Words such as liberal, liberty, libertarian, and libertine all trace their history to the Latin liber, which means "free". One of the first recorded instances of the word liberal occurs in 1375, when it was used to describe the liberal arts in the context of an education desirable for a free-born man. The word's early connection with the classical education of a medieval university soon gave way to a proliferation of different denotations and connotations. Liberal could refer to "free in bestowing" as early as 1387, "made without stint" in 1433, "freely permitted" in 1530, and "free from restraint" – often as a pejorative remark – in the 16th and the 17th centuries. In 16th century England, liberal could have positive or negative attributes in referring to someone's generosity or indiscretion. In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare wrote of "a liberal villaine" who "hath ... confest his vile encounters". With the rise of the Enlightenment, the word acquired decisively more positive undertones, being defined as "free from narrow prejudice" in 1781 and "free from bigotry" in 1823. In 1815, the first use of the word liberalism appeared in English. In Spain, the Liberales, the first group to use the liberal label in a political context, fought for the implementation of the 1812 Constitution for decades. From 1820 to 1823, during the Trienio Liberal, King Ferdinand VII was compelled by the liberales to swear to uphold the Constitution. By the middle of the 19th century, liberal was used as a politicised term for parties and movements worldwide.
Over time, the meaning of the word "liberalism" began to diverge in different parts of the world. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "In the United States, liberalism is associated with the welfare-state policies of the New Deal programme of the Democratic administration of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt, whereas in Europe it is more commonly associated with a commitment to limited government and laissez-faire economic policies." Consequently, in the U.S., the ideas of individualism and laissez-faire economics previously associated with classical liberalism became the basis for the emerging school of libertarian thought, and are key components of American conservatism.
Isolated strands of liberal thought had existed in Western philosophy since the Ancient Greeks, but the first major signs of liberal politics emerged in modern times. In the 17th century, political and financial disputes between the English Parliament and King Charles I sparked a civil war in the 1640s, culminating in the execution of Charles and the establishment of the Commonwealth of England, and producing a significant amount of political and philosophical commentary. In particular, the Levellers, a radical political movement, published their manifesto Agreement of the People, in which they advocated for popular sovereignty, for extended voting suffrage, religious tolerance and equality before the law. Many of the liberal concepts of Locke were foreshadowed in the radical ideas that were freely aired at the time. Algernon Sidney was second only to John Locke in his influence on liberal political thought in eighteenth-century Britain. He believed that absolute monarchy was a great political evil, and his major work, Discourses Concerning Government, argued that the subjects of the monarch were entitled by right to share in the government through advice and counsel.
These ideas were first unified as a distinct ideology by the English philosopher John Locke, generally regarded as the father of modern liberalism. Locke developed the radical notion that government acquires consent from the governed, which has to be constantly present for a government to remain legitimate. His influential Two Treatises (1690), the foundational text of liberal ideology, outlined his major ideas. His insistence that lawful government did not have a supernatural basis was a sharp break from previous theories of governance. Locke also defined the concept of the separation of church and state. Based on the social contract principle, Locke argued that there was a natural right to the liberty of conscience, which he argued must therefore remain protected from any government authority. He also formulated a general defence for religious toleration in his Letters Concerning Toleration. Locke was influenced by the liberal ideas of John Milton, who was a staunch advocate of freedom in all its forms. Milton argued for disestablishment as the only effective way of achieving broad toleration. In his Areopagitica, Milton provided one of the first arguments for the importance of freedom of speech – "the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties".
The impact of these ideas steadily increased during the 17th century in England, culminating in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which enshrined parliamentary sovereignty and the right of revolution, and led to the establishment of what many consider the first modern, liberal state. Significant legislative milestones in this period included the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, which strengthened the convention that forbade detention lacking sufficient cause or evidence. The Bill of Rights formally established the supremacy of the law and of parliament over the monarch and laid down basic rights for all Englishmen. The Bill made royal interference with the law and with elections to parliament illegal, made the agreement of parliament necessary for the implementation of any new taxes and outlawed the maintenance of a standing army during peacetime without parliament's consent. The right to petition the monarch was granted to everyone and "cruel and unusual punishments" were made illegal under all circumstances. This was followed a year later with the Act of Toleration, which drew its ideological content from John Locke's four letters advocating religious toleration. The Act allowed freedom of worship to Nonconformists who pledged oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy to the Anglican Church. In 1695, the Commons refused to renew the Licensing of the Press Act 1662, leading to a continuous period of unprecedented freedom of the press.
The development of liberalism continued throughout the 18th century with the burgeoning Enlightenment ideals of the era. This was a period of profound intellectual vitality that questioned old traditions and influenced several European monarchies throughout the 18th century. In contrast to England, the French experience in the 18th century was characterised by the perpetuation of feudal payments and rights and absolutism. Ideas that challenged the status quo were often harshly repressed. Most of the philosophes of the French Enlightenment were progressive in the liberal sense and advocated the reform of the French system of government along more constitutional and liberal lines. The American Enlightenment is a period of intellectual ferment in the thirteen American colonies in the period 1714–1818, which led to the American Revolution, and the creation of the American Republic. Influenced by the 18th-century European Enlightenment, and its own native American Philosophy, the American Enlightenment applied scientific reasoning to politics, science, and religion, promoted religious tolerance, and restored literature, the arts, and music as important disciplines and professions worthy of study in colleges.
Baron de Montesquieu wrote a series of highly influential works in the early 18th century, including Persian letters (1717) and The Spirit of the Laws (1748). The latter exerted tremendous influence, both inside and outside France. Montesquieu pleaded in favour of a constitutional system of government, the preservation of civil liberties and the law, and the idea that political institutions ought to reflect the social and geographical aspects of each community. In particular, he argued that political liberty required the separation of the powers of government. Building on John Locke's Second Treatise of Government, he advocated that the executive, legislative, and judicial functions of government should be assigned to different bodies. He also emphasised the importance of a robust due process in law, including the right to a fair trial, the presumption of innocence and proportionality in the severity of punishment. Another important figure of the French Enlightenment was Voltaire. Initially believing in the constructive role an enlightened monarch could play in improving the welfare of the people, he eventually came to a new conclusion: "It is up to us to cultivate our garden." His most polemical and ferocious attacks on intolerance and religious persecutions indeed began to appear a few years later. Despite much persecution, Voltaire remained a courageous polemicist who indefatigably fought for civil rights – the right to a fair trial and freedom of religion – and who denounced the hypocrisies and injustices of the Ancien Régime.
Political tension between England and its American colonies grew after 1765 over the issue of taxation without representation, culminating in the Declaration of Independence of a new republic, and the resulting American Revolutionary War to defend it.
The Declaration of Independence, written in committee largely by Thomas Jefferson, echoed Locke: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." After the war, the leaders debated about how to move forward. The Articles of Confederation, written in 1776, now appeared inadequate to provide security, or even a functional government. The Confederation Congress called a Constitutional Convention in 1787, which resulted in the writing of a new Constitution of the United States establishing a federal government.
In the context of the times, the Constitution was a republican and liberal document. It established a strong national government and provided clear Separation of powers between the branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial) to limit any one branch from exercising the core functions of another. Additionally, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known collectively as the Bill of Rights, placed restrictions on the powers of government and offered specific protections of several of the natural rights liberal thinkers used to justify the Revolution. It remains the oldest liberal governing document in effect worldwide.
Historians widely regard the French Revolution as one of the most important events in history. The Revolution is often seen as marking the "dawn of the modern era", and its convulsions are widely associated with "the triumph of liberalism".
The French Revolution began in 1789 with the convocation of the Estates-General in May. The first year of the Revolution witnessed members of the Third Estate proclaiming the Tennis Court Oath in June, the Storming of the Bastille in July. The two key events that marked the triumph of liberalism were the Abolition of feudalism in France on the night of 4 August 1789, which marked the collapse of feudal and old traditional rights and privileges and restrictions, and the passage of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in August. The rise of Napoleon as dictator in 1799, heralded a reverse of many of the republican and democratic gains. However Napoleon did not restore the ancien regime. He kept much of the liberalism and imposed a liberal code of law, the Code Napoleon.
Outside France the Revolution had a major impact and its ideas became widespread. Furthermore, the French armies in the 1790s and 1800s directly overthrew feudal remains in much of western Europe. They liberalised property laws, ended seigneurial dues, abolished the guild of merchants and craftsmen to facilitate entrepreneurship, legalised divorce, and closed the Jewish ghettos. The Inquisition ended as did the Holy Roman Empire. The power of church courts and religious authority was sharply reduced, and equality under the law was proclaimed for all men.
Artz emphasises the benefits the Italians gained from the French Revolution:
For nearly two decades the Italians had the excellent codes of law, a fair system of taxation, a better economic situation, and more religious and intellectual toleration than they had known for centuries ... Everywhere old physical, economic, and intellectual barriers had been thrown down and the Italians had begun to be aware of a common nationality.
Likewise in Switzerland the long-term impact of the French Revolution has been assessed by Martin:
It proclaimed the equality of citizens before the law, equality of languages, freedom of thought and faith; it created a Swiss citizenship, basis of our modern nationality, and the separation of powers, of which the old regime had no conception; it suppressed internal tariffs and other economic restraints; it unified weights and measures, reformed civil and penal law, authorised mixed marriages (between Catholics and Protestants), suppressed torture and improved justice; it developed education and public works.
The radical liberal movement began in the 1790s in England and concentrated on parliamentary and electoral reform, emphasising natural rights and popular sovereignty. Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man (1791) was a response to Edmund Burke's conservative essay Reflections on the Revolution in France. The ensuing Revolution Controversy featured, among others, Mary Wollstonecraft, who followed with an early feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Radicals encouraged mass support for democratic reform along with rejection of the monarchy, aristocracy, and all forms of privilege. The Reform Act 1832 was put through with the support of public outcry, mass meetings of "political unions" and riots in some cities. This now enfranchised the middle classes, but failed to meet radical demands. Following the Reform Act the mainly aristocratic Whigs in the House of Commons were joined by a small number of parliamentary Radicals, as well as an increased number of middle class Whigs. By 1839 they were informally being called "the Liberal Party". The Liberals produced one of the greatest British prime ministers – William Gladstone, who was also known as the Grand Old Man and was the towering political figure of liberalism in the 19th century. Under Gladstone, the Liberals reformed education, disestablished the Church of Ireland, and introduced the secret ballot for local and parliamentary elections.
The development into maturity of classical liberalism took place before and after the French Revolution in Britain, and was based on the following core concepts: classical economics, free trade, laissez-faire government with minimal intervention and taxation and a balanced budget. Classical liberals were committed to individualism, liberty and equal rights. The primary intellectual influences on 19th century liberal trends were those of Adam Smith and the classical economists, and Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.
Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, was to provide most of the ideas of economics, at least until the publication of J. S. Mill's Principles in 1848. Smith addressed the motivation for economic activity, the causes of prices and the distribution of wealth, and the policies the state should follow in order to maximise wealth.
Smith wrote that as long as supply, demand, prices, and competition were left free of government regulation, the pursuit of material self-interest, rather than altruism, would maximise the wealth of a society through profit-driven production of goods and services. An "invisible hand" directed individuals and firms to work toward the nation's good as an unintended consequence of efforts to maximise their own gain. This provided a moral justification for the accumulation of wealth, which had previously been viewed by some as sinful.
His main emphasis was on the benefit of free internal and international trade, which he thought could increase wealth through specialisation in production. He also opposed restrictive trade preferences, state grants of monopolies, and employers' organisations and trade unions. Government should be limited to defence, public works and the administration of justice, financed by taxes based on income. Smith was one of the progenitors of the idea, which was long central to classical liberalism and has resurfaced in the globalisation literature of the later 20th and early 21st centuries, that free trade promotes peace.
Utilitarianism provided the political justification for the implementation of economic liberalism by British governments, which was to dominate economic policy from the 1830s. Although utilitarianism prompted legislative and administrative reform and John Stuart Mill's later writings on the subject foreshadowed the welfare state, it was mainly used as a justification for laissez-faire. The central concept of utilitarianism, which was developed by Jeremy Bentham, was that public policy should seek to provide "the greatest happiness of the greatest number". While this could be interpreted as a justification for state action to reduce poverty, it was used by classical liberals to justify inaction with the argument that the net benefit to all individuals would be higher. His philosophy proved to be extremely influential on government policy and led to increased Benthamite attempts at government social control, including Robert Peel's Metropolitan Police, prison reforms, the workhouses and asylums for the mentally ill.
The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 was a watershed moment and encapsulated the triumph of free trade and liberal economics. The Anti-Corn Law League brought together a coalition of liberal and radical groups in support of free trade under the leadership of Richard Cobden and John Bright, who opposed militarism and public expenditure. Their policies of low public expenditure and low taxation were later adopted by the liberal chancellor of the exchequer and later prime minister, William Ewart Gladstone. Although British classical liberals aspired to a minimum of state activity, the passage of the Factory Acts in the early 19th century, which involved government interference in the economy, met with their approval.
Abolitionist and suffrage movements spread, along with representative and democratic ideals. France established an enduring republic in the 1870s, and a vicious war in the United States ensured the integrity of the nation and the abolition of slavery in the south. Meanwhile, a mixture of liberal and nationalist sentiment in Italy and Germany brought about the unification of the two countries in the late 19th century. Liberal agitation in Latin America led to independence from the imperial power of Spain and Portugal.
In France, the July Revolution of 1830, orchestrated by liberal politicians and journalists, removed the Bourbon monarchy and inspired similar uprisings elsewhere in Europe. Frustration with the pace of political progress in the early 19th century sparked even more gigantic revolutions in 1848. Revolutions spread throughout the Austrian Empire, the German states, and the Italian states. Governments fell rapidly. Liberal nationalists demanded written constitutions, representative assemblies, greater suffrage rights, and freedom of the press. A second republic was proclaimed in France. Serfdom was abolished in Prussia, Galicia, Bohemia, and Hungary. The indomitable Metternich, the Austrian builder of the reigning conservative order, shocked Europe when he resigned and fled to Britain in panic and disguise.
Eventually, however, the success of the revolutionaries petered out. Without French help, the Italians were easily defeated by the Austrians. With some luck and skill, Austria also managed to contain the bubbling nationalist sentiments in Germany and Hungary, helped along by the failure of the Frankfurt Assembly to unify the German states into a single nation. Two decades later, however, the Italians and the Germans realised their dreams for unification and independence. The Sardinian Prime Minister, Camillo di Cavour, was a shrewd liberal who understood that the only effective way for the Italians to gain independence was if the French were on their side. Napoleon III agreed to Cavour's request for assistance and France defeated Austria in the Franco-Austrian War of 1859, setting the stage for Italian independence. German unification transpired under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck, who decimated the enemies of Prussia in war after war, finally triumphing against France in 1871 and proclaiming the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, ending another saga in the drive for nationalisation. The French proclaimed a third republic after their loss in the war.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the principles of classical liberalism were being increasingly challenged by downturns in economic growth, a growing perception of the evils of poverty, unemployment and relative deprivation present within modern industrial cities, and the agitation of organised labour. The ideal of the self-made individual, who through hard work and talent could make his or her place in the world, seemed increasingly implausible. A major political reaction against the changes introduced by industrialisation and laissez-faire capitalism came from conservatives concerned about social balance, although socialism later became a more important force for change and reform. Some Victorian writers – including Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, and Matthew Arnold – became early influential critics of social injustice.
John Stuart Mill contributed enormously to liberal thought by combining elements of classical liberalism with what eventually became known as the new liberalism. Mill's 1859 On Liberty addressed the nature and limits of the power that can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual. He gave an impassioned defence of free speech, arguing that free discourse is a necessary condition for intellectual and social progress. Mill defined "social liberty" as protection from "the tyranny of political rulers". He introduced a number of different concepts of the form tyranny can take, referred to as social tyranny, and tyranny of the majority respectively. Social liberty meant limits on the ruler's power through obtaining recognition of political liberties or rights and by the establishment of a system of "constitutional checks".
However, although Mill's initial economic philosophy supported free markets and argued that progressive taxation penalised those who worked harder, he later altered his views toward a more socialist bent, adding chapters to his Principles of Political Economy in defence of a socialist outlook, and defending some socialist causes, including the radical proposal that the whole wage system be abolished in favour of a co-operative wage system.
Another early liberal convert to greater government intervention was Thomas Hill Green. Seeing the effects of alcohol, he believed that the state should foster and protect the social, political and economic environments in which individuals will have the best chance of acting according to their consciences. The state should intervene only where there is a clear, proven and strong tendency of a liberty to enslave the individual. Green regarded the national state as legitimate only to the extent that it upholds a system of rights and obligations that is most likely to foster individual self-realisation.
This strand began to coalesce into the social liberalism movement at the turn of the twentieth century in Britain. The New Liberals, which included intellectuals like L.T. Hobhouse, and John A. Hobson, saw individual liberty as something achievable only under favourable social and economic circumstances. In their view, the poverty, squalor, and ignorance in which many people lived made it impossible for freedom and individuality to flourish. New Liberals believed that these conditions could be ameliorated only through collective action coordinated by a strong, welfare-oriented, and interventionist state. The People's Budget of 1909, championed by David Lloyd George and fellow liberal Winston Churchill, introduced unprecedented taxes on the wealthy in Britain and radical social welfare programmes to the country's policies. It was the first budget with the expressed intent of redistributing wealth among the public.
Liberalism gained momentum in the beginning of the 20th century. The bastion of autocracy, the Russian Tsar, was overthrown in the first phase of the Russian Revolution. The Allied victory in the First World War and the collapse of four empires seemed to mark the triumph of liberalism across the European continent, not just among the victorious allies, but also in Germany and the newly created states of Eastern Europe. Militarism, as typified by Germany, was defeated and discredited. As Blinkhorn argues, the liberal themes were ascendant in terms of "cultural pluralism, religious and ethnic toleration, national self-determination, free-market economics, representative and responsible government, free trade, unionism, and the peaceful settlement of international disputes through a new body, the League of Nations".
Liberalism was defeated in Russia when the Communists came to power under Vladimir Lenin in October 1917, in Italy when Mussolini set up his dictatorship in 1922, in Poland in 1926 under Józef Piłsudski, and in Spain in 1939 after the Spanish Civil War. Japan, which was generally liberal in the 1920s, saw liberalism wither away in the 1930s under pressure from the military.
The worldwide Great Depression, starting in 1929, hastened the discrediting of liberal economics and strengthened calls for state control over economic affairs. Economic woes prompted widespread unrest in the European political world, leading to the strengthening of fascism and communism. Their rise in 1939 culminated in the Second World War. The Allies, which included most of the important liberal nations as well as communist Russia, won World War II, defeating Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and militarist Japan. After the war, there was a falling out between Russia and the West, and the Cold War opened in 1947 between the Communist Eastern Bloc and the liberal Western Alliance.
Meanwhile, the definitive liberal response to the Great Depression was given by the English economist John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946). Keynes had been "brought up" as a classical liberal, but especially after World War I became increasingly a welfare or social liberal. A prolific writer, among many other works, he had begun a theoretical work examining the relationship between unemployment, money and prices back in the 1920s. His The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money was published in 1936, and served as a theoretical justification for the interventionist policies Keynes favoured for tackling a recession. The General Theory challenged the earlier neo-classical economic paradigm, which had held that, provided it was unfettered by government interference, the market would naturally establish full employment equilibrium.
The book advocated activist economic policy by government to stimulate demand in times of high unemployment, for example by spending on public works. "Let us be up and doing, using our idle resources to increase our wealth," he wrote in 1928. "With men and plants unemployed, it is ridiculous to say that we cannot afford these new developments. It is precisely with these plants and these men that we shall afford them." Where the market failed to properly allocate resources, the government was required to stimulate the economy until private funds could start flowing again – a "prime the pump" strategy designed to boost industrial production.
The social liberal programme launched by President Roosevelt in the United States in 1933, reduced the unemployment rate from roughly 25 percent to about 15 percent by 1940. Additional state spending and the very large public works programme sparked by the Second World War eventually pulled the United States out of the Great Depression. From 1940 to 1941, government spending increased by 59 percent, the gross domestic product increased 17 percent, and unemployment fell below 10 percent for the first time since 1929.
The comprehensive welfare state was built in the UK after the Second World War. Although it was largely accomplished by the Labour Party, it was also significantly designed by John Maynard Keynes, who laid the economic foundations, and by William Beveridge, who designed the welfare system. By the early years of the 21st century, most countries in the world have mixed economies, which combine capitalism with economic liberalism.
The Cold War featured extensive ideological competition and several proxy wars, but the widely feared Third World War between the Soviet Union and the United States never occurred. While communist states and liberal democracies competed against one another, an economic crisis in the 1970s inspired a move away from Keynesian economics, especially under Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US.
This classical liberal renewal, called pejoratively "neoliberalism" by its opponents, lasted through the 1980s and the 1990s. Meanwhile, nearing the end of the 20th century, communist states in Eastern Europe collapsed precipitously, leaving liberal democracies as the only major forms of government in the West.
At the beginning of the Second World War, the number of democracies around the world was about the same as it had been forty years before. After 1945, liberal democracies spread very quickly, but then retreated. In The Spirit of Democracy, Larry Diamond argues that by 1974, "dictatorship, not democracy, was the way of the world", and that "Barely a quarter of independent states chose their governments through competitive, free, and fair elections." Diamond goes on to say that democracy bounced back and by 1995 the world was "predominantly democratic". Liberalism still faces challenges, especially with the phenomenal growth of China as a model combination of authoritarian government and economic liberalism. The Great Recession, which began around 2007, prompted a resurgence in Keynesian economic thought.
Liberalism – both as a political current and an intellectual tradition – is mostly a modern phenomenon that started in the 17th century, although some liberal philosophical ideas had precursors in classical antiquity. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius praised, "the idea of a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed". Scholars have also recognised a number of principles familiar to contemporary liberals in the works of several Sophists and in the Funeral Oration by Pericles. Liberal philosophy symbolises an extensive intellectual tradition that has examined and popularised some of the most important and controversial principles of the modern world. Its immense scholarly and academic output has been characterised as containing "richness and diversity", but that diversity often has meant that liberalism comes in different formulations and presents a challenge to anyone looking for a clear definition.
Though all liberal doctrines possess a common heritage, scholars frequently assume that those doctrines contain "separate and often contradictory streams of thought". The objectives of liberal theorists and philosophers have differed across various times, cultures, and continents. The diversity of liberalism can be gleaned from the numerous adjectives that liberal thinkers and movements have attached to the very term liberalism, including classical, egalitarian, economic, social, welfare-state, ethical, humanist, deontological, perfectionist, democratic, and institutional, to name a few. Despite these variations, liberal thought does exhibit a few definite and fundamental conceptions. At its very root, liberalism is a philosophy about the meaning of humanity and society.
Political philosopher John Gray identified the common strands in liberal thought as being individualist, egalitarian, meliorist, and universalist. The individualist element avers the ethical primacy of the human being against the pressures of social collectivism, the egalitarian element assigns the same moral worth and status to all individuals, the meliorist element asserts that successive generations can improve their sociopolitical arrangements, and the universalist element affirms the moral unity of the human species and marginalises local cultural differences. The meliorist element has been the subject of much controversy, defended by thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, who believed in human progress, while suffering from attacks by thinkers such as Rousseau, who believed that human attempts to improve themselves through social cooperation would fail. Describing the liberal temperament, Gray claimed that it "has been inspired by scepticism and by a fideistic certainty of divine revelation ... it has exalted the power of reason even as, in other contexts, it has sought to humble reason's claims".
The liberal philosophical tradition has searched for validation and justification through several intellectual projects. The moral and political suppositions of liberalism have been based on traditions such as natural rights and utilitarian theory, although sometimes liberals even requested support from scientific and religious circles. Through all these strands and traditions, scholars have identified the following major common facets of liberal thought: believing in equality and individual liberty, supporting private property and individual rights, supporting the idea of limited constitutional government, and recognising the importance of related values such as pluralism, toleration, autonomy, bodily integrity, and consent.
Enlightenment philosophers are given credit for shaping liberal ideas. Thomas Hobbes attempted to determine the purpose and the justification of governing authority in a post-civil war England. Employing the idea of a state of nature – a hypothetical war-like scenario prior to the State – he constructed the idea of a social contract that individuals enter into to guarantee their security and in so doing form the State, concluding that only an absolute sovereign would be fully able to sustain such a peace. John Locke, while adopting Hobbes's idea of a state of nature and social contract, nevertheless argued that when the monarch becomes a tyrant, that constituted a violation of the social contract, which bestows life, liberty, and property as a natural right. He concluded that the people have a right to overthrow a tyrant. By placing life, liberty and property as the supreme value of law and authority, Locke formulated the basis of liberalism based on social contract theory. To these early enlightenment thinkers securing the most essential amenities of life – liberty and private property among them – required the formation of a "sovereign" authority with universal jurisdiction. In a natural state of affairs, liberals argued, humans were driven by the instincts of survival and self-preservation, and the only way to escape from such a dangerous existence was to form a common and supreme power capable of arbitrating between competing human desires. This power could be formed in the framework of a civil society that allows individuals to make a voluntary social contract with the sovereign authority, transferring their natural rights to that authority in return for the protection of life, liberty, and property. These early liberals often disagreed about the most appropriate form of government, but they all shared the belief that liberty was natural and that its restriction needed strong justification. Liberals generally believed in limited government, although several liberal philosophers decried government outright, with Thomas Paine writing, "government even in its best state is a necessary evil."
As part of the project to limit the powers of government, various liberal theorists such as James Madison and the Baron de Montesquieu conceived the notion of separation of powers, a system designed to equally distribute governmental authority among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Governments had to realise, liberals maintained, that poor and improper governance gave the people authority to overthrow the ruling order through any and all possible means, even through outright violence and revolution, if needed. Contemporary liberals, heavily influenced by social liberalism, have continued to support limited constitutional government while also advocating for state services and provisions to ensure equal rights. Modern liberals claim that formal or official guarantees of individual rights are irrelevant when individuals lack the material means to benefit from those rights and call for a greater role for government in the administration of economic affairs.
Early liberals also laid the groundwork for the separation of church and state. As heirs of the Enlightenment, liberals believed that any given social and political order emanated from human interactions, not from divine will. Many liberals were openly hostile to religious belief itself, but most concentrated their opposition to the union of religious and political authority, arguing that faith could prosper on its own, without official sponsorship or administration by the state.
Beyond identifying a clear role for government in modern society, liberals also have obsessed over the meaning and nature of the most important principle in liberal philosophy: liberty. From the 17th century until the 19th century, liberals – from Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill – conceptualised liberty as the absence of interference from government and from other individuals, claiming that all people should have the freedom to develop their own unique abilities and capacities without being sabotaged by others. Mill's On Liberty (1859), one of the classic texts in liberal philosophy, proclaimed, "the only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way." Support for laissez-faire capitalism is often associated with this principle, with Friedrich Hayek arguing in The Road to Serfdom (1944) that reliance on free markets would preclude totalitarian control by the state.
Beginning in the late 19th century, however, a new conception of liberty entered the liberal intellectual arena. This new kind of liberty became known as positive liberty to distinguish it from the prior negative version, and it was first developed by British philosopher Thomas Hill Green. Green rejected the idea that humans were driven solely by self-interest, emphasising instead the complex circumstances that are involved in the evolution of our moral character. In a very profound step for the future of modern liberalism, he also tasked society and political institutions with the enhancement of individual freedom and identity and the development of moral character, will and reason. And the state to create the conditions that allow for the above, giving the opportunity for genuine choice. Foreshadowing the new liberty as the freedom to act rather than to avoid suffering from the acts of others, Green wrote the following:
If it were ever reasonable to wish that the usage of words had been other than it has been ... one might be inclined to wish that the term 'freedom' had been confined to the ... power to do what one wills.
Rather than previous liberal conceptions viewing society as populated by selfish individuals, Green viewed society as an organic whole in which all individuals have a duty to promote the common good. His ideas spread rapidly and were developed by other thinkers such as L. T. Hobhouse and John Hobson. In a few years, this New Liberalism had become the essential social and political programme of the Liberal Party in Britain, and it would encircle much of the world in the 20th century. In addition to examining negative and positive liberty, liberals have tried to understand the proper relationship between liberty and democracy. As they struggled to expand suffrage rights, liberals increasingly understood that people left out of the democratic decision-making process were liable to the tyranny of the majority, a concept explained in Mill's On Liberty and in Democracy in America (1835) by Alexis de Tocqueville. As a response, liberals began demanding proper safeguards to thwart majorities in their attempts at suppressing the rights of minorities.
Besides liberty, liberals have developed several other principles important to the construction of their philosophical structure, such as equality, pluralism, and toleration. Highlighting the confusion over the first principle, Voltaire commented, "equality is at once the most natural and at times the most chimeral of things." All forms of liberalism assume, in some basic sense, that individuals are equal. In maintaining that people are naturally equal, liberals assume that they all possess the same right to liberty. In other words, no one is inherently entitled to enjoy the benefits of liberal society more than anyone else, and all people are equal subjects before the law. Beyond this basic conception, liberal theorists diverge on their understanding of equality. American philosopher John Rawls emphasised the need to ensure not only equality under the law, but also the equal distribution of material resources that individuals required to develop their aspirations in life. Libertarian thinker Robert Nozick disagreed with Rawls, championing the former version of Lockean equality instead. To contribute to the development of liberty, liberals also have promoted concepts like pluralism and toleration. By pluralism, liberals refer to the proliferation of opinions and beliefs that characterise a stable social order. Unlike many of their competitors and predecessors, liberals do not seek conformity and homogeneity in the way that people think; in fact, their efforts have been geared towards establishing a governing framework that harmonises and minimises conflicting views, but still allows those views to exist and flourish. For liberal philosophy, pluralism leads easily to toleration. Since individuals will hold diverging viewpoints, liberals argue, they ought to uphold and respect the right of one another to disagree. From the liberal perspective, toleration was initially connected to religious toleration, with Spinoza condemning "the stupidity of religious persecution and ideological wars". Toleration also played a central role in the ideas of Kant and John Stuart Mill. Both thinkers believed that society will contain different conceptions of a good ethical life and that people should be allowed to make their own choices without interference from the state or other individuals.
Liberalism has drawn both criticism and support in its history from various ideological groups. Some scholars suggest that liberalism gave rise to feminism, although others maintain that liberal democracy is inadequate for the realisation of feminist objectives. Liberal feminism, the dominant tradition in feminist history, hopes to eradicate all barriers to gender equality – claiming that the continued existence of such barriers eviscerates the individual rights and freedoms ostensibly guaranteed by a liberal social order. British philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft is widely regarded as the pioneer of liberal feminism, with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) expanding the boundaries of liberalism to include women in the political structure of liberal society. Less friendly to the goals of liberalism has been conservatism. Edmund Burke, considered by some to be the first major proponent of modern conservative thought, offered a blistering critique of the French Revolution by assailing the liberal pretensions to the power of rationality and to the natural equality of all humans.
Some confusion remains about the relationship between social liberalism and socialism, despite the fact that many variants of socialism distinguish themselves markedly from liberalism by opposing capitalism, hierarchy, and private property. Socialism formed as a group of related yet divergent ideologies in the 19th century such as Christian socialism, Communism (with the writings of Karl Marx), and Social Anarchism (with the writings of Mikhail Bakunin), the latter two influenced by the Paris Commune. These ideologies – as with liberalism and conservatism – fractured into several major and minor movements in the following decades. Marx rejected the foundational aspects of liberal theory, hoping to destroy both the state and the liberal distinction between society and the individual while fusing the two into a collective whole designed to overthrow the developing capitalist order of the 19th century. Today, socialist parties and ideas remain a political force with varying degrees of power and influence on all continents leading national governments in many countries. Liberal socialism is a socialist political philosophy that includes liberal principles within it. Liberal socialism does not have the goal of abolishing capitalism with a socialist economy; instead, it supports a mixed economy that includes both public and private property in capital goods. Principles that can be described as "liberal socialist" have been based upon or developed by the following philosophers: John Stuart Mill, Eduard Bernstein, John Dewey, Carlo Rosselli, Norberto Bobbio and Chantal Mouffe. Other important liberal socialist figures include Guido Calogero, Piero Gobetti, Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse, and R. H. Tawney. Liberal socialism has been particularly prominent in British and Italian politics.
One of the most outspoken critics of liberalism was the Roman Catholic Church, which resulted in lengthy power struggles between national governments and the Church. In the same vein, conservatives have also attacked what they perceive to be the reckless liberal pursuit of progress and material gains, arguing that such preoccupations undermine traditional social values rooted in community and continuity. However, a few variations of conservatism, like liberal conservativism, expound some of the same ideas and principles championed by classical liberalism, including "small government and thriving capitalism".
Social democracy, an ideology advocating progressive modification of capitalism, emerged in the 20th century and was influenced by socialism. Yet unlike socialism, it was not collectivist nor anti-capitalist. Broadly defined as a project that aims to correct, through government reformism, what it regards as the intrinsic defects of capitalism by reducing inequalities, social democracy was also not against the state. Several commentators have noted strong similarities between social liberalism and social democracy, with one political scientist even calling American liberalism "bootleg social democracy" due to the absence of a significant social democratic tradition in the United States that liberals have tried to rectify. Another movement associated with modern democracy, Christian democracy, hopes to spread Catholic social ideas and has gained a large following in some European nations. The early roots of Christian democracy developed as a reaction against the industrialisation and urbanisation associated with laissez-faire liberalism in the 19th century. Despite these complex relationships, some scholars have argued that liberalism actually "rejects ideological thinking" altogether, largely because such thinking could lead to unrealistic expectations for human society.
Liberalism is frequently cited as the dominant ideology of modern times. Politically, liberals have organised extensively throughout the world. Liberal parties, think tanks, and other institutions are common in many nations, although they advocate for different causes based on their ideological orientation. Liberal parties can be centre-left, centrist, or centre-right depending on their location.
They can further be divided based on their adherence to social liberalism or classical liberalism, although all liberal parties and individuals share basic similarities, including the support for civil rights and democratic institutions. On a global level, liberals are united in the Liberal International, which contains over 100 influential liberal parties and organisations from across the ideological spectrum.
Some parties in the LI are among the most famous in the world, such as the Liberal Party of Canada, while others are among the smallest, such as the Gibraltar Liberal Party. Regionally, liberals are organised through various institutions depending on the prevailing geopolitical context. The European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party, for example, represents the interests of liberals in Europe while the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe is the predominant liberal group in the European Parliament.
In Europe, liberalism has a long tradition dating back to 17th century. Scholars often split those traditions into British and French versions, with the former version of liberalism emphasising the expansion of democratic values and constitutional reform and the latter rejecting authoritarian political and economic structures, as well as being involved with nation-building. The continental French version was deeply divided between moderates and progressives, with the moderates tending to elitism and the progressives supporting the universalisation of fundamental institutions, such as universal suffrage, universal education, and the expansion of property rights. Over time, the moderates displaced the progressives as the main guardians of continental European liberalism. A prominent example of these divisions is the German Free Democratic Party, which was historically divided between national liberal and social liberal factions.
Before World War I, liberal parties dominated the European political scene, but they were gradually displaced by socialists and social democrats in the early 20th century. The fortunes of liberal parties since World War II have been mixed, with some gaining strength while others suffered from continuous declines. The fall of the Soviet Union and the breakup of Yugoslavia at the end of the 20th century, however, allowed the formation of many liberal parties throughout Eastern Europe. These parties developed varying ideological characters. Some, such as the Slovenian Liberal Democrats or the Lithuanian Social Liberals, have been characterised as centre-left. Others, such as the Romanian National Liberal Party, have been classified as centre-right.
In the United Kingdom, the Liberal Party was founded in 1859 and was one of two major parties in British politics for that century, the other being the Conservative Party. William Ewart Gladstone of the Liberals was Prime Minister four times. The party lost its influence in the early 20th century due to the growth of the Labour Party, and in 1988 it joined with the Labour splinter Social Democratic Party to form the Liberal Democrats. Following the general election of 2010, the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government with the Conservatives, resulting in party leader Nick Clegg becoming the Deputy Prime minister and many other members becoming ministers. However, the Liberal Democrats lost 49 of their 56 seats in the 2015 general election, with their review of the result concluding that a number of policy reversals were responsible for their poor electoral performance.
Both in Britain and elsewhere in Western Europe, liberal parties have often cooperated with socialist and social democratic parties, as evidenced by the Purple Coalition in the Netherlands during the late 1990s and into the 21st century. The Purple Coalition, one of the most consequential in Dutch history, brought together the progressive left-liberal D66, the economic liberal and centre-right VVD, and the social democratic Labour Party – an unusual combination that ultimately legalised same-sex marriage, euthanasia, and prostitution while also instituting a non-enforcement policy on marijuana.
In North America, unlike Europe and Latin America, the word liberalism almost exclusively refers to social liberalism. The dominant Canadian party is the Liberal Party and in the United States, the Democratic Party, is usually considered liberal. In Canada, the long-dominant Liberal Party, colloquially known as the Grits, ruled the country for nearly 70 years during the 20th century. The party produced some of the most influential prime ministers in Canadian history, including Pierre Trudeau, Lester B. Pearson and Jean Chrétien, and has been primarily responsible for the development of the Canadian welfare state. The enormous success of the Liberals – virtually unmatched in any other liberal democracy – has prompted many political commentators over time to identify them as the nation's natural governing party.
In the United States, modern liberalism traces its history to the popular presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who initiated the New Deal in response to the Great Depression and won an unprecedented four elections. The New Deal coalition established by Franklin Roosevelt left a decisive legacy and influenced many future American presidents, including John F. Kennedy, a self-described liberal who defined a liberal as "someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions ... someone who cares about the welfare of the people".
In the late 20th century, a conservative backlash against the kind of liberalism championed by Roosevelt and Kennedy developed in the Republican Party. This brand of conservatism primarily reacted against the cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s. It helped launch into power such presidents as Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush. Economic woes in the early 21st century led to a resurgence of social liberalism with the election of Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election, along with countervailing and partly reactive conservative populism and nativism embodied in the Tea Party movement and the election of Donald Trump.
In Latin America, liberal unrest dates back to the 19th century, when liberal groups frequently fought against and violently overthrew conservative regimes in several countries across the region. Liberal revolutions in countries such as Mexico and Ecuador ushered in the modern world for much of Latin America. Latin American liberals generally emphasised free trade, private property, and anti-clericalism. Today, market liberals in Latin America are organised in the Red Liberal de América Latina (RELIAL), a centre-right network that brings together dozens of liberal parties and organisations.
RELIAL features parties as geographically diverse as the Mexican Nueva Alianza and the Cuban Liberal Union, which aims to secure power in Cuba. Some major liberal parties in the region continue, however, to align themselves with social liberal ideas and policies – a notable case being the Colombian Liberal Party, which is a member of the Socialist International. Another famous example is the Paraguayan Authentic Radical Liberal Party, one of the most powerful parties in the country, which has also been classified as centre-left.
In Asia, liberalism is a much younger political current than in Europe or the Americas. Continentally, liberals are organised through the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, which includes powerful parties such the Liberal Party in the Philippines, the Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan, and the Democrat Party in Thailand. Two notable examples of liberal influence can be found in India and Australia, although several Asian nations have rejected important liberal principles.
In Australia, liberalism is primarily championed by the centre-right Liberal Party. The Liberals are a fusion of classical liberal and conservative forces and are affiliated with the centre-right International Democrat Union. In India, the most populous democracy in the world, the Indian National Congress has long dominated political affairs. The INC was founded in the late 19th century by liberal nationalists demanding the creation of a more liberal and autonomous India. Liberalism continued to be the main ideological current of the group through the early years of the 20th century, but socialism gradually overshadowed the thinking of the party in the next few decades.
A famous struggle led by the INC eventually earned India's independence from Britain. In recent times, the party has adopted more of a liberal streak, championing open markets while simultaneously seeking social justice. In its 2009 Manifesto, the INC praised a "secular and liberal" Indian nationalism against the nativist, communal, and conservative ideological tendencies it claims are espoused by the right. In general, the major theme of Asian liberalism in the past few decades has been the rise of democratisation as a method facilitate the rapid economic modernisation of the continent. In nations such as Myanmar, however, liberal democracy has been replaced by military dictatorship.
In Africa, liberalism is comparatively weak. The Wafd Party ("Delegation Party") was a nationalist liberal political party in Egypt. It was said to be Egypt's most popular and influential political party for a period in the 1920s and 30s. Recently, however, liberal parties and institutions have made a major push for political power. On a continental level, liberals are organised in the Africa Liberal Network, which contains influential parties such as the Popular Movement in Morocco, the Democratic Party in Senegal, and the Rally of the Republicans in Côte d'Ivoire.
Among African nations, South Africa stands out for having a notable liberal tradition that other countries on the continent lack. In the middle of the 20th century, the Liberal Party and the Progressive Party were formed to oppose the apartheid policies of the government. The Liberals formed a multiracial party that originally drew considerable support from urban Blacks and college-educated Whites. It also gained supporters from the "westernised sectors of the peasantry", and its public meetings were heavily attended by Blacks. The party had 7,000 members at its height, although its appeal to the White population as a whole was too small to make any meaningful political changes. The Liberals were disbanded in 1968 after the government passed a law that prohibited parties from having multiracial membership. Today, liberalism in South Africa is represented by the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition party to the ruling African National Congress. The Democratic Alliance is the second largest party in the National Assembly and currently leads the provincial government of Western Cape.
The fundamental elements of contemporary society have liberal roots. The early waves of liberalism popularised economic individualism while expanding constitutional government and parliamentary authority. One of the greatest liberal triumphs involved replacing the capricious nature of royalist and absolutist rule with a decision-making process encoded in written law. Liberals sought and established a constitutional order that prized important individual freedoms, such as the freedom of speech and of association, an independent judiciary and public trial by jury, and the abolition of aristocratic privileges.
These sweeping changes in political authority marked the modern transition from absolutism to constitutional rule. The expansion and promotion of free markets was another major liberal achievement. Before they could establish markets, however, liberals had to destroy the old economic structures of the world. In that vein, liberals ended mercantilist policies, royal monopolies, and various other restraints on economic activities. They also sought to abolish internal barriers to trade – eliminating guilds, local tariffs, the Commons and prohibitions on the sale of land along the way.
Later waves of modern liberal thought and struggle were strongly influenced by the need to expand civil rights. In the 1960s and 1970s, the cause of Second Wave feminism in the United States was advanced in large part by liberal feminist organisations such as the National Organization for Women. In addition to supporting gender equality, liberals also have advocated for racial equality in their drive to promote civil rights, and a global civil rights movement in the 20th century achieved several objectives towards both goals. Among the various regional and national movements, the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1960s strongly highlighted the liberal efforts for equal rights. Describing the political efforts of the period, some historians have asserted, "the voting rights campaign marked ... the convergence of two political forces at their zenith: the black campaign for equality and the movement for liberal reform," further remarking about how "the struggle to assure blacks the ballot coincided with the liberal call for expanded federal action to protect the rights of all citizens". The Great Society project launched by President Lyndon B. Johnson oversaw the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, the establishment of Head Start and the Job Corps as part of the War on Poverty, and the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 – an altogether rapid series of events that some historians have dubbed the Liberal Hour.
Another major liberal accomplishment includes the rise of liberal internationalism, which has been credited with the establishment of global organisations such as the League of Nations and, after World War II, the United Nations. The idea of exporting liberalism worldwide and constructing a harmonious and liberal internationalist order has dominated the thinking of liberals since the 18th century. "Wherever liberalism has flourished domestically, it has been accompanied by visions of liberal internationalism," one historian wrote. But resistance to liberal internationalism was deep and bitter, with critics arguing that growing global interdependency would result in the loss of national sovereignty and that democracies represented a corrupt order incapable of either domestic or global governance.
Other scholars have praised the influence of liberal internationalism, claiming that the rise of globalisation "constitutes a triumph of the liberal vision that first appeared in the eighteenth century" while also writing that liberalism is "the only comprehensive and hopeful vision of world affairs". The gains of liberalism have been significant. In 1975, roughly 40 countries around the world were characterised as liberal democracies, but that number had increased to more than 80 as of 2008. Most of the world's richest and most powerful nations are liberal democracies with extensive social welfare programmes.