Historically, Liberalism emerges as a distinct political ideology during the enlightenment, which begins in the middle of the 17th Century. During this period there was an increasing emphasis on rational, scientific enquiry, and people began to question received dogma and religious faith. This broad historical movement influences liberalism in several key ways.
Firstly, the growing importance of human reason in this period, allied to the liberal faith in individualism, leads liberals to adopt an anti-paternalist stance towards government interference. Take the example of legislation requiring road passengers to wear seatbelts. Liberals would question this legislation on the basis that it substitutes the authority of the law for individual judgement and autonomy. Fundamentally, liberals believe that rational individuals make better choices about their own lives than other people, or groups of people. Liberals have therefore argued that the government should not pass legislation designed to make people make better choices, because this paternalistic and coercive interference is an un-necessary infringement of human liberty, and it is predicated on a pessimistic view of an individual’s capacity to make good choices about their own lives.
Secondly, faith in reason led liberals to develop a view that history is characterised by moral and intellectual progress. This view of history has been characterised as ‘Whig history’ by its critics, who argue that such a view distorts history by presenting figures in history as ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ based upon whether their actions led to progress towards liberal democratic institutions, or whether they stood in the way of such progress. Critics argue that this perspective risks judging historical actors by our own standards and it risks assuming that historical change in a certain direction was an inevitable product of the ‘march of history.’ Liberals would counter that this enlightenment faith in progress led individuals to throw off the shackles of custom and tradition, which held society back for so long. Thus John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) argues:
History teems with instances of truth put down by persecution. If not suppressed for ever, it may be thrown back for centuries. To speak only of religious opinions: the Reformation broke out at least twenty times before Luther, and was put down. Arnold of Brescia was put down. Fra Dolcino was put down. Savonarola was put down. The Albigeois were put down. The Vaudois were put down. The Lollards were put down. The Hussites were put down. Even after the era of Luther, wherever persecution was persisted in, it was successful. In Spain, Italy, Flanders, the Austrian empire, Protestantism was rooted out; and, most likely, would have been so in England, had Queen Mary lived, or Queen Elizabeth died. (John Stuart Mill, 1867)
Thirdly, a belief in reason led liberals to develop a view of human nature that emphasises the rational and progressive, but also the self-interested and egoistic, elements of man’s nature. This view of human nature leads liberals to have faith that the exercise of reason by individuals will help them to resolve the conflict that is created in society by their self-interest. For example, John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873)argued for the importance of free speech largely due to the fact that free and open discussion leads to the furtherance of truth, due to its victory in the battle of ideas, whereas the suppression of free speech holds back human progress.
Finally, liberals have had faith that the exercise of individual reason in society as a whole by individuals will lead to the common good. There are several reasons for this view:
- Firstly, utilitarian thinkers, such as Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) argue that society should be arranged so as to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. Since individuals make choices in their own rational self-interest, a society in which individuals are empowered to make their own autonomous choices will be one in which pleasure is maximised. Such a society is in ‘the permanent interests of a man as a progressive being,’ according to Mill.
- Secondly, classical liberals, such as Adam Smith (1723 –1790) argue that rational and self-interested behaviour can lead to a socially optimum outcome because the operation of the market mechanism ensures that supply equals demand. This ensures that consumers get the goods that they want at a price they are willing to pay, and it means that producers sell the goods at a price at which they are willing to sell. Furthermore, this outcome happens automatically, via what Smith calls the‘invisible hand.’ Thus Smith extols the virtues of individual self-interest in The Wealth of Nations:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. (Adam Smith, 1776)
- Finally, neo-classical liberals, such as F. A. Hayek (1899 – 1992) argue that this market mechanism operates almost like a nervous system by ensuring that goods and service are directed to where there is the most demand for them. Crucially, Hayek thinks that this has a political consequence, because the market mechanism can, and should, therefore be used to supply goods and services efficiently, without the need for the state to provide them. Hayek’s worry is that too much state interference in the economy will inevitably erode individual liberty in other spheres of life, ultimately leading to the emergence of an all-pervasive totalitarian state.