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Individualism is the belief in the importance of individuals over any collective body or social group.

Individuals are unique and have equal moral and political status.

Egoistical individualism, which emphasises that individuals are self-seeking and largely self-reliant creatures, provides the basis for classical liberal ideas. Developmental individualism, which reflects a belief in personal growth and self-realisation, provides the basis for modern liberal ideas and theories.

Individualism is the central principle of liberal ideology, affecting almost every key idea:

The belief in individualism establishes a strong support for individual freedom, reflected in the principle that that each individual is entitled the maximum possible liberty compatible with liberty for all.Individualism implies rationalism. Individualism implies toleration, respecting the views and values of others even when one disapproves of them.


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Rationalism is the belief the world can be understood by the use of reason and analysis. 

Liberalism developed out of the Enlightenment as a rational approach to politics and reflects an underlying belief in reason and progress.

It implies optimism about human nature as people are inclined to make good judgments.

It implies a belief in freedom, as rational individuals are the best judges of their own interests.

Conflict can be resolved through argument and debate, rather than force.

A faith in reform, based on the idea human history shows a gradual expansion of human understanding, which can be used to make the world a better place.

Human organisations have the ability to achieve good things. However this is limited by their fears of the impact of these on Liberty.


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All Liberals prioritise freedom, wishing to ensure that each individual enjoys the maximum possible liberty consistent with a like liberty for all. None believe in unlimited freedom as liberty may lead to the abuse of others. The long-term goal of all liberals is to promote negative freedom.

Negative freedom – Classical and Modern Liberals

It can be defined as the lack of external restrictions on the individual.

This allows freedom of choice. Protects the private sphere

Negative freedom generally implies the rolling-back of the state, as the state is viewed as the principal source of interference with the individual. John Locke questions if humans can be free while subject to arbitrary control of another person.

The state can also be a guarantee of negative freedom as it protects individuals from the actions of others. Negative freedom may therefore only be possible within a framework of law, guaranteed by the state

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Positive Freedom – Modern Liberals

Can be defined either as

Self-mastery and is linked to democracy and the capacity to shape one’s own destiny through political participation. Berlin

Or as personal growth and self-realisation, in which case freedom implies human flourishing and the realisation of individual potential. TH Green

Modern Liberals argue some checks on freedom are social in nature – poverty, homelessness, unemployment and so on. Positive freedom thus implies welfare and state intervention to increase the opportunities and freedom of an individual.

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The State

Liberalism is deeply divided over the role for the state.

The State is the formal political structures and all the supporting bureaucracy. The Executive, Legislature and Judiciary as well as the civil service, the police, the armed forces, welfare system and much more.

State intervention refers to ways in which the state exerts influence over economic and social life, its most common forms being social welfare and economic management.

Classical liberals believe that the state is at best a necessary evil and should therefore fulfill only a minimal role. This means that the state should merely lay down the conditions for orderly existence and leave other issues in the hands of private individuals and businesses.

The minimal state should thus maintain social order, enforce contracts and provide defence against external attack, but it should not interfere in economic and social life.

Such thinking is underpinned by strong support for individual responsibility and free-market economics. 

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The State

Modern liberals argue for an enabling state. Arguing if the freedom and development of individuals and groups are disadvantaged by their social circumstances, the state has a social responsibility to reduce or remove them.

Modern liberals have supported economic management on Keynesian grounds. They argue a self-regulating free market is a myth, and that only government intervention can ensure that market economies deliver sustainable growth and keep unemployment low. 

Modern liberals also see the need to avoid excessive social and economic intervention. They believe that the state should help individuals to help themselves and although economic management may be necessary, the economy should basically operate according to market principles. Intervention is only to make capitalism work.

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Social Welfare and Reform

Classical Liberals argue welfare, however well intentioned will limit freedom by creating dependency and allowing power inequalities to develop.

Modern liberals support social welfare because it broadens freedom in a positive sense by promoting personal growth, to help people help themselves.

Equality of opportunity requires an equal start in life which requires some form of intervention.

Rawls's theory of justice is based on the belief that inequalities of wealth are only justifiable if they work to the benefit of the least well off.

Modern liberals have also argued that welfare provision is necessary for national efficiency producing a healthy workforce and an effective army.

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Foundational Equality 

Most liberals support the belief all humans are born equal and are of equal moral worth. This can be seen in the doctrine of natural rights.

Citizens should enjoy the same formal status in society especially legal and political equality.


Equality of Opportunity – the idea of equal life-chances, sometimes expressed as a commitment to a ‘level playing-field’. This can, arguably, legitimise inequality.

However, there is disagreement within liberalism about the implications of equality of opportunity.

Classical liberals believe that a free-market economy guarantees equality of opportunity, also believing that there are benefits in the resulting social inequality. In particular, unlike individuals who should be rewarded differently and significant levels of social inequality act as an economic incentive, ultimately bringing benefit to all. 

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In general Liberals accept inequality

Classical liberals reject social equality on the grounds that it is unjust (different people are treated the same) and that it removes economic incentives Modern liberals, on the other hand, favour intervention, through welfare and redistribution, to narrow social inequalities, thereby linking equality of opportunity to a greater measure of equality of outcome.

For Rawls, The Difference Principle meant social inequality was only justified if it worked to the advantage of the least well off. But it was after Liberty and Equality of opportunity in terms of importance.

Liberalism has been criticised by socialists, who believe that it is inadequately committed to equality. The socialist critique of the liberal view of equality emphasises that a commitment to foundational and formal equality is hollow if individuals enjoy very different social circumstances and therefore life chances. Similarly, socialists have criticised the doctrine of equality of opportunity on the grounds that it is used to legitimise sometimes wide social inequalities.

There are significant and growing overlaps between the modern liberal view and the social democratic view, which both endorse relative social equality

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Liberal democracy

Combining a liberal belief in limited government with a democratic commitment to popular rule. Liberals have had doubts about the benefits of democracy. Very few liberals, and none in the modern period, reject democracy out of hand; but none uncritically accept it.

Liberals have justified democracy on the grounds of consent, and the idea that citizens must have a means of protecting themselves from the encroachment of government. This is sometimes seen as protective democracy, and it, for example, allows taxpayers to protect their property by controlling the composition of the tax-making body – hence the principle of ‘no taxation without representation’.

Democracy defends freedom, by ensuring public accountability and allowing citizens to protect themselves against tyrannical government and unpopular policies (protective democracy) 

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Utilitarians have also linked democracy to the ability of individuals to advance or defend their interests, meaning that political democracy promotes ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’.

Political participation in a democracy has educational advantages. By participating in political life, citizens enhance their understanding, strengthen their sensibilities and achieve a higher level of personal development. This is sometimes called developmental democracy.

A more modern liberal defence of democracy draws on pluralist ideas in arguing that democracy is the best means of maintaining stability in complex and fluid modern societies. Democracy gives competing groups a political voice and makes them part of the political system.

Many liberals have also viewed democracy as an inherent threat to liberty due to its collectivist nature: it empowers the people acting as a collective whole rather than as citizens acting as autonomous individuals. 

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Tyranny of the Majority Rule by the people infringing minority rights and individual freedom in the name of the people, as expressed by Mill and Tocqueville. They also argue democracy can produce dull conformism making individuals unwilling to think and speak for themselves.

Democracy also endangers wise and sensible government becauseit ignores the fact that knowledge and understanding are, inevitably, unequally distributed in society.

Democratic systems that widen access to political influence tend to be characterised by a growth in interventionism and the problem of over-government. Such interventionism may weaken the efficiency of market capitalism, disadvantaging the mass of citizens.

Liberals rarely use such arguments to reject democracy altogether; instead, they have warned against the dangers of excessive democracy.


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Liberals fear concentrations of power are a threat to liberty. This is rooted in their emphasis upon individualism and its implication that human beings are rationally self-interested creatures.

Egoism means those who have the ability to influence behaviour of others will use that ability for their own benefit and the expense of others. The greater the concentration of power, the greater the incentive people have to both benefit themselves and use others to this end. This is why absolute power leads to absolute corruption. 

Liberals have supported fragmented government and checks and balances. Examples include the separation of powers, in which the legislature, executive and judiciary act as both independent and inter-dependent bodies. Other examples include federalism, based on the principle of shared sovereignty, devolution, parliamentary government, and cabinet government.

This means whoever exercises power has only a limited ability to influence other citizens, thus preventing absolute power. Fragmenting power creates a network of checks and balances, ensuring that power is a check on power. Fragmented government therefore creates internal and external constraints preventing government from becoming a tyranny against the individual. 

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The link between liberalism and constitutionalism is based on the fear of power.

Government is therefore legitimate only if it is subject to the checks and constraints, constitutional government always being preferable to arbitrary government.

Liberal constitutionalism is expressed through support for various internal and external devices, such as codified constitutions, bills of rights, the separation of powers, federalism or devolution and a network of checks and balances.

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Consent is the idea that government power should be based on the willing agreement of the governed, who thus view the actions of government as rightful or legitimate

Liberal support for consent is evident in support for electoral democracy in general and, more specifically, sympathy for referendums and proportional representation

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Types of Liberal

Classical Liberals

Egoistic individualism

Negative freedom

Minimal state

The free market

Oppose the welfare state

Argue for the economic benefits of social inequality

State intervention always limits individual freedom. This can be seen in the tendency of the welfare state to create dependency and arguably, sap initiative and how Keynesian economic policies impose regulations inhibiting economic freedom.

Classical liberals argue modern liberalism has abandoned individualism and embraced collectivism because they support an interventionist or enabling state.

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Types of Liberal

Modern Liberals

Sees their ideas as a development of classical Liberalism with ultimate aim of negative freedom.

Try to achieve the same broad goals but by different means. Argue they applied classical liberal ideas to new economic and social circumstances.

Positive freedom

Developmental individualism

Economic management, particularly Keynesianism

Enabling state to help individuals to help themselves

More likely to argue for redistribution and a narrowing of material inequalities but the justification for collectivism is limited and conditional.  

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