What is liberalism?
It is possible that every person has a different point of view regarding liberalism. There are large numbers of definitions of liberalism, which deliver almost similar ideas. According to the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics, liberalism means, “It means the belief that it is the aim of politics to preserve individual’s rights and to maximize freedom of choice.” The word liberal is originated from the Latin word liber, which means free men. Liberal also implies generosity or open-mindedness. As an adjective “liberal” denotes an attitude of mind, instead of a political creed. However, the noun liberalism indicates a Political Creed and this was used specifically in the early parts of the nineteenth century. The central idea of liberalism is freedom or liberty. We see that freedom is always associated with the word liberal. In the middle Ages when the French people used the word liber they meant that, people will have freedom in respect of their selection of alternatives and pursuit of thoughts and ideas. According to the scholars and researchers, liberalism is not a consequence of the twentieth century. Its origin can be followed to the political ideas of the fourteenth century. The decline of the Cold War in the mid-seventies and the final collapse of Soviet Union in 1991 inverted the condition of liberalism other way around. It felt like liberalism could be the only solace to all people of the world. It was able to solve the basic problems of both economic and political area. It has been observed by a recent analyst that liberalism is an ideology based on a commitment to individualism, freedom, toleration, and consent. Therefore, we can say that liberalism is an ideology and a campaign both. A campaign with a purpose to strengthen individuals by giving them the right to choose. However, it is difficult to ensure the origins of liberalism, as an ideology is not created in a specific time. But it would not be wrong to say that it was born in England during the middle of seventeenth century. The collapse of feudalism was an important contributing factor in the birth of liberalism. The feudal lords and the church were dominant parties. Whereas the capitalist and the middle class did not liked this power. Gradually and firmly the capitalist and the middle class captured the power over the state. From here arose liberalism.
Liberalism encompasses many principles, values, and elements within its fold. According to a recent analysis, liberalism is an ideology based on a commitment to individualism, freedom, reason, toleration, consent, and constitutionalism. Individualism is a belief of great importance to every individual. According to individualism, a society should be constructed on the basis of individual benefits, giving priority to individual rights, choices, and needs. Eventually freedom becomes the result of strong individualism. This is another important principle of liberalism. According to the liberals, individuals are nothing without freedom. These two principles are the best vehicles of development. However, the famous British historian Isaiah Berlin developed a famous concept of freedom claiming that there are two types of freedom, positive freedom and negative freedom. According to negative freedom, a person should be allowed to enjoy life without any sort of rules and regulation. However, liberals do not support the negative concept of liberalism. As they believe that real freedom is with proper laws and restrictions. According to the recent analysis, Liberalism also strongly anchorages reason. To put this in other words, liberalism and reason are unified to each other. Individuals are rational and reasonable which makes them strongly capable of taking any decision and to judge what is good and what is bad for them. The liberals believe that real development of society could only be accomplished through the individual decision making ability. Enlightenment in all possible ways gave priority to reason and rationality. “Rationalism is the belief that the world has a rational structure and that this can be disclosed through the exercise of human reason and critical enquiry.” Another important element of liberalism is toleration. Every society comprises number of different beliefs, cultures, and ideologies. In order to live peacefully in a society everyone should accepts the change of opinions. This requires toleration. Moreover, this variation in beliefs, cultures, and ideologies creates a diverse society. And according to liberals these diversities are the main feature of a developing society. Moving forward to the next element of liberalism, which is consent. The supporters of liberalism declare that every law and policy should be made and passed with the consent of those for whom these are made. All the liberal political philosophers believe that consent of all or majority must constitute the basic structure of society. This leads us to the fact that constitutionalism is the basic principle of liberalism. According to constitutionalism a state does not have unlimited freedom to do anything without considering its impact on common people’s life. We can further state that both the rulers and the ruled must observe constitutional principles and none has the authority to act erratically.
Liberalism has several different sources. Apart from its multiple sources, liberalism is also sensitive to the variation of time and conditions. Classical liberalism and modern liberalism are exceptionally different in many ways. While neo-liberalism has other significant differences. The political fundamentals of classical liberalism root in a sequence of social changes from the sixteenth century. Rulers had to impose the compliance either to Roman Catholicism or Protestantism. This process stimulated disputes within and among the states. In the next century, as industrialization acquired pace, a new social class, namely the middle class emerges. They craved for more political participation and economic freedom. These factors triggered the revolutions in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the most outstanding of which were the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688, the American Revolution from 1775-83, and the 1789’s French Revolution. In these circumstances, liberalism slowly and steadily emerged as a political doctrine. Classical liberalism had a serious effect on the politics throughout the centuries. It encouraged the creation of integrated, independent, constitutional states, which based on representative principles and the rule of law. The philosophical explanation of classical liberalism is accompanied by utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, and J.S. Mill put it forward. According to them, the target of a society is to achieve “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” In obtaining this goal, a representative government, which sustains liberty, is necessary. Another essential element of classical liberalism is economic liberalism. Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations largely delivered this principle. In the economic realm, countless feudal restrains on manufacturing and internal commerce were annulled. In the mean time, tariffs and restrictions on imports planned to protect domestic manufactures were put into end.
By the end of nineteenth century, problems had gradually exposed in the market economy of England and North America. Profits of the booming industry were condensed in the hand of big companies, while the mass availed very little. Therefore, the gap between the rich and the poor was significantly increased. In these circumstances, liberals of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth started to look for reforms. Usually, modern liberals believe that freedom is not equal to being left alone. Alone, human beings are weaker instead of stronger. Modern liberalism was the result of growing problems brought about by uncontrolled economic individualism, which led to the loss of the working class, increase in poverty, disease, and ignorance. Meanwhile, Ideas of classical liberals were proven flawed in the industrialization. Modern liberalism reached its peak in the post war period, when everything, from industries to the pride of individuals, was to be remodeled. In economic sector, “visible hand” of the government had obtained extraordinary results. For modern liberals, the minimal state approach is incapable of fixing the injustices of civil society; therefore, they assure for a more interfering or enabling state. Modern liberals place value positive action and positive freedom contrast to the classical liberals who value strict meritocracy and negative freedom. Modern liberals think that there must be a counterbalance between the state and the market. However, they stay true to the liberal belief in the superiority of the individual over the society.
Moving forward to another version of liberalism, which is a renewal of classic liberalism. It was a reaction to the increasing popularity of economic ideologies that extend the role of the government in market. Twenty century’s economists cultivated the ideas. They address the issues of the deceleration in the economic growth, which started from the mid-1970s in the western world. Neoliberals maintain that intervention, whether with a good intention or not, would have pessimistic effects. The best solution should still be found in “self-help, individual responsibility, and entrepreneurialism.” One declaration of the idea was Margaret Thatcher’s policies. She also professed, “There is no such thing as society, only individuals, and their families”