Liberalism #1 – An overview of liberal political thought.

Liberal ideas are so central to life in modernity that it is easy to forget that liberalism first emerged as a radical and revolutionary doctrine, culminating in revolutionary wars in the United States (1776) and in France (1789). Early liberals challenged the authority of the established church, the authority of Kings, and argued for a society with the individual at its centre. Liberalism’s fundamental claim is that individuals should be able to do what they like, as long as they respect the rights of others. Liberals believe that government is justified through the consent of the governed, and they call for a society in which individuals have the opportunity to exercise their talent and ability to rise and fall in the social hierarchy.

In stark contrast to this, many pre-liberal societies were based upon the absolute and unquestioned authority of divinely ordained monarchs who ruled over an ordered and hierarchical system where each man knew his place within a rigid social system and in which people’s moral lives were governed by the teachings of the established church.

In the 17th Century Kings claimed to rule by divine right, a doctrine propounded by Robert Filmer (1588 – 1653), and attacked by the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War. He argued that the King’s authority over his people can be traced back the authority bestowed by God on Adam, and that the King’s subjects have a duty of passive obedience to the monarch. Liberals challenged these ideas, arguing that consent is the only legitimate basis for political authority. Social contract theorists such as Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), and John Locke (1632 – 1704) argued that authority is agreed to because, in the absence of the state’s authority, men find themselves in a state of nature, in which there is a constant state of war. Men therefore agree to form a social contract which creates a state and a sovereign with the authority to provide order.

The religious dominance of the Catholic Church, which had already been challenged during the reformation in the 16th Century, by thinkers such as Martin Luther (1483 –1546) and John Calvin (1509 –1564), was further challenged during the enlightenment, which started in the middle of the 17th Century. The reformation had fractured the Catholic Church between warring Protestant and Roman Catholic factions, which had weakened the authority of the Church of Rome. The enlightenment further weakened the power of the Church over men’s minds. During this period there was an increasing emphasis on rational, scientific enquiry, and people began to question received dogma and religious faith. This led to an ‘age of reason’ in which scientific inquiry, observation and experimentation were seen as being the true pathway to moral and intellectual progress.

Toward the end of the 18th Century, due in part to the revolutionary writings of thinkers such as Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809), there were revolutionary wars in America and France, with the American Federalists fighting for their right to have “no taxation without representation,” and the French revolutionaries rallying behind the cause of “liberty, equality and fraternity” as represented by the three colours of the modern French flag.

These political and intellectual currents meant that the 19th Century was, in many ways, a liberal century. As industrialisation took off in Western Europe and America, workers moved from the towns to the cities and from agriculture into industry. The emergence of capitalist society further eroded communal life and led to the rise of individualism. Whereas in pre-liberal society men would have been tied to the land and to their feudal obligations to the aristocratic landholders, they were now free to work for themselves in factories for an emerging capitalist class. At the same time, capitalism generated a great deal of wealth and lifted the living standards of many, but this brought with it rising inequality and insecurity. In the same year as the American revolution (1776) the classical liberal thinker, Adam Smith (1723 – 1790), had argued that a free market society, in which individuals pursue their own self-interest, would lead to social good because the market would ensure that everyone’s needs are met, without the need for state interference. Classical liberals in this period argued that individuals could only be truly free in a society with a limited state and a free market.

Towards the middle of the century Chartists began demanding political rights for the working class. This led to the Reform Act of 1867, which gave working class people the vote for the first time; something many liberals worried would lead them to vote in a socialist government in their own class interests. The emergence of democracy finally cemented the idea that the only legitimate government is one grounded in the consent of the governed, something that is central to liberal thought.

Finally, in the 20th Century, a new branch of liberalism emerged which argued that for more state intervention into the lives of individuals. Whereas classical liberals had seen the state as a potential threat to individual liberty, modern liberals argued that liberty can only be maximised if individuals have the support to develop their capabilities, in order to reach their potential. This led to the development of the Welfare State by William Beveridge (1879 – 1963), who argued that the state should provide healthcare, education, and a safety net for people who find themselves temporarily out of work. These ideas were furthered by the American philosopher,John Rawls (1921-2002), who argued that liberals should favour a society that works to the benefit of the least advantaged; because this is what we would all agree to if we weren’t biased by pushing our own interests forward. Rawls’ claim is that we should think about matters of justice from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ that prevents us from knowing pertinent factors about ourselves, such as our race, our gender, our socio-economic position and our religion. His thought is that if we don’t know these facts about ourselves, we will agree to a society that looks after the least advantaged, because we would worry that (upon removing the veil) we might find ourselves at the bottom of society.

Extra information

There’s a great Radio 4 series that covers the history of English Liberalism which is well worth listening to.


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