Liberalism: Society and Economy

liberals such as John Locke believed that society pre-dated the state and also that man was by nature a social animal. In other words, humans naturally (and rationally) wanted to work, cooperate and live alongside others while retaining their individuality, freedoms and property. In such ‘original societies’, often termed ‘the state of nature’, there existed ‘natural rights, laws and liberties’. Hence this state of nature was not a dark and damaged place but rather one that was tolerable but could be improved upon by the creation of a state governed by reasonable laws. In short, the state of nature represented a society that should be built upon, not rejected outright.

In many ways this reflects liberals’ inherently positive view of human nature,  unlike the negative view of original society as espoused by writers such as Thomas Hobbes, who saw life in the state of nature as ‘nasty, brutish and short’. For Hobbes, humankind needed saving from itself by submission and loyalty to a master who would impose order and discipline from on high, otherwise the ‘condition of war’, with its associated suffering and misery, would endure for ever in society. For classical liberals such as Locke and Mill, societies did not need masters/autocratic leaders (enlightened despots?) but rather judges and referees provided by the state (i.e. governments) who would ensure fair play and safeguard inalienable and natural rights and liberties found in original society. For liberals, the state is a natural and rational progression from the state of nature, but it has to be the right kind of state.

The discussion among liberal thinkers about the role and nature of society embraced the following concerns:

■ How far should there be diversity of private beliefs in society?

■ How can society (and the state) defend and develop individual freedom?

■ How can society be made to work for all its members?

All liberal thinkers support the notion that society should be diverse and tolerant when it comes to individual belief and personal morals, provided they do not impact on the lives and freedoms of others. (The harm principle) For early liberals such as Locke, this primarily concerned religious toleration. In A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), Locke wrote that it should be the case that ‘every man enjoy the same rights that are granted to others’. 

Liberals traditionally celebrate moral, cultural and political diversity, and generally reject the idea that the state should impose moral values and lifestyle or faith choices on its subjects. Later liberals took up the cause of minorities or groups that were discriminated against, such as women and homosexuals, advocating greater toleration and equality of opportunity, often by a more proactive state. A classic modern example would be support for same-sex marriage.

John Stuart Mill argued for the key concepts of negative freedom and developmental freedom. He also wrote about the need for society to promote what he termed ‘positive pleasures’. His key thoughts in these areas were:

■ Developing the notion of ‘negative freedom’: this entailed the view that freedom was essentially the absence of restraint and that the actions of one individual should be tolerated by everyone else unless it could be clearly shown that their actions could harm others. 

Women writers on liberalism tended to emphasise the gender aspect to society and the unfairness and irrationality of a society that neglected to make good use of the talents and individual gifts of half its members. Some of the feminist contributions have already been noted, e.g. those of Betty Friedan, but the pioneer here was Mary Wollstonecraft.

Economics and business is an area where classical liberalism perhaps clashes most with new or progressive liberalism. 

■ All liberals place a high value on the rights of private property, seeing them as existing alongside other individual freedoms. They also support the basic tenets of market capitalism, namely that private profit and some inequality in the distribution of wealth are both natural and acceptable. They also favour the principle of the free market in trade and business.

■ Classical liberals emphasised a much more laissez-faire or hands-off approach by the government. A key writer here was Adam Smith, whose work The Wealth of Nations (1776) embraced both the free market and what he termed the ‘invisible hand’ of market forces. For Smith and other free-market advocates such as David Ricardo, wealth would ‘trickle down’ from the wealthiest to the rest of the population. Governments therefore should not interfere in trade by, for example, imposing duties and tariffs on imports.

■ Classical liberals were also very keen on self-help and self-reliance. Writers such as Samuel Smiles (who wrote Self Help in 1859) argued that it would be counter- productive of the state to replace the individual in providing the resources to help them. Smiles feared it would lead to a situation we would nowadays term the ‘dependency syndrome’.

■ New liberals were much keener and ready to accept an active role for the state in regulating and managing the capitalist economy. They argued that in reality, most wealth was produced through communal rather than merely individual efforts, so therefore the state was entitled to ensure that wealth was used to benefit all in socially useful ways such as providing health care and pensions for the aged. They pointed out that the trickle-down effect had not solved the problems of widespread poverty seen in industrialised societies by the late nineteenth century.