• Created by: Emma
  • Created on: 10-01-13 14:12

Types of liberalism

Early liberalism

Main principle was natural rights, and emphasis on natural rights led to these practical developments:

Govt not allowed to compromise rights of people unless with express consent and option to dissolve.

All born with equal rights, govt should respect and promote this.

Most important nature-given right, after life, is to be free and pursue own interests. Govt must respect this.

Exercise of power without consent is not legitimate or justifiable as it denies fundamental rights.

^ Revolutionary ideas that gave rise to revolutions, and old world of hereditary rules and social hierarchies were swept away.

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Types of liberalism

Concept of utility, developed 18th century, means you can calculate how much utility (satisfaction) someone gets from consuming something - possible to work out total amount of utility society is achieving. Not for external powers to decide what gives utility.

Significance for economists = if there was free trade and each consumer can buy whatever on their income, total utility would be maximised. A free market economy, inhabited by free individuals, would guarantee the common good.

Govt must accept what people say gives utility and should be limited to providing what people preferred as a whole - 'greatest good for the greatest number'. Utilitarians accept freedom of individuals to determine own best interests and insisted role of govt should be limited.

2 criticisms of utilitariaism by liberals who followed:
- Takes too simplistic a view of what motivates individuals.
- Opens door to excessive state intervention. As long as total social utility was increased, state could take positive action.

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Types of liberalism

Classical liberalism

Inspired by J.S. Mill. Freedom of individual = important. Mill and classical liberals worshipped liberty as it's seen in terms of one’s ability to pursue self-interest and self-fulfilment (linked to creativity and entrepreneurial spirit).

Bentham saw freedom in terms of consumption of goods. Mill saw humans as creative individuals, whereas utilitarians saw them merely as consumers. Can interpret classical liberalism as being partly a matter of principle (Mill) and partly of economic well-being (Bentham).

Classical liberals = opposed to democracy as it encourages democracy rule and supported property qualification to vote.

Argue for minimal state withfew functions – maintain order, security and peace to guarantee protection of individual liberties. In free market economy, some companies might grow so big they could exploit workers and consumers -legitimate function of state to control such economic power – ‘competition policy’.

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Types of liberalism

Summary of the main principles of classical liberalism:

- Individual freedoms should flourish and be respected.

- The state should be limited to a minimum number of functions (protecting people from each other, preventing accumulation of power).

- There should be a tolerant society in which harmful behaviour not harmful to others is not controlled.

- The economy would be based completely on free markets, except where monopolies developed.

- The state should be placed in the hands of a representative democracy.

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Types of liberalism

Variations of classical liberalism – neo-liberalism
In late 1970s and in 1980s, classical liberal ideas had a revival, part of ‘New Right’. Similar to classical liberalism in free trade beliefs but neo-liberalism accepts state intervention to maintain order and enforce particular view of personal morality.

Refers to a new spin on classical liberal ideas about economy when Thatcher set about re-establishing free markets in a domestic setting. Emphasizes laissez-faire and non-interventionalist economic policy.

Variations of classical liberalism - Social Darwinism

Herbert Spencer = leading proponent. Interested in idea that social justice consists of individuals making the best they can, provided they don’t interfere with others. We’re innately unequal so some to succeed and some to fail. ‘Survival of the fittest’. Those who adapt most will succeed, and those who fail to will suffer – ‘dependency culture’. Whatever outcome of a free society and however much economic inequality might result, natural justice will have been done.

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Types of liberalism

Modern liberalism

Occurred around 1870 as a result of two developments:

New philosophical perspective supplied by T.H. Green. Accepted importance of the individual but made two observations – we can’t consider ourselves completely free as we have a social obligation, and there is a further kind of freedom - ‘positive’ liberty (freedom in the form of choice and opportunity).

The fundamental belief upon which new liberalism was based = poorer sections of society couldn’t benefit from economic freedoms classical liberals supported. Society had potential to progress collectively if all individuals could take advantage of freedom, implying state intervention. Would achieve two social objectives: equality of opportunity and more human society in which wealth is distributed more evenly.

 Elementary education extended to all in 1901 and 1906-11 widened pensions and insurance for unemployed and sick. Brought liberalism a long way from roots. New liberals saw state as vehicle for enhancement of liberty.

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Types of liberalism

Modern liberalism - contemporary liberalism

The political and constitutional reforms that liberals have supported in recent years include:
- Decentralising power to regional and local government.
- Promoting stronger constitutional safeguards against governmental power.
- Increasing use of referendums to promote popular democracy.
- Strengthening legal safeguards for individual rights.
- Safeguarding and extending the rights of women and minority groups.

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Core values/concepts in liberalism


Refers to each person being free and rational. Ideal society built around atomistic individuals. Contrasts with collectivism which views humans as having common bonds. Classical liberals viewed collectivism as very dangerous, modern liberals embrace it a bit and see humans as having dual nature - individualistic and collective.

Ideal society is constructed around mass of autonomous individuals – ‘atomic individualism’. Their needs must be prioritised over any collective body – ‘ethical individualism’.

‘Egotistical individualism’ = individuals are driven by own needs.‘Developmental individualism’ = individuals desire to realise potential, put forward by T.H. Green for modern liberalism.

These have implications for state (threat to individual autonomy) so liberals argue for nightwatchman state. Adam Smith 'only 3 legitimate functions – defence from foreign threats, maintain system of justice and maintain public works'. John Locke - ‘social contract theory’.

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Core values/concepts in liberalism


Should be free of restraints, links to autonomous individual. Can be divided into 2 categories:

Utilitarian tradition held that each individual is best judge of own best interests. For Bentham, freedom was simple - motivated to seek pleasure and avoid pain so know what is best. Role of govt should not be to make those decisions for us but to prevent us stopping others from seeking their self-interest. Pursuit of self-interest became central liberal idea and co-existed well with free market capitalism. Second, J.S. Mill, developed view of ‘true freedom’ based on absence of constraints and divided actions into ‘self-regarding’ and ‘other-regarding’.

Positive and negative liberty

Mature individuals can decide own fate - should be no legal restraint. Foundation of liberal view of economy = 'negative freedom'. T.H. Green said it breeds gross social inequality and prevents freedom. 'Positive liberty' = true freedom as  people have opportunity to realise potential.

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Core values/concepts in liberalism


Two aspects to consider:

Legal justice consists of the equal application of the law to all citizens.

Social justice - late 19th century liberals endorsed equality of opportunity, since then liberals have tended to accept iinequality is natural and all social outcomes are ‘just’ in a free society – social Darwinism.

Beveridge and others have concluded that deprivation of various kinds curtails freedom just as much as state intervention. May be acceptable to tolerate some degree of inequality in free market but not to extent that the poorest members of society are seriously deprived.

Many liberals therefore share with socialism a desire to redistribute wealth to the poor. 

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Core values/concepts in liberalism

Limited government and liberal constitution

Merely ensuring that govt is established by consent is not sufficient. Government should operate within strict boundaries. Power is a dangerous thing and it must be controlled at all times = liberals want a constitution.

Liberals also fear three other potential consequences of government.
- The tendency for power to become too concentrated in too few hands.
- The exercise of arbitrary power i.e. power that has no legitimate authority.
- That democratic systems may simply become the tyranny of the majority, to the detriment of legitimate minorities. 
’All power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ – Lord Acton.

Constitution should have following features:
- Sovereign. Govt strictly subject to its terms except in national emergency.
- Define the limits to jurisdiction of govt.
- Defines the rights of citizens.
- It distributes power, prevents the concentration of power.
- Include arrangements for the amendment of the constitution - prevents governments accumulating excessive power without popular consent.

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Core values/concepts in liberalism

Consent (government by consent)
Before rational thought was applied, principles such as divine right of kings, sanctity of obedience and acceptance of traditional basis of authority were used to explain legitimacy of govt. 

17th century English philosophers Hobbes and Locke developed the concept of govt by consent. Imagined a circumstance where the people would come together in agreement to set up a great power over them; this would bring about peace and security. Not enough for Locke. First, his contract was to be real and not merely a notional device. Second, it would have to be constantly confirmed.

On a global level, liberals insist that governments, at any time and in every place, should only be considered legitimate if the people have freely given their consent to the system of government. In the UK, for example, the people of the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar and Northern Ireland have all been offered the opportunity to vote in a plebiscite rule. In each case, ‘yes’ answers have been enough for liberals.

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Key thinkers in liberalism

John Locke
- Govt must be established by consent. No govt can claim legitimacy from God or nature.

 - Developed concept of 'social contract theory' which insts that govt should be established by contract between govt and governed.

 - Govt agrees to govern according to natural law and respect individual rights, people agree to respect govt and obey its law. We keep right to cancel the contract if govt abuses natural rights or it's agreement.

- Main contribution to liberal theory was defining limits of freedom (self-regarding and other regarding actions). 

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Key thinkers in liberalism

Herbert Spencer

- Human society = evolving organism subject to natural laws of progress.
- Humankind was in competition for scarce resources left on Earth. Accepted that within the natural laws, humans are engaged in an economic struggle against each other.
- Argument was that those who adapt best to the changing economic environment will move forward, and those who fail to do so will fall backward. The term ‘social Darwinism’ has often been applied here.

Thomas Hill Green

- 2 main contributionS to liberal thought = proposition that we are not merely self-seeking individuals who have no responsibility to others and have an obligation to care for welfare of others AND the concept of the organic society.
- Recognised two senses of the term ‘freedom’. One was that of external constraint, as propounded by J.S. Mill. The other was a positive sense of the term, referring to the ability to realise one’s own aspirations – in other words, to achieve self-realisation.

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Issues in liberalism


Roussea predicted problems in democracy as it is majority rule = tyranny of majority and suffrage. Tyranny of majority = compromising individual rights. Difference between 'will of the people' (self-interest) and 'general will' (the common good). If 99% vote for a plan of action out of 'will of the people', might not be for the common good.

Majority shouldn't govern at expense of minority - e.g. discrimination against Catholic minority by Protestant majority in Northern Ireland.

Paradox of democracy = democracy is a means by which people could be liberated and free to express self-interested individualism, and yet excessive amounts of this can result in the oppression of minorities.

Classical liberals recommended property qualification to vote, but modern liberals couldn't condone this denial of voting rights. Liberal solution to danger of democracy = a sovereign constitution that protects right and limits govt. 

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Issues in liberalism

The state
Liberals have traditionally viewed the state as a threat as it might interfere with people's private lives. Mill also thought that economic intervention would inhibit dynamism. Later, social Darwinists such as Spencer emphasised dangers of too much state intervention causing a dependency culture and upsetting natural order.

Welfare liberals such as Rawls, Green and Beveridge see the state as an ally in distributing wealth and ensuring positive freedom. Demand for economic stability, which Keynes sees as vital, means state must intervene when economic climate threatens individualism.

Liberals who supported a positive role for the state in enhancing positive liberty had put their minds to ways that the potential power of the state could be controlled and limited to desirable ends only. Ways to do this are getting a constitution, enforcing rule of law, independent judiciary.

In summary, the relationship between liberalism and the state has been variable. All liberals have a healthy fear of state power, but most have come to accept the state for the benefits it can deliver.

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Old Sir


Useful revision cards, providing a clear outline of the major influences on the development of liberal political thought, (Knowledge and Understanding, AO1). These might provide a good starting point for students looking to develop their own active revision tools. The next step might be to research and add recent examples of political argument in western democracies which exemplify aspects of this philosophy.



This was so perfect for setting my knowledge in stone. Thank you! 

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