Main ideas of Liberalism

The central theme of liberal ideology is a commitment to the individual and the desire to construct a society in which people can satisfy their interests and achieve fulfilment. They reject limitations imposed by class or tradition. Liberals believe that human beings are, first and foremost, individuals, endowed with reason. This implies that each individual should enjoy the maximum possible freedom consistent with a like freedom for all. (See Link to video: The Harm Principle) However, although individuals are entitled to equal legal and political rights, they should be rewarded in line with their talents and their willingness to work, not simply their needs (socialism) or their class status (conservatism) Liberal societies are organised politically around the twin principles of constitutionalism and consent, designed to protect citizens from the danger of government tyranny. Nevertheless, there are significant differences between classical liberalism and modern liberalism. Classical liberalism is characterised by a belief in a ‘minimal’ state, whose function is limited to the maintenance of domestic order and personal security. Modern liberalism, in contrast, accepts that the state should help people to help themselves.

Although modern Liberalism emerged out of the enlightenment as a reaction to the rule of monarchies and aristocratic privilege in the early modern world. It reflected the views of the educated middle classes, who sought wider civil liberties and opportunities to better themselves. It has origins before the Enlightenment, an 18th-century intellectual movement that rejected traditional social, political and religious ideas, which stressed the power of reason and the importance of tolerance and freedom from tyranny. As a systematic political creed, liberalism may not have existed before the nineteenth century, but it was based on ideas and theories that had developed during the previous 300 years. Liberalism as a developed ideology was a product of the breakdown of feudalism in Europe, and the growth, in its place, of a market or capitalist society. In many respects, liberalism reflected the aspirations of the rising middle classes, whose interests conflicted with the established power of absolute monarchs and the landed aristocracy. Liberal ideas were radical: they sought fundamental reform and even, at times, revolutionary change. The English Revolution of the seventeenth century, and the American Revolution of 1776 and French Revolution of 1789 each embodied elements that were distinctively liberal, even though the word ‘liberal’ was not at the time used in a political sense. Liberals challenged the absolute power of the monarchy, supposedly based on the doctrine of the ‘divine right of kings’. In place of absolutism, they advocated constitutional and, later, representative government. Liberals criticised the political and economic privileges of the landed aristocracy and the unfairness of a feudal system in which social position was determined by the ‘accident of birth’. They also supported the movement towards freedom of conscience in religion and questioned the authority of the established church.

Thinkers who were influenced by this movement believed in abolishing traditional restrictions on the freedom of the individual, whether these were imposed by government or the church. They held that people are born with different potential, but all are equal in rights (though at the time most definitions of this excluded women and ethnic minorities). People should be free to take their own decisions and to make the most of their talents and opportunities.

The classic statement of this outlook was the United States Declaration of Independence (1776), primarily written by the future President, Thomas Jefferson. The Declaration states that 'we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.'


Individualism is the belief in the supreme importance of the individual over any social group or collective body. In the form of methodological individualism, this suggests that the individual is central to any political theory or social explanation – all statements about society should be made in terms of the individuals who compose them. Ethical individualism, on the other hand, implies that society should be constructed so as to benefit the individual, giving moral priority to individual rights, needs or interests. Classical liberals and the New Right subscribe to egoistical individualism, which places emphasis on self-interestedness and self-reliance. Modern liberals, in contrast, have advanced a developmental form of individualism that prioritises human flourishing over the quest for interest satisfaction.

Individualism can be interpreted in two different ways. Classical liberals believe in 'egoistical individualism': the view that people are essentially self-seeking and self-reliant. This view minimises the importance of society, seeing it as little more than a collection of independent individuals. More widely held in the modern world is a version known as 'developmental individualism': the view that individual freedom is linked to the desire to create a society in which each person can grow and flourish. This concept plays down the pursuit of self-interest, and has been used to justify support for some state intervention in society to help the disadvantaged.

Thinking of people as individuals has two contrasting implications. The first is that each human being is a separate and unique entity, defined by inner qualities and attributes that are specific to themselves. To be an individual, in this sense, is to be different. This implication of individualism is captured in the idea of individuality. The second implication is that, as individuals, each of us shares the same status. Our identity is not defined by social categories such as gender, social class, ethnicity, religion, nationality and so on, but by the fact that we are individuals. To be an individual, in this sense, is to be the same. Liberals, in this light, are often portrayed as being ‘difference-blind’.


Another idea linked to the importance of the individual is tolerance: a willingness to respect values, customs and beliefs with which one disagrees. This is one of the natural rights that liberals believe everyone should have, which should not be taken away against the will of the individual. Originally this referred primarily to tolerance of different religious beliefs, but today it has been extended to a wide range of views and practices. For example, liberals tend to take a relaxed view of sexual matters, supporting measures to put same-sex relationships on the same legal footing as heterosexual relationships, because these are private lifestyle choices. English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) published A Letter Concerning Toleration in 1689. Locke's work appeared amidst a fear that Catholicism might be taking over England, and responds to the problem of religion and government by proposing religious toleration as the answer. Unlike Thomas Hobbes, who saw uniformity of religion as the key to a well-functioning civil society, Locke argued that more religious groups actually prevent civil unrest. In his opinion, civil unrest results from confrontations caused by any magistrate's attempt to prevent different religions from being practiced, rather than tolerating their proliferation. However, Locke denies religious tolerance for Catholics, for political reasons, and also for atheists.

The Paradox of tolerance: should intolerance be tolerated?

Rawls argues that an intolerant sect should be tolerated in a tolerant society unless the sect directly threatens the security of other members of the society. He links this principle to the stability of a tolerant society, in which members of an intolerant sect in a tolerant society will, over time, acquire the tolerance of the wider society.

Freedom- liberty

Freedom is the most important of all liberal values.Early liberals objected to the way in which authoritarian governments claimed a right to take decisions on behalf of people and attempted to regulate their behaviour. However, they and their successors did recognise that freedom can never be absolute but must be exercised under the law, in order to protect people from interfering with each other's rights. This is why the early liberal thinker John Locke (1632-1704) argued that 'the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom... where there is no law, there is no freedom.'

The concept of liberty was central to the work of the early 19th-century school of thought known as utilitarianism. Its leading thinker, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), maintained that each individual can decide what is in his or her own interests. He argued that human actions are motivated mainly by a desire to pursue pleasure and to avoid pain. Government should not prevent people from doing what they choose unless their actions threaten others' ability to do the same for themselves. This was a mechanistic view of human behaviour that saw people as driven by rational self-interest. When applied to society at large it produced the idea of 'the greatest happiness for the greatest number'. This could mean that the interests of minorities are overridden by those of the majority.

Early or classical liberals have believed in negative freedom, in that freedom consists in each person being left alone, free from interference and able to act in whatever way he or she may choose. This conception of freedom is ‘negative’ in that it is based on the absence of external restrictions or constraints on the individual. Modern liberals, on the other hand, have been attracted to a more ‘positive’ conception of liberty, positive freedom, defined by Berlin as the ability to be one’s own master; to be autonomous. Self-mastery requires that the individual is able to develop skills and talents, broaden his or her understanding, and gain fulfilment. This led to an emphasis on the capacity of human beings to develop and ultimately achieve self-realisation. These rival conceptions of liberty have not merely stimulated academic debate within liberalism, but have also encouraged liberals to hold very different views about the desirable relationship between the individual and the state.

Although liberals have agreed that individuals should enjoy the greatest possible freedom, they have not always agreed about what it means for an individual to be ‘free’. In ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ ([1958] 1969), Isaiah Berlin distinguished between a ‘negative’ theory of liberty and a ‘positive’ one.

John Stuart Mill (1806-73) began as a follower of Bentham, but came to see the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain as too simplistic. He put forward what became known as the idea of negative freedom: individuals should only be subject to external restraint when their actions potentially affect others, not when their actions affect only themselves.

From the late 19th century onwards, many liberals found Mill's concept of liberty too limited because it viewed society as little more than a collection of independent atoms. The Oxford thinker T.H. Green (1836-82) argued that society was an organic whole, in which people pursue the common good as well as their own interests. They are both individual and social in nature. From this came the concept of positive freedom: individuals should be able to control their own destiny, to develop personal talents and achieve self-fulfilment. Some limited state intervention was necessary to make this possible.

The state: a 'necessary evil'

Liberal thinking about politics focuses primarily on the nature and role of the state and the organisation of government power. Such thinking is underpinned by the core assumption that the liberty of one person is always in danger of becoming a licence to abuse another. Each person can be said to be both a threat to, and under threat from, every other member of society. Our liberty therefore requires that the other members of society are restrained from encroaching on our freedom and, in turn, their liberty requires that they are safeguarded from us. This protection is provided by a sovereign state, capable of restraining all individuals and groups within society. The classical form of this argument is found in the social contract theories that were developed in the seventeenth century by thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Hobbes and Locke constructed a picture of what life had been like before government was formed, in a stateless society or what they called a ‘state of nature’. As individuals are selfish, greedy and power-seeking, the state of nature would be characterised by an unending civil war of each against all, in which, in Hobbes’ words, human life would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. As a result, they argued, rational individuals would enter into an agreement, or ‘social contract’, to establish a sovereign government, without which orderly and stable life would be impossible.

There is a complex relationship between liberalism and the state. Liberals accept that the state is needed to avert disorder and to protect the vulnerable from exploitation. However, they mistrust power because they believe that human beings are essentially self-seeking, so may use any position of power to pursue their own interests, probably at the expense of others. Liberals oppose the concentration of political power, fearing that it gives people a greater incentive to benefit themselves and to use other people for their own ends. The classic statement of this was by the Victorian liberal historian Lord Acton (1834-1902): 'Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.'Liberals therefore argue for limited government, with checks and balances on the exercise of power. They support the idea of constitutionalism — government in which power is distributed and limited by a system of laws — in order to prevent a concentration of power. Typical features of a liberal constitution include the separation of powers, which means that authority is shared between the three branches of government (the legislature, executive and judiciary). Linked to this is the concept of checks and balances: the branches are given some influence over each other and they act to check abuses of power, as in the United States Constitution. Liberals also favour a bill of rights, which provides a clear statement of citizens' rights and defines the relationship between citizens and the state. In the United States, the first ten amendments to the Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights.

Liberals' suspicion of the concentration of political power often leads them to support its devolution from central government to regional bodies. This occurred in the UK in the late 19905, with the creation of the Scottish Parliament and assemblies for Wales and Northern Ireland.

An alternative is federalism — a system of government like that in the USA or Germany, where a number of states form a union under a central government, while each state retains responsibility for its own internal affairs.

The liberal emphasis on a limited role for the state also has an economic dimension. Liberals of the 18th and 19th centuries believed in laissez-faire capitalism — the idea that competition between individuals, seeking their own profit, is beneficial for all, and that government intervention in the economy should be limited. The fullest statement of this idea was by the Scottish economist Adam Smith, one of the most prominent Enlightenment era thinkers, in The Wealth of Nations (1776). Smith emphasised the part played by self-interest in driving economic growth, famously writing: 'It is not from the benevolence [i.e. unselfish goodwill] of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard for their own interest.'


At the heart of Enlightenment thinking is a belief in human reason. It holds that individuals should be free to exercise their judgement about their own interests, without needing to be guided by external authorities, such as the state or church leaders. People will not always make correct decisions, but it is better for them to take responsibility for themselves than to take instruction from above. Liberals were encouraged by the development of scientific learning in the 18th and 19th centuries, which pushed back the boundaries of human understanding and liberated people from a blind faith in established authority, tradition and superstition.

Faith in reason is linked to the idea of a progressive society, in which the personal development of the individual promotes wider social advancement.

The state is a machine (this is called Mechanistic Theory)Liberals believe that the state is akin to a machine and is created by individuals with the express purpose to protect their freedom

Take the case of the social contract outlined by John Locke. He argued that individuals move from a state of nature towards a social contract with rights and duties on both sides. The purpose of the social contract is to uphold personal freedom, the government is created by the people and can be replaced if it fails to maintain the core value of liberty.

Mechanistic Theory

Mechanistic theory also stipulates that our behaviour is determined by the interactions between individuals. Mechanistic theory is therefore the opposite of the conservative view that society is an organism in which the state evolves over time.

Rationalism in action

Liberals accept that competition between individuals, groups and nations regrettably will produce conflicts, but they favour the use of reasoned debate and discussion to resolve disputes. Late 19th-century liberals were in the forefront of moves to develop methods of industrial arbitration. This meant that a neutral third party would mediate between employers and trades unions, in an effort to avert costly legal action or strikes. Similarly, in international relations, liberals view war as a last resort, which should be avoided if at all possible. In the early 20th century liberals were in the forefront of campaigns in support of the League of Nations, the forerunner of today's United Nations, which sought to bring countries together to discuss their disputes. Many liberals today support the European Union on the grounds that, by surrendering some of their national sovereignty, member states derive benefits through association with each other, such as access to a large trading area.

Equality and social justice

Liberals place emphasis on equality of opportunity, the idea that each person should have the same chance to rise or fall in society. Liberals accept differing outcomes because people have different abilities and potential. They should be free to reach that potential.

Traditionally liberalism is based on a belief in foundational equality — people are born equal. This implies a belief in formal equality: individuals should enjoy the same legal and political rights in society, ensured by equality before the law and equal voting rights in free and fair elections.

Socialists criticise liberalism on the grounds that it does not tackle inequality because it is closely linked to the capitalist idea of competition. Instead, socialists aim to achieve equality of outcome by using the power of the state to redistribute wealth. However, classical liberals believe that individuals with different talents should be rewarded differently. The resulting social inequality is beneficial for society because it gives people an incentive to work hard and make the most of their abilities. The good society is a meritocracy — one in which social position is determined by ability and effort. For example William Gladstone, the British Liberal Prime Minister, introduced competitive examinations for entry to the civil service in the 1875, bringing to an end the practice of making appointments on the basis of aristocratic connections.

Until the 20th century liberals did not all extend the same rights to women as to men. The early feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) argued that women were no less rational beings than men, so were entitled to the same rights to pursue a career and to own their own property when married — something the law prohibited at the time. Modern liberals support full civil rights for women and minority groups. For example, US President Barack Obama supported the right of transgender pupils to use bathrooms of their choice at school.

There are different views within liberalism on equality. Most modern liberals favour some degree of state intervention to narrow social inequalities. They believe that true equality is not possible without social justice. However, they do not believe that total equality of outcome is either possible or desirable. John Rawls (1921-2002), author of A Theory of Justice (1971), is known for attempting to reconcile the concepts of liberal individualism with the prevention of excessive inequality.

The state

liberals, from John Locke and Adam Smith onwards, believe that individualism and capitalism work best when accompanied by a certain kind of state. But to understand why, it is necessary to explain how liberals think the ‘ideal state originates, what it seeks to achieve and how it should be structured.

To appreciate liberalism’s belief in a state, it is important to remember that, while liberalism takes an optimistic view of human nature, it still accepts that, within the state of nature, there would have been clashes of interests between individuals pursuing their own, egocentric agendas. Locke was especially worried that without the sort of formal structures only a state can provide, the resolution of such clashes — particularly clashes concerning property — might not always be swift and efficient. As a result, individualism in the state of nature could have been impeded by stalemated disputes between competing individuals. So a mechanism — a state — was required, to arbitrate effectively between the competing claims of rational individuals. To provide a sporting comparison, most footballers would accept that, in the absence of a referee, some kind of football match could still take place, with both teams self-regulating on an ad hoc basis (think in terms of a ‘kick-around’ among friends). Yet, even though it would result in their restriction and occasional punishment, most footballers would also accept that the match would be fairer, more efficient and more rewarding for individual players if a referee was present — especially if the referee officiated according to pre-agreed rules. For liberals, this is analogous to their argument that the state of nature, tolerable though it may be, is still inferior to the particular ‘formalised’ state liberals recommend.

Since the 19th century most liberals have supported the concept of liberal democracy. This involves:

· free elections to give expression to the will of the people

· limitations on the power of the state, which should act as a neutral arbiter between different interests in society

· respect for civil liberties and toleration of different viewpoints.

The idea that government should be based on the consent of the people is central to liberalism and long pre-dates modern notions of democracy. Liberals argue that, without this foundation, government lacks legitimacy. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) in his book Leviathan (1651) argued that the people should come together to erect a great power over them to guarantee peace and security.

The idea of a social contract between the people and their rulers was explained by John Locke in his book Two Treatises of Civil Government (1690). He argued that the people must freely give, and renew, their consent to be governed. They have a right of rebellion if the government breaks the contract.

Liberals support democracy on the grounds that it enables citizens to hold government to account. It also extends popular participation and performs an educational function in society — the concept of developmental democracy, promoting the personal development of individuals. Democracy also gives a political voice to different groups and interests. In this way it promotes consensus and underpins political stability, giving equilibrium or balance to the political system. On the other hand, liberals have feared excessive democracy on the grounds that it may lead to the 'tyranny of the majority', suppressing minority rights or individual freedom, or it may create a culture of dull conformism. Mill proposed to allocate more votes to the educated (plural voting) as a way of curbing the influence of the uneducated masses. Modern liberals would not support this idea because it gives undue weight to the views of an elite. They have been generally supportive of democracy, as long as it is limited by a constitutional framework, and individual and group rights are protected. The electoral college system used in the USA was devised partly as a buffer against the manipulation of the masses by an unscrupulous campaigner for the post. The people do not directly choose the president; instead this is done by electors corresponding to the number of representatives each state has in Congress.

Constitutional/limited government

Consistent with its faith in government by consent, liberalism holds that the ‘contract’ between government and governed should be cemented by a formal constitution. Furthermore, in keeping with its faith in rationalism, this constitution should be preceded by extensive discussion and consensus over what government should do and how it should do it. In this way, constitutional rule is in stark contrast to the arbitrary rule characteristic of monarchical states, where rulers often did whatever they pleased, using whatever methods they wished.

For this reason, constitutional government may be described as limited government, with a liberal constitution imposing upon government two broad limitations. First, it ensures that governments must govern according to prearranged rules and procedures, and not in a random, ad hoc fashion. Second, a liberal constitution is designed to prevent governments from eroding the natural rights of their citizens — a restriction often brought about via mechanisms like a Bill of Rights .

Fragmented government

The focus on limited government produces another key feature of a liberal state’s structure, namely the dispersal or fragmentation of state power. Again, this was brought about largely as a reaction against pre-Enlightenment states where power was concentratedin the monarchy. As Lord Acton (1834–1902) famously observed,

‘power tends to corrupt…and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely’.

Fragmented government also reflects liberalism’s belief in the rationality of mankind: if individuals are generally reasonable, and inclined to self-determination, it seems logical to empower as many individuals as possible in the exercise of a state’s functions. This idea of fragmented political power has its most celebrated embodiment in the Constitution of the United States. Heavily indebted to the ideas of Locke, it introduces a series of ‘checks and balances’, designed to avoid power being concentrated. Since then, such checks and balances have become common in liberal states across the world,