women—could be endangered by a system in which they were just one interest among many, but lacked political rights. Thus it took almost eighty years and a war before the ambition articulated in the Jefferson Virginian Ordinance, that slavery be abolished, was realized. And the diversity of interests would not help the indigenous American as the railways moved West and the expansion of the frontier meant that Indians were driven off to reservations and treaties were routinely broken.
But the Federalists saw that there were numerous ways in which power could be congealed to the detriment of other interests. The majority could suppress or rob the minority if they exercised legislative power. There was also simply the danger, recognized by Montesquieu, that the legislature would see any restraints upon its power as restrictive, as merely the resistance of vested minority interests. Because of the danger this created for the whole, the Federalists constantly emphasized the higher priorities that must guide the national government. But at the same time, the states serve as a useful buffer against the legislature’s tendency to over-extend. The Federalists thus found that the solution to balancing powers within the government had already been solved by Montesquieu and created a liberal if not wholly democratic constitution.
Alexis de Tocqueville and the American Example
A visiting Frenchman later found much to admire in the political system which the American Federalists had created, but also cause for concern. After visiting the U.S. in the early 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) returned to France and wrote Democracy in America:
Let us not turn to America in order to slavishly copy the institutions she has fashioned for herself, but in order that we may better understand what suits us; let us look there for instruction rather than models; let us adopt the principles rather than the details of her laws…
While Montesquieu had looked to Britain and urged the French monarchy to change its ways; Tocqueville urged republican France to follow America’s lead. Tocqueville looks to the New World for the most advanced constitutional arrangement.
In an 1848 speech to the French Chamber of Deputies, he warned that France rested on a volcano and that the working classes would overthrow the “foundations” upon which society rested unless property were distributed on more equally. But Tocqueville believed that social processes and change eventually resulted in political development and urged the extension of representation within a liberal state to encompass the enfranchisement of the working, non-propertied classes as was occurring in America. In the main, the U.S. had successfully combined individual freedoms with egalitarian social conditions. The two exceptions, for Tocqueville, were African and indigenous Americans. Women, on other hand, had a different situation and “although the American woman never leaves her domestic sphere and is in some respects very dependent within it, nowhere does she enjoy higher station.”
With the African and Native Americans, things were very different. “In one blow oppression has deprived the descendants of the Africans of almost all the privileges of humanity. The United States Negro has lost even the memory of his homeland; he no longer understands the language his fathers spoke…” This oppression was compounded by slavery. Native Americans had not been slaves, but they lived on “the edge of freedom.” Their life had been destroyed through the dispossession of their lands; their adoption of new tastes such as firearms, iron, brandy, and cloth, and the dwindling of wild game.
The progress that had developed in America, combining liberty and equality had, then, come at a terrible price for Blacks and Native Americans. Tocqueville saw the paradox that what is good and progressive is not good and progressive in all respects. America had opened up a future for the world, but had done so by robbing the Indians of their lands and enslaving African Americans. Slavery was also an economic liability.
But, in the main, America had managed a blend of the pursuit of private interests and public freedom. This blend did not mean that the American political institutions were perfect. But what mattered for Tocqueville was the overall liberty and well being for most of the inhabitants, based upon the core principle running through American society: each person is the best judge of his interests. In government, administration and in private life, this way of looking at things inculcated a dynamic, responsible, daring, and energetic spirit.
Unlike Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Tocqueville does not see inequality, as such, as a problem. It was only a problem if it was static, continually rewarded the idle rather than the industrious, and if it blocked the energies of the population. Tocqueville’s approach to inequality was pragmatic: it brings with it certain characteristics and incentives, but there is nothing valuable about it as such.
In America, says Tocqueville, the principle of the sovereignty of the people existed from the beginning of the colonies, even though “the colonies were still bound to the motherland.” While voting rights were restricted to certain classes of property holders, the democratic ethos was rife in the provincial assemblies. Thus when America revolted against the British, “the dogma of the sovereignty of the people came out from the township and took possession of the government; every class enlisted in its cause.” Even those classes which had most to lose from the expansion of democracy, were swept along with it in the revolution. It was, then, that bonding of classes against a common external enemy, combined with an ethos that had been introduced at the moment of colonization that made the establishment of American democracy so smooth.
At the time different states had various property qualifications for voting. But Tocqueville saw that the trend was toward eliminating restrictions and expanding the franchise. Democracy was an infectious political form suggesting that there is something intrinsically desirable about it for the majority of people. But that does not mean that it is a perfect form of government, or even the most adequate form of government for achieving a range of outcomes. Tocqueville saw that the egalitarian ethos of a democratic society carried a leveling tendency, but the leveling effect is seen by Tocqueville as eliminating the worst of the extremities which plague other regimes.
For Tocqueville, the most important negative in the trade-off between aristocratic and democratic societies consisted in the diminution of glorious achievements which tended to come when a society is placed in service to the ambitions, tastes, and talents of a group who see their talents, tastes, virtues, and actions as the raison d’être of society. But the most significant gain is the energy that gets unleashed through mass participation in political affairs.
Democracy does not provide a people with the most skilful of governments, but it does what the most skilful government often cannot do: it spreads throughout the social body a restless activity, and energy not found elsewhere, which, however little favored by circumstances, can do wonders. This is liberal doctrine.
Tocqueville, like the Federalists, feared the tyranny of the majority and believed that it was inevitable that the power of the majority would dominate. Tocqueville takes care not to say that American democracy is tyrannical, rather that there is no inherent political check against it. One problem was the instability of laws and public administration. Laws would be far more likely to be rapidly introduced and just as rapidly dropped, as some new idea took the public’s attention. The reformists’ energy was great in the United States, but projects were frequently left unfinished. A more insidious feature of the power of the majority, according to Tocqueville, was the power over thought. Whereas, says Tocqueville, in monarchies, the monarch is not able to compel moral authority, this is precisely the ground that the majority tries to occupy.
Tocqueville’s assessment of the inevitability of democracy, then, was matched by a cautious appreciation of the values of democratic society. The precarious balance achieved in America between liberty and equality was praised by Tocqueville. But he also grasped the tension that existed between them. America was fortunate in having the cultural roots which sustained this balance. Tocqueville knew that those roots were different from other countries, including France, which he saw were destined to go down the pathway of democracy. Thus there was a deep sense of foreboding that democracy would not be as smoothly established in the old world as in the new world, that there the pull toward equality could easily tip the balance toward an egalitarian despotism, as occurred under fascism.
The same dilemma was being grappled with in England. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), who reviewed Democracy in America, praised it as the first philosophical book on democracy as it manifested itself in modern society. Mill was to evolve as the most important single advocate of applying the doctrines of liberalism, many of them already practiced in America, to Europe.
The Social Liberals
One of the most influential of the new liberals was the English academic Thomas Hill Green (1836-1882). Green did not, like Marx, propose a social revolution, but he did believe that a free society would only emerge if the state played a directing role in changing the social circumstances of men and women. In arguing for this, Green reformulated the most fundamental idea of liberalism, liberty itself. As he wrote in Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract in 1861:
We shall probably all agree that freedom, rightly understood, is the greatest of all blessings; that its attainment is the true end of all our efforts as citizens. But when we thus speak of freedom…. we do not mean merely freedom from restraint or compulsion. We do not mean a freedom that can be enjoyed by one man or one set of men at the cost of a loss of freedom to others.
Green’s position was expressed in the language of liberalism. Liberalism had arisen in opposition to the propertied classes being above the commercial class, not primarily in opposition to the classes beneath it. Although the commercial class had not wanted to spread political power to those who could soak its own wealth, the language forged in opposition to the aristocracy was the language of universality, right, equality, progress, as well as freedom. Freedom was only one of the variables in the political rhetoric that the emergent middle class had used in its political struggle. The rising working classes did not need another language in order to make its claims.
Green’s philosophical conception of freedom, then, was not contrary to the ideas already embedded in liberalism, in spite of carrying a freight that many liberals viewed as contrary to the kind of society they wanted to build based on private initiative free from paternal directions.
Furthermore, what also gave Green credibility was his emphasis upon the delivery of improved living standards. The core argument of liberal political economists had never simply been that freedom was good for the wealthy, but that in a liberal society wealth would be most speedily generated and more people would benefit than under any alternative economic system. It found its economic expression most famously in Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” and was in Green’s time transforming the subject of economic inquiry by replacing political economy into neo-classical economics. Green did not dispute the central tenets of this liberal political economy. The liberal tradition had provided a new benchmark for measuring the value of political arrangements: progressively advancing prosperity.
Closely related to this was the connection that had been established within the liberal tradition, between the value ascribed to property and the value ascribed to capacities or personal properties. Locke’s defense of private property rested upon the fact that a claim had been established through labor. In other words, private property was the expression, as Kant and then Hegel pointed out more clearly than Locke himself, of an action and an act of will. Madison had also spoken of “the diversity of faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate.” The “first object of government,” he said, “was the protection of these faculties.” With Mill the defense of liberty had for all its warnings about paternalistic government not primarily been an argument about protecting private property, but an argument about how personal capacities and energies would best flourish.
Thus the path has already been established within the liberal tradition for Green to emphasize that the job of the state is to equip its populace with the necessary skills for the exercise and development of their capacities. A state which fails to do this, thus becomes complicit in tyranny and the unfair preservation of privilege, in much the same way as the pre-liberal state had been complicit in the preservation of privilege for the select few. Private property, then, is justifiable only to the extent that it does not serve as a barrier to members of a particular social group developing their faculties. Green says because property is, “only justifiable as the free exercise of the social capabilities of all, there can be no true right to property of a kind which debars one class of men from such free exercise altogether.” For social liberal theorists like Green, “the people” must mean all of those who are capable of exercising their rights and who have not acted in such a manner that they may be legitimately deprived of them. But having the capacity to exercise their rights means that barriers to them must be removed.
In addition, the argument that the state should not intervene in a non-criminal contract freely entered into may seem to be a strong argument to the social liberal position. But as Green well knew, the liberal tradition had explicitly rejected the idea of voluntary entering into slavery. Rights were inalienable. Green, thus beginning from the invalidity of a contract of slavery, goes onto argue that “no contract is valid in which human persons, willingly or unwillingly, are dealt with as commodities, because such contracts of necessity defeat the end for which alone society enforces contracts at all.” Humans as rational beings should never be treated as means, because they are ends in themselves.
Green justified increasing state intervention, but did not see himself as a proponent of illiberal ideas. Protective labor legislation, public health and public education were justifiable, because they raise the well-being of those members of the population who otherwise would not be able to exercise their freedom or contribute to the public good.
The philosophy articulated by Green was built upon the synthesis of the liberal ideas of private power, the republican concern with the public good, and the egalitarian spirit of Rousseau. But it was also built in response to the social and political changes taking place in Britain. Late nineteenth century liberalism had become a doctrine as suspicious of the minority wealthy bourgeoisie, as seventeenth- and eighteenth-century liberalism had been of the aristocracy. The liberal politician Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914) said in 1885 that “the great evil with which we have to deal is the excessive inequality in the distribution of riches.”
Liberal theorists in the twentieth century, with a few exceptions, continued further down the path of seeing the task of the state as providing the conditions for social justice. Invariably that meant restraining the liberty of the wealthy. The best known exceptions to this were mainly economists, such as Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) and Friedrich von Hayek (1899-1992). The Mises-Hayek Theory of the trade cycle—which Hayek formulated with the brilliant economist Ludwig von Mises—argued a “cluster of errors” characterizes the cycle. Excessive credit expansion occurs artificially lowering of interest rates that misleads businessmen who are led to engage in ventures that would otherwise have been unprofitable. This false signal produces poor coordination of production and consumption in society. This at first produces a “boom,” and then, later, a “bust,” as production adjusts to the real, and lower, pattern of savings and consumption in the economy. The intervention of government makes recessions worse.
Among philosophers the libertarian Robert Nozick also stands out. More typically, Leonard Hobhouse (1864-1929) in his classic twentieth-century defense Liberalism, 1911, said what all liberals had accepted, that “liberty itself only rests upon constraint.” He argued that “the function of the state is to override individual coercion” in order to maintain social justice and such rights as “the right to work” and the right to a living wage. Wealth and property were therefore treated as social goods.
Theory in Depth
Benedict de Spinoza
In seventeenth-century Holland, Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) became first modern philosopher to overtly defend political democracy. Spinoza’s philosophical starting point was the need to make a radical separation between theological scripture and philosophy: each one must be allowed to function without subordination to the other. This was a major problem for Spinoza and a central subject of his in A Theological-Political Treatise (1670). Spinoza’s political problem was largely, though not exclusively, centred around the problem of freedom of speech.
Spinoza saw himself as a philosophical scientist, and realized the issue of free speech could be a matter of personal survival. He knew that while he was safe in the commercial republic of Holland, because of the perceived dangerousness of his philosophy he was not at liberty to live in various other parts of Europe.
Spinoza believed that nature was governed by scientific laws. Spinoza’s understanding of all natural beings was premised on the simple idea that they are what they do. Nature is what it does, and what it does is its right. As he succinctly put it: “Whatsoever an individual does by the laws of its nature it has a sovereign right to do.” Thus Spinoza made a heretical equation that was to make his name a byword for infamy: the power of nature and the power of God are the same power.
The virtue of democracy, to Spinoza, was that it will create the strongest possible power. For the sovereign will be the people as a whole. Thus the act of transference is a mutual act of transference whereby the citizens are the body politic; they are not merely subjects, but they are reconstituted in their role as sovereign legislators. Interestingly, the very thing which most other democratic theorists fear, the excessive power of the people, is what Spinoza endorses when he defines a democracy as: “a society which wields all its power as a whole. The sovereign power is not restrained by any laws, but everyone is bound to obey it in all things; such is the state of things when men either tacitly or expressly handed over to it all their power of self-defense, or in other words, all their right.”
In this respect Spinoza endorses a radical form of democracy, because a democracy is least likely to ignore the pubic good, for it is its own good. A democracy is, in terms of Spinoza’s philosophy, dedicated to compromising between the different powers that can come into collision.
A democracy simply provides an opportunity for all the adult male sovereign powers to provide laws that enable them to pursue their interests in so far as that is feasible. Spinoza specifically excludes slaves, criminals, children, wards of the state, and women from exercising political power. Spinoza’s defense of democracy rests on a thoroughly realist foundation:
The object of government is not to change men from rational beings into beasts or puppets, but to enable them to develop their minds and bodies in security, and to employ their reason unshackled; neither showing hatred, anger, or deceit, nor watched by the eyes of jealousy and injustice. In fact, the true aim of government is liberty.
This was the first overt expression of the key philosophical doctrine of political liberalism.
In a democracy, freedom of opinion is vital for the people to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of any piece of legislation, thus enabling it to overturn old laws if their disadvantages outweigh their benefits. While, then, Spinoza indicates that no ruler is acting in his best interest if he suppresses free speech, in a democracy such a suppression would be most contrary to the best interests of the sovereign body itself.
While Spinoza was the first philosopher to provide an elaborate defense of modern democracy, he also provides a few of the hallowed conceptions usually associated with the great documents of liberal democracy. But Spinoza’s conception of rights and powers also deeply contradicts the notion of natural rights that is ingrained in the constitutional tradition and incorporated in such documents as the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. The first modern political theorist who can be credited with providing a liberal as well as a democratic account of state theory was John Locke.
The Englishman, John Locke, is generally regarded as being the first liberal thinker, although the term itself did not gain common currency until over a hundred years after his death. Previously, great political theorists had equated human nature with rapaciousness, only constrained by fear and force; Locke saw human nature as civil, reasonable, tolerant, and industrious, with its distribution of talents and opportunities being essentially equal.
Locke wrote Two Treatises of Government (published in 1690) in the context of the Glorious Revolution—which placed the House of Orange on the English throne—and the English Bill of Rights. For Locke, as long as one is not struggling to survive, there is a natural tendency to realize the advantage that comes from mutual respect of the rights of all to preserve their life, liberty, health, limbs, and goods. Locke does preserve a distinction between natural right and natural law, the latter of which is distinguished by its enforceability. But the legitimacy of that power derives from the right that everyone has to preserve their own basic rights. No one has the right to invade the rights of others, and “every one has the right to punish the transgressors of that Law (of nature) to such a Degree, as may hinder its Violation.”
Locke’s state of nature, with its original natural rights and fundamental human civility, crowned the parliamentary revolution by cementing the fiction that natural rights did indeed precede the formation of the state. And he does so by transforming the particular issue of the English nearly liberal transformation of the seventeenth century into a universal political theory. He adopted a virtual silence on the particular historical controversy, while providing a general theory in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (written from 1671, published in 1689), which was derived from his experience.
The ahistoricism of his theory meant that it could be appealed to anywhere at anytime, and would later be transposed with great success as a defense for founding new institutions in America. But the disciple of Locke can also argue as if the institutional balances which were the product of over four hundred years of intense and often bloody struggles in England can simply be imposed on societies that have no organic dispositions toward liberal democracy. Locke does not present the state of nature as if it were built upon the English experience; rather, it is the experience of reason itself. Where respect for liberty prevails, he seemed to believe, so would prosperity.
For Locke, the danger to peace was not the grasping natures of men pursuing their own interests, but the rapacious behavior of the monarch and his contempt for natural rights. This forced men to move from the calm state of nature to the state of war to protect their property and their rights. The lesson of the civil war, for Locke, was not the need to defend the absolute power of the monarchical sovereign. Rather, the lesson was that the Stuart monarchy had lost, and it had to pass down its stolen powers if the institution were to continue at all.
For Locke the cause of the conflict was the violation of those very liberties which Locke saw as natural and widely held. The people who fought against the thieving monarchs—including himself, of course—had only acted to protect what was reasonably and rightfully theirs. Further, it was through their natural respect for the rights and reasons of each other that the wealth, which the monarch sought to extract through taxes, was theirs in the first place. A king does not generate prosperity: industry, cooperation, and exchange do that. Locke argued that the nature of production and the way its bounties should be distributed is plain to anyone who sets their mind to it.
The exercise of freedom and reason and its industrious deployment is thus, for Locke, the natural disposition of man. The role of government is not to change this disposition, but merely to assist its facility and development by providing for a neutral judge when disputes occur.
Locke grounded his theory of government upon reason, but this was not the purpose of government. As Locke put it: “Government has no other end but the preservation of Property,” by which he means “Lives, Liberties and Estates.” Locke does not criticize private property. But at the same time, he saw that private property was a corollary of social evolution. Locke does not in any way seek to make philosophers into kings, for the government must represent what the majority of the people desire. Although, Locke does assume that what will bind the majority is the protection of their own liberty.
Locke does not worry about the majority then robbing from the rich, since the suggestion in The Two Treatises of Government is that the majority is meant to include only landed property holders. There is ambiguity since “property” in Locke can mean wealth and even capacity as well as land and he does not go into any detail about who is to have the franchise. But it is reasonable to assume that Locke, like so many liberal theorists even into the nineteenth century, did not automatically equate political and civic rights. Likewise, given that the general thrust of the The Two Treatises of Government is so in harmony with the English parliamentary model and the tenor of the “Bill of Rights,” it is also reasonable to assume that Locke believed that the criteria for representation in the parliament was, to a large extent, already sufficiently refined. In his lifetime this was very narrow. On the other hand, the justification of “political and civil society,” for Locke, rests upon the consent of “All Men,” “Mankind” and “the People.” He also points out the need to have “fair and equal” representation and to make sure that electorates are not numerically distorted.
Probably, Locke did not trouble himself with the dangers of a democracy allowing the poor to take the property of the rich because he did not believe the poor would acquire political power. By so grounding the theory of government on the right of private property, Locke may have hoped that whoever constitutes the governing body would be aware of the sacrosanct nature of this right. His political solution to the preservation of the right of property is that there can be no taxation without the support of the majority, and the government has no right to deprive people of their property. Indeed, if it attempts to do so, then the people have a right to rebel.
Locke’s theory of government does not solve all the problems of a democracy. But it does clearly set forth the doctrine of government as essentially a representative body of the people’s rights and interests. In Locke, the political theory of the liberal-democratic state finds an eloquent and refined defense. But there is one crucial problem: how to justify curtailing the will of the majority if it makes unjust claims by intruding on the rights of a minority, or single person. Locke’s theory of the state was built around the need to defend a right, the right to property.
Charles Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu
The French aristocrat, Charles Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, was the first great theorist to raise the question of the social character and degree of social evolution of a people when exploring how government could expresses the interests of its people. His profound importance also rests on his making the connection between the commercial base of a society and its institutions of government, and the doctrine of the separation of powers.
In his Spirit of the Laws (1748) he says that what constitutes good governance will depend upon the “humor and disposition of the people in whose favor it is established.” While Locke had relied upon natural reason to safeguard natural rights and limit government, for Montesquieu, reason was always filtered through the complex layers which constitute a particular nation.
But before Montesquieu delves into the geographical, historical, and sociological dimensions of the different “spirits” of the nations and laws that he examines, he dissects the different forms of government and the principal spirit which differentiates the monarchy, from the republic, from the aristocratic and from the despotic. Montesquieu’s seemingly neutral observations about the different spirits and different laws has a specific political purpose. This can be gleaned from the opening of The Spirit of the Laws where Montesquieu urges caution on reformers, appealing to the general public to appreciate the complexity of a nation and its government. He encourages “every man to love his prince; his country, his laws.” Aware of the energies of the rising commercial class— especially in England—he argued that reform would best achieve its goal in France if gradual and in conformity with the general character and habits of the country.
Any attempt at a radical leap from the human imagination to the actual political and social reality will not succeed. One model society provided Montesquieu with the benchmark he most esteemed: the most politically civilized country of the period, increasingly liberal England. The argument of The Spirit of the Laws was that France should follow England’s lead. For it was England that was the most prosperous, most free, most tolerant nation, and had the most advanced form of government.
England had achieved a blend of the monarchical, aristocratic, and republican virtues through the evolution of its constitutional system and through long periods of struggle, compromise and institutional devolution. Montesquieu believed England’s institutions combined the republican virtues of equality and consistency in the rule of law, with the aristocratic virtue of moderation, and the monarchical virtues of ambition and honor. But because of the power of the House of Commons, republican virtues will dominate. In France, on the other hand, there was a dangerous gap between social and political power, and the centralization of political power in the monarch only contributed to retarding the general prosperity of the nation.
Montesquieu’s deep appreciation of the political trade-offs brought about by social conflict underpinned his major contribution to political theory. Montesquieu provided an understanding of constitutionality based upon the separation of powers that was to be integral to the American liberal democracy.
Montesquieu transformed what looked like a description of the English constitution, into an argument for making the British model of government the benchmark for judging other models. Montesquieu’s English model may work in other parts of the globe provided that the ethos of the people is effected by the experiences of trade and commerce. Montesquieu believed that there was a strong correlation between the spirit of liberty and trade.
What Montesquieu esteemed, was a real entity, which has a real history. If people want liberty, religious tolerance, and prosperity then they should follow the English model. English political experience may have created the series of lucky accidents that gave birth to the model, but others may be able to learn from those accidents. Montesquieu knew that disregard for liberty could occur under any system of government and that republics were not immune from this.
Liberty was defended by Montesquieu in his doctrine of the “separation of powers.” Montesquieu’s argument for a mixed constitution evolved because he thought deeply about the links between the social and the political, and about the benefits that would flow from necessary compromises. He was a social scientist in an era when science and rationality achieved unprecedented acclaim—during the Enlightenment.
A leading French critic of the ancien regime, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was an idealist democrat whose major contribution was locating the source of constitutionality in “the general will.” In him the possibility of the separation of liberal from democratic theory emerges. The French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) paid tribute to Rousseau: “The law is the expression of the general will. All citizens have the right to concur in prison or through the representatives in its formation. It must be the same for all whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal before it.”
But although Rousseau’s genius located the general will, the cost for this great insight was that the political reality of different, often competing interests is avoided. Politics was reduced to the morality of a single moral principle which enabled its adherent to dismiss as illegitimate the entire historical experience of nations which contained competing interests. Civilization had been built on false and pernicious foundations—private property and self-interest. With Rousseau begins in earnest the disastrous attempt to use political means to attain a vague form of social freedom which is supposed to be in tune with both human nature and our moral conscience, based on a common will.
The Rousseauian political agenda was then built around exchanging tangible partial liberties for general intangible ones. In place of the private happiness that comes from pursuing one’s own interests, which liberals came to support, one should, for Rousseau, take one’s place within the community’s pursuit of the general will. Rousseau’s appeal derived from nostalgic and idyllic sentiments, which he expresses so forcefully. But Rousseau turns these sentiments into a mood of great despair: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”
Rousseau endorsed a politics in which the sovereignty of the people has no restraint. The use of the general will totally politicizes community experience. The purpose of the community becomes political existence itself, a far cry from Locke’s notion of politics as a necessary means for our own ends. This endorsed collective totalitarianism from the Terror to Stalin. In the “general will,” Rousseau helped create that formulation of democracy, which eventually could give it a fascist, communistic and wholly illiberal character.
The Philosophy and Theory of Classical Liberalism
In the year of the Declaration of Independence, 1776, Adam Smith (1723-1790) published An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, and founded the science of political economy. Its basic doctrine was that human labor is the only source of a nation’s wealth. Smith advocated (and observed) the division of labor in the productive process, stressed the importance of individual enterprise and argued the benefits of free trade between countries. The true wealth of a nation, he held, lay not in the possession of gold but in the achievement of abundance. He warned against unnecessary intervention by the state in this process. In these conclusions, he was in part recommending the path which Britain was already undertaking, as it embarked, during his lifetime, on the world’s first industrial revolution.
He is also commonly associated with the notion of the “invisible hand” which, operating through the self-interest of each individual and untrammeled by state regulation, would produce the general welfare of economic growth, development and prosperity.
Smith argued that wherever government went beyond protecting personal liberty and property it inhibited economic development. He saw in many places poverty attributable to state interference and believed the only sources of wealth and prosperity were industry and the natural powers of production of men. He concluded what was required was to leave economics to itself, since there was harmony between individual and public interests, and that the natural pursuit of economic interests would produce the greatest prosperity. Smith included in political economy not only trade, exchange and production but also political institutions and laws.
Smith appears to point to unrestricted liberty as the best principle of political economy. But he speaks also of “the natural effort of every individual to better his own condition, when suffered to exert itself with freedom and security,” as the cause of national wealth and prosperity.
As the British state emerged in 1815 as the most powerful in the world, so Smith and the theories of liberal political economy which he had founded, were deployed to reform its political and economic structures. By the 1830s those who had become known at first as radicals, like Richard Cobden (1804-1865), and then later the more establishment Liberals under Prime Minister William Gladstone (1809-1898), pursued the idea of the laissez-faire state. The liberal economic regime, suggested by Smith, had not only become the model which Britain provided for the world, but a design to which it aspired.
The ancien regime in France had led to revolution, popular democracy, mob rule, and then military expansion under the Napoleon. England emerged victorious in 1815 as a wealthy, industrial and powerful country with an aristocratic system of government. Agitation for liberalization and democratization quickly emerged with the peace. Several prominent philosophers were influential in spreading the ideas which were to underpin the resulting creation of mid-nineteenth century, liberal England.
If Smith developed the idea that economic prosperity depended on the pursuit of self-interest and the operation of the “invisible hand,” it was left to others to divine the purpose of the state. Jeremy Bentham published anonymously, also in 1776, A Fragment on Government, in which he formulated his celebrated utilitarian principle, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” By it exclusively he would judge the value of juridical, political, social, ethical, and religious systems and institutions. In 1779 Bentham’s chief work, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, appeared.
After 1815, Bentham’s writings and ideas became widely influential. In England, his ideas of political reform were taken up by the leaders of emerging radical liberalism. Bentham attacked the Established Church and applied the utilitarian test to religion. In ethics, Bentham maintained happiness was the sole end of conduct and reduced moral obligation to the sanction inherent in the pleasant or painful results of action. The spread of his ideas contributed to Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the parliamentary reform Act of 1832 extending the franchise to the middle class.
Bentham was also the founder of the concept of “utility” in economics, defining it as private happiness, the modern economic usage. He associated man’s pursuit of happiness as a matter of the incentives provided by the balancing of pain and pleasure, prices and wages. The reforms Bentham pursued were directed towards good government, abundance, security and equality. He followed Adam Smith as part of the search for abundance, but advocated a state which provided guaranteed employment, minimum wages and a variety of social benefits. Much of his influence on ideas and legislation was through a circle of pupils and disciples, amongst whom were many economists, including David Ricardo (1772-1823) and John Stuart Mill.
John Stuart Mill
Like Tocqueville, Mill witnessed a social and political transformation that was without any historical parallel: the synthesis of the continuing triumph of liberal principles and the industrial revolution, with the expanding social power and political mobilization of the lower classes. Like Tocqueville, Mill also saw that the modern liberal democratic state could not adequately be described as having a mixed constitution. Ultimately, in any state there was one sovereign power, and in a democratic state it must be the people. Whereas Montesquieu saw the monarchy and House of Lords as still representing considerable social power, Mill no longer saw this as necessary. The burning issues of the day, for Mill, were how exactly the will of the people was to be constituted, and then how it was to be channeled for the greatest political good.
The question of what constituted the greatest good, for Mill, was addressed in the most important defense of liberal principles since Locke. In that work, On Liberty (1869), Mill focused upon what Tocqueville had seen as the greatest single benefit that democracy had conferred upon the social character of America, a prodigious energy. For Mill, the primary purpose of politics is to unleash the energies of the species. Liberty takes on supreme importance for Mill because it energizes those who act in accordance with it. Liberty, then, is not simply an end in itself, as it is for Kant. Liberty is valuable because it is useful.
Intrinsic to the development of liberty, for Mill, is the expression of one’s wants and the willingness to involve oneself in the interests of the nation. Unless one does this, one’s liberty will inevitably be curbed by circumstances that are imposed by interests that have emerged from another group. Mill does not believe that politics is just about the expression of self-interest, partly because he sees the very concept of “self-interest” as unclear. Further, unless a group participates in the decisions which concern it, it is not developing the energies required for its own growth.
Mill saw that two major social groups had been thus far deprived of participation in popular government: the laboring class and women. For the laboring class, there was a major social transformation taking place that could create serious social problems. There was serious danger of class conflict if the state became beholden to one of the two major disputing interest groups: the wealthy classes and the laboring classes. Ideally, it would be best if these classes were to hold “about an equal number of votes in the Parliament.” Mill adopted the scheme of proportional representation developed by Thomas Hare, wherein people choose between parties in a geographic location in a particular constituency and for a series of candidates from all over the country. Once a candidate has a sufficient number of votes, or quota, to be elected, the remainder for him go to second candidate until he gets a quota, and so on to the third and subsequent candidates until the places are exhausted. Mill believed that this approach would guarantee diversity of representation, and indeed variations of this system have been successfully utilized in Australia.
The second proposal that Mill had for moderating against the danger of self-interest submerging the national interest, was the provision of education for all classes. Mill believed that education was indispensable for the viability of popular government. If one could not read, write, or do simple arithmetic then one is incapable, for Mill, of participating in the political process. He even suggested that voters should be asked to a copy a sentence out of a book and do a simple math exercise. The key to good government, for Mill, lay in combining energy and intelligence. He even proposed that voters who had achieved a certain level of education be granted more votes, and that a second chamber be created on ameritocratic basis (selected by intellect).
Mill invoked the principle of no representation without financial contribution. Bankrupts and those who are dependent upon charity or state welfare for their livelihood should be excluded from the suffrage. Those who introduce new taxation, suggested Mill, must also feel the effect of it. Mill well knew that public goods come at a price and that one group may be happy for another group to pay the bill, just as one generation may want the successor generation to pick up the tab for its enjoyments.
Mill is an important figure in history because his large body of wide ranging works were persuasively, logically, and factually argued; because he made a synthesis of the various strands of pre-liberal thought into a more coherent modern form of liberalism; and because he stated the case for a liberal democracy just as that kind of society was, for the first time, coming into existence in Britain and the United States.
Liberals and Women’s Rights
One group for whom the franchise was becoming an issue were women. Greek philosopher Plato (428-348 B.C.) thought women capable of having a political input and argued that women should be included in the guardian class. Aristotle, however, had defended the more traditional view of women as incapable of making any contribution to political life. This view was pretty much the standard philosophical view of women in the Middle Ages, although Descartes had to a minor extent broken with this tradition. But generally, even the more radical democratic spirits did not desire political power for women— Spinoza rejected the idea and while Locke vigorously argued against paternalism, within the family he believed that it was natural that the male should rule, and by implication political power should fall to him. Even Rousseau, while working for the removal of man’s chains, had in Emily sought to ensure that women’s role remained divorced from politics.
The exceptions were Marie Jean Condorcet (1743-1794), Jeremy Bentham, and the woman usually credited as the first to write a sustained treatise for the emancipation of women, Mary Wolstonecraft (1759-1797).
Condorcet in “On Granting Civil Rights to Women” (1790), compared the situations of Blacks and women, attacked their maltreatment and the institutional discrimination that they had to endure. He insisted that reason was universal, and that women could not be denied their rightful status as rational beings. Condorcet argued in Five Memoirs of Education that women should be educated just as men are, an issue that Daniel Defoe had raised almost a hundred years earlier, and the historian, Catherine Macaulay, also advocated in her Letters on Education (1790). Condorcet’s argument for women having civil rights was consistent in its advocacy that such rights should also be accompanied by political rights, provided the property qualifications for the vote were also met.
Jeremy Bentham was also an advocate for women’s rights. In an unpublished manuscript of 1789 he objected to equating women with infants and the insane for the purpose of excluding them from the vote. In a number of published works, including Catechism of a Parliamentary Reform (1809), the Radical Reform Bill (1819), and the Constitutional Code, he argued for extending educational and political opportunities to women.
In Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1795), Mary Wolstonecraft emphasized the absurd contradiction between Rousseau’s conception of rights, which she largely accepted, and the subordinate role of women, which he advocated. For Wolstonecraft, the inferior economic, political and moral circumstance of woman was the result of socialization not her nature. For her, the transformation of women’s role was largely a matter of education. Women needed to acquire new skills so that they would possess the necessary virtues for independence and participation in public life.
When Mill wrote his The Subjection of Women, the idea of gender emancipation was already current. There also existed a movement for the female suffrage, although it was nowhere near as strong as the trade union movement and the push for political power then being made by the working class. But, for Mill, the circumstance of the denial of women’s rights was not equivalent to other situations. The circumstance of women was different from any other social group and this largely explained the complicity by women in their own lack of political power. Further, Mill believes, the nature of women has been more thoroughly distorted through their relationships than any other social group, including slaves. The duties of women, Mill says, have been stretched beyond that of slaves: “no slave is a slave to same lengths and in so full a sense as a wife is. Hardly any slave, except one immediately attached to his master’s person, is a slave at all hours and minutes of the day.” Even a slave is not under obligation as a wife to sleep with a master who degrades and tortures her.
But a growing number of women were by then demanding political representation. It was understandable, for Mill, that this movement was not supported by huge numbers, in light of the power relations between the sexes. He added that, “It is a political law of nature that those who are under any power of ancient origin, never begin by complaining of the power itself, but only of its oppressive exercise. There is never any want of women who complain of ill usage by their husbands.” For Mill, the value of liberty is bound up with the unleashing of energies and talents. Mill’s plea for the emancipation of women is made within the context of a general theory of liberty and political representation, the theory of liberalism.
Mill saw the enfranchisement of the laboring classes and of women as indicative of the general progress of humanity in its political institutions. He also believed that such a change in the balance of political expression would have a generally benign effect on the social circumstance of the groups represented as well as the society as a whole. Closely related, was his belief that human progress was generated through discontent with the existing order. Each new group who had been through the process of demanding their liberty and articulating their moral discontents were entering into the creative task that lay before the species: its collective intellectual, moral and material improvement. The spirit of liberty was, for Mill, a restless one, but its very restlessness was indicative of the energizing character of human freedom.
Mill sat between those liberals who wanted to expand the powers of the state to help achieve greater liberty for the disadvantaged, and those who saw that any such attempt would drag liberalism into the sphere of socialism, and that the emphasis upon social equality would have harmful effects for individual liberty and social prosperity. Both groups saw Mill’s form of liberalism as unsatisfactory: the former because Mill did not provide enough for the state to play a more directive role in opening up the conditions of liberty; the latter because Mill was veering too close to paternalism, straying too far from his belief in the importance of the energies of the individual. This is a central dilemma for modern liberals.
The achievement of the franchise for the working classes and women meant that for the first time in human history all interests had been accepted as, in principle, having a legitimate right to representation in the politics of the state. Because this was a new situation it took some time for it to become clear what form this mass representation would assume. Since this political transformation took place almost everywhere in the advanced states at about the same time as the maturation of the process of industrialization, the two combined to take the form of a social democratic program that shared common features in the different states. The risk entailed for advanced liberal states now became not that the interests of the masses would be ignored, but that their excessive pursuit could destroy the march of progress altogether as the state encroached excessively on the domains of civil society.
Theory in Action
Gladstone and the Liberal Party in Britain
William Ewart Gladstone became the Liberal Party Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1868. At that time, there was much unrest in among the Irish people over their role in the commonwealth. The Act of Union in 1801 had religiously bound Ireland to the Protestant Church of England, a fact that caused tension among Irish Roman Catholics for generations.
Gladstone introduced and passed the Disestablishment Act in 1869, which repealed the Act of Union and allowed the Irish the freedom to support whichever church they chose. Gladstone also introduced a land act in 1870 which provided compensation for Irish tenants who were evicted by English landlords without cause.
Gladstone’s ministry enacted a host of measures which, as he put it, opened the windows of opportunity for Englishmen. These measures included the Education Act of 1870, the opening of all branches of the civil service except the foreign service to competitive examination in 1870, the abolition of purchase of commissions in the army by royal warrant and the opening of the universities to non-members of the Church of England in 1871, and the secret ballot act of 1872. The same degree of support was not given to all these measures by Gladstone, but the fact simply serves to illustrate his view of the role of prime minister, which was to act as mediator between factions in the cabinet and reconcile differences where possible.
Gladstone’s approach to foreign affairs was also established in his first ministry, which came into office shortly after the end of the U.S. Civil War. As a member of Parliament, Gladstone had caused some hostility in America by supporting the South in the Civil War. The North had strenuously objected when ironclads (warships with sides of armored metal plates) manufactured in Britain were delivered to the Confederates, and after the war there was a need to reestablish normal relations between the two countries. The Treaty of Washington in 1871 agreed to the U.S. request that claims for damages be submitted to arbitration. This act went a long way toward easing any tension between the two nations. Britain’s destiny may well have turned out to be a very different one had it lost the United States as its most powerful ally.
An unsuccessful attempt to pass a temperance bill that came close to an act of prohibition—and trouble over the continuing Irish question—hurt Gladstone in the election of 1874, and he was defeated. However, he was reelected in 1880, and soon introduced his first Home Rule bill for Ireland, which was defeated in Parliament by thirty votes. Gladstone continued his support for the bill, and when the Liberals returned to office after the election of 1892, he introduced a second Home Rule bill the following year. The measure passed Parliament’s House of Commons but was defeated in the House of Lords. Gladstone retired the following year.
Gladstone’s terms as Prime Minister saw many changes come to Great Britain. The army regulation bill shifted control of the armed forces from the monarchy to Parliament; indeed, the prestige of Parliament rose during his tenure. For the first time, all schools were evaluated by the government, standards in education soared, and more people had access to government positions. However, British imperialism reached its notorious high point—the “Scramble for Africa”—during the Gladstone era.
Social Liberalism and Social Democracy
As the franchise extended in liberal societies, so the powers and functions of the state were expanded. Partly as a result of socialist agitation, the power of illiberal political factions was used to undermine the classical liberal state.
During the early part of the twentieth century, all the developed states experienced the rise of such social democratic movements. They combined a number of characteristics that sprang from the achievement of the more or less universal franchise at about the same time in industrial societies. The result was a transfer of demands from the political sphere concerning representation in the deliberations of the state, to arguments about the purposes for which the state should be used. The more common form of the expression of social democracy was a democratic electoral coalition pursuing social and economic rights to augment the political gains already won for the masses. Social democratic parties began achieving Parliamentary representation by the 1890s and thereafter social democrats began to seriously influence political agendas everywhere. The line between social liberals and social democrats became very difficult to discern.
Social democracy has few outstanding theoreticians. In the political sphere the most developed were in Britain, where the Fabian Socialists argued for more state ownership of the economy, higher taxes, and more welfare benefits by using an elected Labour government to legislate for an extension of the egalitarian principle from the political to the economic and social sphere. In Germany, similar arguments were evolved by the previously Marxist Social Democratic Party led by Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein. In the economic realm, the dominant social democratic theoretician was John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) who gave theoretical legitimacy to the political aspirations of the social democratic political philosophers and politicians.
Liberalism and Christianity
From the Enlightenment, reconciling the growth of secular liberalism with the continuation of Christian religious doctrine also became an important issue for theology. Eighteenth century romanticism did this by stressing the intuitive and synthetic nature of human reason in which truth was gained by grasping the whole rather than by an abstract analysis of the parts. This was a reaction to the critical rationalism of the eighteenth century. Influential here was Friederich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834), a founder of modern or liberal theology. He accepted the validity of the Enlightenment criticism of dogmatic Christianity, and saw religious belief as subjective. Theological statements no longer were perceived as describing objective reality, but: “Christian doctrines are accounts of the Christian religious affections set forth in speech.”
Other liberal theologians, like Albrect Ritschl (1822-1889), saw religion in terms of personal morality. He argued in Justification and Reconciliation, that “Christianity is the monotheistic, completely spiritual and ethical religion, which, on the basis of the life of its Founder as redeeming and establishing the kingdom of God, consists in the freedom of the children of God…the intention of which is the moral organization of mankind.” Religious truth could not be verified and existence of God could not be rationally demonstrated.
These views led quickly to the academic study of comparative religions. Christianity was no longer seen as unique and as knowledge of the wider world and other cultures and religions became available, the Bible was studied in its cultural setting. All religions were seen as being intellectually similar and, possibly, valid.
The social gospel movement then tried to apply Christianity to industrial societies and enlist the new working class. The American Walter Rauschenbusch, wrote in A Theology of the Social Gospel that, “The social gospel seeks to bring men under repentance for their collective sins and to create a more sensitive and more modern conscience.” The task of the church was working to end human suffering and establish social justice. In the late nineteenth century even papal declarations talked about justice for labor. Liberalism made Christian authority wholly subjective, based on individual spiritual experience. Ultimate authority was not to be found in the Bible or Church, but increasingly in reason and conscience.
Modernism was used to describe a similar movement within the Catholic Church. In the U.S. the term was applied to radical liberal theology in the early decades of the twentieth century. By the 1930s many other denominations were also affected. The implication was that Christianity had to be “modernized” in every age in order to remain socially and rationally relevant.
In liberal societies, religion tended to decline and become more secular in outlook.
The Neo-liberal Revolution in the 1980s
Milton Friedman (1912- ) is an intellectual descendant of the Austrian School, the best known of all “Monetarist economists” and won a Nobel Prize in economics in 1976. He was born in New York in 1912 and after working at Columbia University (and for the government), he became Professor of Economics at Chicago University. He did his best-known work there, surrounded by other Monetarists, also often termed the “Chicago school.”
In the 1970s, the social democratic state, which had been steadily encroaching on the liberal economy throughout the developed world, created, with other developments, the crisis of “stagflation.” In this, it experienced a devaluation of the currency and a cessation of economic growth more or less simultaneously. In this critical context, the ideas of classical liberal political economy were revived in the intellectual sphere and implemented by a series of liberal politicians operating through the agencies of the powerful liberal states which they governed.
This neo-liberal counter-revolution in the realm of economic ideas is most closely associated with Friedman. Although prolific, his best known popular work was, with Rose D. Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (1962). He was already an advocate of market economics and paying closer attention to the growth of the money supply, when the crisis of stagflation occurred in the mid-1970s. He then proved to be an able media performer and had an impact far beyond the academy, as his Nobel Prize attested.
Friedman argued that Keynesian demand management techniques had gone too far in distorting the market and had choked economic growth; that the growth of the money supply had generated inflation; and that the increased size of the state had become a political burden on developed countries. He advocated reducing state intervention in the economy, controlling the growth of the money supply and de-politicizing the economy. This message had an impact in all developed countries, but more in some than others. It was essentially the message of classical liberal political economy.
The Political Liberal Revival
Friedman’s ideas first began to take hold among policy makers in the years 1974-1975 when the developed countries experienced both stagnation and inflation. But the first major politician to take liberal ideas seriously, and not merely as a short-term solution to the stagflation crisis, was Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of Britain from 1979-1990.
Britain had developed an extensive welfare state and state owned sector of the economy in the hay day of social democracy, 1945-1975. It also had one of the worst records of economic growth of developed countries. In the mid 1970s, under a Labour government, it encountered a severe crisis of stagflation. The opposition Conservative Party at first espoused similar policies under its centrist leader, Edward Heath. Margaret Thatcher then replaced him and won the 1979 election on a radical liberal/monetarist platform. During the next decade she reduced the state sector, cut the welfare state and reined in the money supply. The result was a radically re-structured British economy and society along more liberal lines.
The pain involved in this transition was considerable, but under pressure to relent, Thatcher famously insisted, “This Lady is not for turning.” Britain emerged as one of Europe’s stronger economies in the 1990s and the next Labour government, elected in 1997, did not reverse the liberal reforms.
As the Cold War and communism ended in 1991, this liberal impetus was sustained in the U.S. by Bill Clinton, U.S. President 1993-2001, who, although a Democrat, led the international economy into a period of globalization. As David Mosler and Bob Catley describe in Global America: Imposing Liberalism on a Recalcitrant World, this represented the apogee of liberal sentiment and a new attempt to recreate a global political economy along the lines attempted by liberal England in the mid-nineteenth century.
Clinton was elected on a reforming and welfare expanding policy and only swung away from social democracy after a considerable electoral defeat in the 1994 mid-term Congressional elections. Thereafter, he eschewed expanding the state sector and, rather, set about creating a free trading global economy in which American prosperity could be built on the strength of its industry. By the time of his second term he was dissolving the automatic entitlement to welfare, which had been established for Americans after the New Deal, and was concentrating on the strengthening of a global world order of liberalism.
During this period, world trade expanded rapidly, global production levels also increased, income levels for U.S. citizens were enhanced and the number of liberal democratic states increased. From being an advocate of social democratic reform, Clinton became the heir of the liberal tradition and its courier into the twenty-first century.
Analysis and Critical Response
Liberals accord liberty primacy as a political value, and liberals have typically maintained, with Locke, that humans are naturally in “a State of perfect Freedom to order their Actions.” Restrictions on liberty must be thoroughly justified, hence John Rawls’ first principle of justice: “Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system for all.”
Liberals disagree, however, about the concept of liberty. Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) arguably the twentieth century’s most eminent liberal, advocated in Four Essays on Liberty (1969) for a “negative conception of liberty.” For Berlin the liberal state’s commitment to protecting liberty is, essentially, the job of ensuring that citizens do not coerce each other without compelling justification. Other liberals emphasize positive freedom and want a larger role for the liberal state.
At the start of the twenty-first century this revolved around the “political correctness” debate. Is it permissible to restrict the freedom of speech of some citizens in order to impose the definition of freedom espoused by others? The classical liberal would surely respond in the negative.
Liberalism, Property, and the Market
For classical liberals, liberty and private property are related, but “social” liberalism challenges this close connection between personal liberty and a private property based market order. Modern social liberals, especially in the U.S., believe that far from being “the guardian of every other right,” as James Ely argued in The Guardian of Every Other Right: A Constitutional History of Property Rights (1992), property rights generate an inequality. This theme is central to contemporary American liberalism, which combines strong endorsement of civil and personal liberties with little enthusiasm for private ownership.
There are several states which function effectively at the onset of the twenty-first century that are based on the principles of liberalism. The two most prominent examples are the U.S. and the United Kingdom, particularly after both undertook extensive liberal reforms in the 1980s. The U.S. has only about thirty percent of the economy going through the state sector and maintains an open economy and strict separation of political powers. Britain has reduced the state share of the economy and privatized most of the state owned enterprises that the Labour Party had previously brought into public ownership. After a similar process of liberal reform in the 1980s, which has been sustained under the Liberal led government, Australia may be regarded as a successful liberal society with a constitution drawn from both London and Washington.
France and most European Union states may be better regarded as social democratic societies because their state sectors are over forty percent of their total economy, a proportion which most liberals would regard as excessive. New Zealand also falls into this category.
There are number of other states which have some of the attributes of liberalism but do not function well. Legally and formally, Russia has a liberal constitution and economy, but in fact it functions as an oligarchy, both politically and economically. Japan has a liberal political constitution, but has been ruled since 1950 effectively by one governing coalition except for 1993-1994. Also, its state has considerable control over its economy and this has contributed to the condition of economic stagnation which has prevailed since 1990.
Liberalism’s Influence and Critics
Liberalism is unique in that while it may not have ever been truly implemented as a political system in any country, it has influenced many political systems in many different eras. It is much more than coincidence that on the timeline between the absolute kings and queens of the seventeenth century and the representative governments of today sit a large number of brilliant liberal thinkers who called for the limiting the power of the monarchy. Moreover, it was liberal ideas that toned down the evils of imperialism by calling for the teachings of Christianity and an end to the slave trade. And although Mill’s views on the rights of women fell short of equality, they were nonetheless far ahead of their time, and inspired many who carried on the fight for women’s suffrage. Nineteenth- century liberals instituted reforms in education and sought to improve working conditions. Some historians even feel that liberalism had a profound effect on the arts and culture by their very doctrine of challenging traditional themes. Liberals moved away from war and religion to a more peaceful, secular world view.
That is not to say that liberalism does not have its critics. Socialists and communists criticize liberals for defending capitalism. Democrats generally support liberalism, but are wary of the limitations it places on the power of government. Social democrats and supporters of Keynes believe liberalism places too much confidence in market economics. Statist economic developers think liberalism cannot deliver rapid economic growth. Fascists believe liberalism is too soft a belief with which to defend the civilized order. Post-modernists believe liberalism to be the doctrines of “dead white males.” And conservative critics have argued that the historical stability of liberal societies is based on a pre-liberal sense of shared identity amongst their members; liberalism only works in already well-ordered societies.
Liberalism is a set of beliefs about society, politics, and economics that developed, uniquely, in the most-developed countries of the world by the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It has proven to be successful in the wealthy English-speaking countries and has provided a foundation for their continuing prosperity and liberty.
Nonetheless, it has proven difficult to transplant to other societies and its critics claim that liberalism only functions effectively in societies that have nurtured liberties and energies consistent with liberal principles for several generations. Not all nations may be ready for liberalism; those that are believe it is the most advanced way to run a country.