To what extent does modern liberalism depart from the ideas of classical liberalism?


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Politics Essay Questions
To what extent does modern liberalism depart from the ideas of classical liberalism?
The continuous development of industrialization bought about a massive expansion of wealth as well
as the spread of slums, poverty, ignorance and disease. The increasing social inequalities in society
led liberals to question and revise the ideas of classic liberalism. This was clearly seen in their
differing views on freedom, the individuals and most important the economy. Classical liberals have
argued that the revised version of liberals has effectively broken the principles of doctrines that
defined liberalism. While Modern liberals argue that it did not fully depart from the ideas of
capitalism liberalism but merely built on classical liberalism.
The central theme of liberal ideology is a commitment to the individual. Classical liberals subscribe
to an atomism view of individuals where a `society' does not exist but is merely a collection of
selfsufficient and egoistical individuals. Macpherson (1973) characterized early liberalism as
`possessive individualism' in that it regarded the individual as `the proprietor of his own person or
capacities, owing nothing to society for them'.
Modern liberals, on the other hand, shifted the emphasis away from individualism to individuality.
They had a more optimistic view of human nature and are prepared to believe that egoism is
tempered by a sense of social responsibility especially a responsibility for those who are unable to
look after themselves. Mill stressed the desire of an individual to achieve personal development,
autonomy and selfrealisation to attain their true potential in life. There high pleasures and low
pleasures, with the first being intellectual education normal & aesthetic and the latter being simple,
crude pleasure seeking. This shows that modern liberalism views on individualism have moved a
great deal from classical liberalism.
Classical liberals' pessimistic view on individualism leads to their belief in negative freedom. The
individual is free insofar as he or she is left alone, not interfered with or coerced by others. Freedom
in this sense is the absence of external constraints on the individual. Modern liberals deviating from
classical liberal ideas became evident when T.H. Green challenged the classical liberals' notion of
liberty because it merely removes external constraints on the individual, giving them the freedom of
choice. He proposed the idea of positive freedom where individual have the chance to develop
and attain individuality. The argument for freedom by liberals does not fully differ for modern liberals
still take the classical liberals preference for selfreliant individuals who take responsibility for their
own lives. The essential is difference between both is that modern liberals recognise that individuals
can only act morally if social conditions are conducive to it.
Classical liberalism emphasis on negative freedom is seen in their belief in a minimal state which
only acts as `night watchman' in the words of Locke. Locke argued that the legitimate role of the
state is limited to the protection of `life, liberty and property'. Therefore the functions of government
should not extend beyond the `minimal' function of preserving public order and protecting property,
providing defence against external attack and ensuring the contract are enforced. Jefferson famously
said `that government is best which governs least'.
Spencer used the Darwin's theory of natural selection to develop the social principle of `survival
of the fittest'. People that are best suited by the nature to survive, rise to the top while the less fit fall
to the bottom. Cobden argued that the conditions of the working class should come through `their
own efforts and selfreliance, rather than from law'.

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Politics Essay Questions
The minimal state of classical theory was quiet incapable of fixing the injustices and inequality of civil
society. Modern liberals, in contrast, advocated the development of an interventionist or enabling
state. The intervention took in the form of social welfare where attempts were made by the
government to provide support its citizens by overcoming poverty, disease, disease and ignorance.…read more


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