Home » Subject » Political Science » Notes » Political Ideologies: Feminism

Political Ideologies: Liberalism

A political ideology is a comprehensible set of visions on politics and the role of the government. Steadiness over a wide range of issues is the mark of a political ideology. It was a product of insight by human thinking. It held that the progress of human beings was inevitable. It is believed that all human beings should be viewed to be equal before the law and no one was above the law (Vincent Geoghegan, Rick Wilford, 2014). Furthermore, it supposed that every person was born free and is good in some aspect let alone owning the chance to improve in skills and general thinking. Liberalization expected that all governments were representative of its citizens and not part of the citizens. According to Hansen, Curt & Curtis (2008), this could only be achieved through the freedoms of speech, press, assembly and protection from arbitrary arrest.


Liberalism is one of the major political traditions of the Western world and the prevailing political ideology in the United States. Whereas classical liberalism emphasises the role of liberty and social liberalism focuses the importance of equality. Liberals adopt numerous views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally they support ideas and programmes such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free markets, civil rights, democratic societies, secular governments, and international cooperation. Liberalism is a political ideology depicted as the philosophy of the industrialized West (Vincent Geoghegan, Rick Wilford, 2014). Although liberals of all time never waver in their faith in protecting the "liberty" of individuals, the meaning of the word keeps changing over time.

Concept of liberalism:

Liberalism is a group of political, social and economic theories that centres on the values of individual liberty, equality, economic freedom, limited and democratic government and the rule of law.

Liberalism, from the Latin liberalis, is a broad political ideology or worldview originated from the ideas of liberty and equality. According to theorists, Liberalism is a political ideology whose main concern is to protect and enhance the liberty of individuals. As a political principle, liberalism did not emerge until the early nineteenth century. However, liberal thoughts and values had been developed through enormous social changes from the sixteenth century, and can even be traced back to as early as ancient Greece and Rome, although there are some distinctions in the main elements (Vincent Geoghegan, Rick Wilford, 2014).

Other theorists elaborated that liberty is a political concept that refers to freedom from undue or oppressive restraints on a person's actions, thoughts or beliefs imposed by the state. Some important liberties in modern liberal states include freedom of speech, press, religion and association. Liberty is constrained by the harm principle, which states that you have liberty as long as you do not harm others. Liberalism holds that all individuals should have equal treatment before the law irrespective of social status, race or sex.

Economic freedom is also closely related with liberalism and involves support for free markets and private property rights.

There are several common fundamentals shared by all variants of liberalism. According to John Gray, they can be categorized in four points. Firstly, individualism; It reproduces the belief that human beings are primary individuals, rather than subjected to any collectively. Therefore, liberals aim to build a society in which individuals are provided the freedom to pursue his or her own good or happiness. Secondly, democratic or equality; Liberals believe that all individuals are born equal, in terms of two equal rights, namely "legal equality" and "political equality" (Heywood). However, as people have different aptitudes or abilities, liberals are enthusiastic to provide equal chances for everyone to realize their uneven potential. Thirdly, universalism; they uphold that the human process a cohesive morality. It should be taken in account ahead of the difference of their cultural. Fourthly, meliorism; by meliorism, liberalism infers a belief in the reason of human beings.

Through reasoning, individuals can make intelligent judgments and resolve disagreements by the means of debate and discussion. In this way, the society, which is the collection of individuals and its construction are generally developing. On this principle, liberals believe that people should be offered enough broadmindedness in order to follow their own interests. It is under this situation that the balance and progress of a society can be realised (Vincent Geoghegan, Rick Wilford, 2014). Nonetheless, liberalism has several different sources. "It owes something to Stoicism and to Christianity, it has been stimulated by scepticism and by a fideistic certainty of divine revelation and it has exalted the power of reason". Apart from its multiple sources, liberalism is also sensitive to the variation of time and conditions. French liberalism and English liberalism have many noteworthy differences. Classical liberalism and modern liberalism are notably different in many ways. Due to these reasons, liberalism is visualized as a meta-ideology, which consists of rival beliefs and values.

A limited and democratic government is also important to liberalism. A limited government is one controlled by the law. For example, the powers of the United States government are limited to the powers enumerated in the U.S. Constitution. A democratic government exists where government is controlled either directly by peoples or through representatives elected by citizens.

Liberalism also holds a promise to the rule of law, which is vital for a democratic and limited government. The rule of law is a proposition that law should not be random and must be applied honestly to all.

Liberalism first became an influential force during the Enlightenment, when it became popular among theorists and economists in the Western world. Liberalism forbidden the notions, common at the time, of hereditary privilege, state religion, absolute monarchy, and the Divine Right of Kings. The early liberal philosopher John Locke, who is often accredited with the establishment of liberalism as a distinct philosophical tradition, employed the concept of natural rights and the social contract to debate that the rule of law should replace both tradition and absolutism in government. He opined that rulers were subject to the consent of the governed and that private individuals had a fundamental right to life, liberty, and property (Vincent Geoghegan, Rick Wilford, 2014).

Historical facts about liberalism:

Liberalism first emerged as a different political movement during the Age of Enlightenment. This became widespread among philosophers and economists in the West. Liberalism rejected the prevailing social and political customs of hereditary privilege, state religion, absolute monarchy, and the Divine Right of Kings. Liberalism can be traced back to John Locke. Locke was a 17th century English philosopher and political theorist. The 17th-century philosopher, Locke's the Two Dissertations of Government is considered to be the first exposition of liberalism. Locke argues that legitimate political authority only comes from the consent of the governed. The purpose of the government, according to Locke, is to protect citizens' lives, liberty and property. Locke also sustained limited government and the idea of a separate executive branch, legislation and the rule of law.

Eminent radicals in the Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution, and the French Revolution adopted liberal philosophy to validate the armed overthrow of what they saw as oppressive rule. Liberalism started to spread speedily especially after the French Revolution. In the 19th century, liberal governments was established in nations across Europe, South America, and North America. In this period, the leading ideological opponent of classical liberalism was conservatism, but liberalism later survived major philosophical challenges from new rivals, such as fascism and communism. During the 20th century, liberal ideas spread even further as liberal democracies found themselves victorious in both world wars. In Europe and North America, the formation of social liberalism became a major component in the development of the welfare state. Presently, liberal parties continue to exercise power and influence all over the world.

Liberalism's dedication to free markets and capitalism can be found to Adam Smith, an 18th century Scottish moral philosopher who is most renowned for his work, The Wealth of Nations. Smith debated that effective way for a society to generate wealth and prosperity is through division of labour and decentralized decision-makers acting in their own interest. In other words, competitive free markets are feasible way to generate wealth for all.

It is documented in vat literature that Liberalism is a political ideology whose main topic is a commitment to the individual and to the building of the society in which individuals can satisfy their interests or achieve fulfilment. The main values of liberalism are individualism, rationalism, freedom, justice and toleration. The liberal conviction that human beings are, first and foremost, individuals, endowed with reason, suggests that each individual should enjoy the maximum possible freedom consistent with a like freedom for all. However, although individuals are born equal in the sense that they have equal moral worth and should have formal equality and equal opportunities, liberals mainly focus that they should be satisfied according to their differing levels of talent or readiness to work and therefore favour the principle of meritocracy. A liberal society is characterised by diversity and pluralism and is organised politically around the undistinguishable values of consent and constitutionalism, joined to form the structures of liberal egalitarianism.

Liberalism and Revolution:

The revolutionaries in the America and France used liberal philosophy to defend the armed overthrow tyrannical rule. In the nineteenth century, governments were established around liberalist political ideology in nations across Europe, Latin America, and North America. Liberalist ideas expanded in the twentieth century. Liberalism has certainly been the most powerful philosophical force shaping the Western political tradition. Definitely, some intellectuals represent liberalism as the thought of the industrialised West, and identify it with Western civilisation in general. Liberalism was the product of the failure of feudalism and the growth, in its place, of a market or capitalist society. Early liberalism certainly reflected the ambitions of a rising industrial middle class, and liberalism and capitalism have been closely linked ever since. In its earliest form, liberalism was a political principle. It criticised absolutism and feudal privilege, instead supporting constitutional and, later, representative government. In the nineteenth century, classical liberalism, in the form of economic liberalism, praised the virtues of laissez-faire capitalism and condemned all forms of government interference. From the late nineteenth century onwards, however, a form of social liberalism developed, characteristic of modern liberalism, which looked more favourably upon welfare reform and economic intervention. Theorists such as Francis Fukuyama (1992) debated that the twentieth century had concluded with the final, worldwide triumph of liberalism. This supposedly reflected the collapse of all viable alternatives to market capitalism as the basis of economic organisation and to liberal democracy as the basis of political organisation.

Classical vs. Modern Liberalism:
There are significant differences between classical liberalism and modern liberalism.

Classical liberalism:

The political basics of classical liberalism entrenched in a series of social changes from the sixteenth century. The late Medieval visualized the dissolve of feudalism and the upswing of absolutism. Meanwhile, the power of papacy was declining and religious reformation was seen in European countries. Rulers had to implement the conformity either to Roman Catholicism or Protestantism. This process generated conflicts within and among the states. One example was the Thirty Years' War from 1618 to 1648, which brought Europe to an enormous destruction. In the next century, as industrialization gained speed, a new social class, specifically the middle class emerged. They desired for more political participation and economic freedom. These factors triggered the revolutions in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the most prominent of which were the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688, the American Revolution from 1775-83, and the 1789's French Revolution. In this situation, liberalism progressively emerged as a political principle (Ian Adams, 2001).

Classical liberalism is a conviction in a 'minimal' state, whose function is limited to the maintenance of domestic order and personal security. Classical liberals stress that human beings are essentially self-interested and largely self-sufficient; as far as possible, people should be responsible for their own lives and circumstances. As an economic principle, classical liberalism admires the merits of a self-regulating market in which government intervention is seen as both unnecessary and damaging. Classical liberal ideas are expressed in certain natural rights theories and utilitarianism, and provide the bases of libertarianism (Ian Adams, 2001).

In the principles of English liberals John Locke, French political philosopher Montesquieu, and earlier the individualism of Thomas Hobbes and early liberals aimed at restricting the power of the government over individuals (Ian Adams, 2001). Famous political activist and pamphleteer Thomas Paine stated that the government is a "necessary evil" (Heywood, 2007). Contrasting feudal privilege and absolutism, liberals highlight the importance of constitution and a representative government. The structure of a minimum government was supplemented by Montesquieu. He designed a mechanism of check-and-balance by supporting the separation of three power of the government: legislative, executive and judiciary (Gingell, Little and Winch). Classical liberals, such as Locke also proclaimed that private poverty is the foundation of liberty of individuals (Ian Adams, 2001).

In basic form, classical liberalism is a political ideology belonging to liberalism in which primary emphasis is placed on securing the freedom of the individual by limiting the power of the government. The philosophy emerged as a response to the Industrial Revolution and urbanization in the 19th century in Europe and the United States. It advocates civil liberties with a limited government under the rule of law, private property, and belief in laissez-faire economic policy.

Another crucial element of classical liberalism is economic liberalism. This principle was mostly provided by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. It was elaborated by philosophers that classical liberals advocate Laissez-faire, believing in the self-regulating of the market and the minimum of government intervention, which guarantees liberty of individuals and the prosperity of the market.

The philosophical reason of classical liberalism is supplemented by utilitarianism. It was suggested by Jeremy Bentham, James Mill and J.S. Mill. They believe that the goal of a society is to obtain "the greatest happiness of the greatest number". In achieving this goal, a representative government which upholds liberty is necessary (Gingell, Little and Winch). Classical liberalism had a thoughtful impact on the politic throughout the centuries. It stimulated the creation of unified, independent, constitutional states which based on representative principles and the rule of law. In After the Glorious Revolution, under influence of the Whigs, who was the predecessor of today's Liberal Party, precepts of classical liberalism had long governed England. In France, liberal goals were achieved in 1871 by the Third Republic. Another significant achievement was the found of the United States in 1776. In the economic realm, numerous feudal restrictions on manufacturing and internal commerce were eliminated. Meanwhile, tariffs and restrictions on imports intended to protect domestic manufactures were put into end.

In brief, liberal thinking is normally linked with the idea of cooperation within as well as across the nation�s boundaries. Classical liberalism is a basic root of approaching to modern constitutional liberal state.

Modern Liberalism:

In the late nineteenth century, problems had gradually visible in the free market economy in England and North America. Profits of the prosperous industry were in the hand of giant companies, while the mass benefited very little. Subsequently, the gap between the rich and the poor was significantly bloated. Moreover, as the poor people was not able to consume, there were a large surplus of supply, which led to depressions. Meanwhile, as the rich gained more power, they were able to influence politic and limit competition. In this circumstance, liberals of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth (T.H. Green and L.T Hobhouse) planned for reforms. Their ideas were strongly influenced by J.S Mill, who was generally recognized as the watershed philosopher in liberalism.

Major attributes of modern liberalism:

  • Equality of opportunity
  • Positive freedom
  • Enabling state
  • Developmental individualism
  • Qualified welfare
  • Generally, modern liberals state that freedom does not equal to being left alone. It is left alone, human beings are weaker instead of stronger. There will be poverty, hunger, illness and helpless and that less liberty to realize themselves. Hence, Social welfare in particular is to be provided by the government.

    In the meantime, the laissez-faire capitalism was rejected by new liberals. Ideas of classical liberals were proved faulty in the industrialization and were further challenged by the two world wars and the Great Depression in the 1930s. In The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, UK economist J.M. Keynes debated that it was laissez-faire policies that resulted in huge joblessness and economic uncertainty, thus the government should manage the "aggregate demand" in the economy through tax and spending policies. From 1950 onwards, government intervention had extended into various areas of life. Social welfare starting from free public education and workers' accident insurance were established.

    Modern liberalism reached its top in the post war period, when everything, from industries to the self-respect of individuals, was to be rebuilt. Welfare programs were further expanded throughout western world, including social insurance, pensions, family allowances, medical care, and government-funded higher education. In economic sector, "visible hand" of the government had attained remarkable results. For example, President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal (1933-1939) successfully lifted American out of the Great Depression.

    It is established in studies that modern liberalism displays a more sympathetic attitude towards the state, born out of the belief that unregulated capitalism merely produces new forms of injustice. State intervention can enlarge liberty by safeguarding individuals from the social problems that afflict their existence. Whereas classical liberals understand freedom in 'negative' terms, as the absence of constraints upon the individual, modern liberals link freedom to personal development and self-realisation. This creates clear overlaps between modern liberalism and social egalitarianism.


    Neoliberalism is a repossess of the political economy in classical liberalism. The philosophies were developed by twenty century's economists, such as Friedrich Hayek and philosophers such as Robert Nozick. They dealt the problem of the decelerating economic growth which starting from the mid-1970s in the western world. Neoliberals hold that interference, whether with a good intention or not, would have negative effects. The best solution should still be found in "self-help, individual responsibility and entrepreneurialism". Margaret Thatcher's policies were effective. She also asserted that "there is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families". Neoliberalism�, especially focus mainly after the Second World War. It is categorized into four main strands of thinking: sociological liberalism, interdependence liberalism, institutional liberalism, and republican liberalism (Georg Sorensen, and Robert Jackso, 2010).

    Major elements of neo-liberalism are as under:
    The rule of the market: Liberating "free" enterprise or private enterprise from any bonds imposed by the government (the state) no matter how much social damage this causes. Reduce wages by de-unionizing workers and eliminating workers' rights that had been won over many years of struggle. No more price controls. All in all, total freedom of movement for capital, goods and services.

    Cutting public expenditure for social services: These can be cutting in education and health care. Reducing the safety-net for the poor, and even maintenance of roads, bridges, water supply in the name of reducing government's role. Of course, they do not oppose government subsidies and tax benefits for business.

    Deregulation: It is to reduce government regulation of everything that could diminish profits, including protecting the environment and safety on the job.

    Privatization: It is a process of selling state-owned enterprises, goods and services to private investors. This includes banks, key industries, railroads, toll highways, electricity, schools, hospitals and even fresh water. Although it is usually done in the name of greater efficiency, which is often needed, privatization has mainly the effect of concentrating wealth even more in a few hands and making the public pay even more for its needs.

    It is observed that neo-liberalism has been imposed by powerful financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.

    Comparison of classical and modern liberalism:

    The dissimilarities between classical and modern liberalism is deep-seated in their different understanding of liberty. English philosopher Isaiah Berlin made a substantial distinction between two concepts of liberty, which he called "negative liberty" and "positive liberty". By being free in a negative sense, Berlin meant "not being interfered with by others". While in the second case, freedom means the capability of the individual "to be his own master�. Classical liberals focus on the maximizing of negative liberty, while by contrast, modern liberals maintain that the government should help individuals to realize their positive freedom.

    Minimum state vs social welfare: By supporting a minimal state, classical liberals focus on the maximizing of negative liberty. In a minimal state, only three core functions are left in hand of the government. Firstly, maintaining domestic order with organizations such as police force. Secondly, it should enforce contracts or agreements between citizens, which means the function of judiciary. Thirdly, the state should shield the people from external threat, thus a military is needed.

    On the contrary, modern liberals hold that the government should assist individuals to realize their positive freedom. Therefore, social welfare programs are strongly upheld. However, there was still a boundary. According to T.H Green, social welfare should help those who cannot help themselves. Modern liberalism however, addressed mainly the problem developing in industrialization. It had been observed that even if free from all external restrictions, sometimes people are still susceptible and incapable to realize themselves. In addition, with the development of representative democracy, government itself had gained more trust that it can represent the will of the individuals.

    Both modern American conservatism and social liberalism split from Classical Liberalism in the beginning of 20th century. At that time, conservatives espoused the Classic Liberal beliefs in shielding economic civil liberties. On the other hand, social liberals adopted the Classical Liberal belief in defending social civil liberties. Neither ideology implemented the pure Classical Liberal belief that government exists to protect both social and economic civil liberties. Conservatism shares an ideological agreement on limited government in the area of preventing government restriction against economic civil liberties as embodied in the ability of people to sell their goods, services or labour to anyone they select free from restriction except in rare cases where society's general welfare is at stake.

    While many modern researchers argue that there is no meaningful distinction between classical and modern liberalism exists. According to William J. Novak, liberalism in the United States shifted in the late 19th and early 20th century from classical liberalism (endorsing laissez-faire economics and constitutionalism) to "democratic social-welfarism" (endorsing such government involvement as seen in the New Deal). This change included qualified acceptance of government involvement in the economy and the collective right to equality in economic dealings. These theories came to be termed "liberal socialism", which is related with social democracy in Europe. In several studies, it is indicated that, "In the United States, liberalism is related with the welfare-state policies of the New Deal program 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. " Subsequently in the U.S., the ideas of individualism and laissez-faire economics previously linked with classical liberalism, became the basis for the evolving school of right wing libertarian thought.

    Liberalism and Socialism:

    There is some confusion about the relationship between social liberalism and socialism, despite the fact that many variants of socialism distinguish themselves obviously from liberalism by opposing capitalism, hierarchy and private property. Socialism shaped as a group of related yet divergent ideologies in the 19th century such as Christian socialism, Communism and Social Anarchism. These ideologies as with liberalism split into several major and minor movements in the following decades. Marx rejected the initial aspects of liberal theory, hoping to destroy both the state and the liberal distinction between society and the individual while combining the two into a collective whole designed to overthrow the developing capitalist order of the 19th century.

    Social democracy, a philosophy supporting progressive restructuring of capitalism, arose in the 20th century and was impacted by socialism. Yet dissimilar socialism, it was not collectivist nor anti-capitalist. It was not against the state; rather it was generally defined as a project that aims to correct, through government reformism. It regards as the intrinsic defects of capitalism by reducing inequalities. Several critics have noted strong similarities between social liberalism and social democracy, with one political scientist even calling American liberalism "illegal social democracy".

    American Tradition and Liberal Heritage:

    Many central elements of modern society have embedded in liberal doctrine. The early waves of liberalism promoted economic individualism while intensifying constitutional government and parliamentary authority. One of the greatest liberal achievements involved changing the unpredictable nature of royalist and absolutist rule with a decision-making process encoded in written law. Liberals sought and established a constitutional order that valued important individual freedoms, such as the freedoms of speech and association, an independent judiciary and public trial by jury, and the abolition of aristocratic privileges. These comprehensive changes in political authority marked the modern transition from absolutism to constitutional rule.

    The magnetism of liberalism is its relentless commitment to individual freedom, reasoned debate and the balance within diversity. Indeed, it has to portray liberalism not simply as an creed but as a 'meta-ideology', that is, as a body of rules that lays down the grounds upon which political and ideological debate can take place. This echoes the conviction that liberalism gives priority to 'the right' over 'the good'. It can be said that liberalism strives to establish the conditions in which people and groups can chase the good life as each defines it, but it does not prescribe or try to promote any particular notion of good.


    Liberal political theory is well-known for its importance on rights, freedoms, and limited government; but opponents of liberalism argued that the liberal legacy in free societies is one of imprudent dynamisms and broken promises.

    Disapprovals of liberalism arose from many theorists. The main challenger of liberalism is realism. Liberals see history as at least potentially progressive while realists reject this view and state that there is non-progressive in history. Marxists have debated that, in defending capitalism, liberalism attempts to legitimise imbalanced class power and so constitutes a form of middleclass ideology. Radical feminists point to the linkage between liberalism and patriarchy, which is rooted in the tendency to interpret the individual on the basis of an essentially male model of self-sufficiency, thereby encouraging women to be 'like men'. Communitarians criticized liberalism for failing to provide a moral basis for social order and collective endeavour and debated that the liberal society is a method for uncontrolled egoism and greed, and so is eventually self-defeating.

    Later waves of liberal thought were greatly influenced by the need to magnify civil rights. In the 1960s and 1970s, feminism in the United States was progressive in large part by liberal feminist organizations. Many liberals also have encouraged for racial equality, and the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1960s strongly highlighted the liberal crusade for equal rights.

    To summarize, liberalism is a political beliefs and equality. Liberals adopt range of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally they support ideas and programmes such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free markets, civil rights, democratic societies, secular governments, and international cooperation. It developed in the seventeenth century and transformation starting in the late nineteenth century, and until the renewal of its original ideas in the recent decades. Liberalism constantly adjust itself according to time and circumstances. There are two categories of liberalism namely classical and modern. Classical liberalism emphasises the role of liberty, social liberalism stresses the importance of equality. Classical and modern liberalism explained "liberty" from different perspectives. Compared with classical liberals, modern liberals have more assurance in the government and that support more intervention in social and economic matters. Nonetheless, the belief in the supreme value of individuals and the reason of human beings, the respect for equality and universality of morality remain unaffected. In modern society, although it has been broadly accepted that government should protect the positive liberty of individuals. It is documented in several research studies that liberalism first became a distinct political movement during the Age of Enlightenment, when it became popular among philosophers and economists in the Western world. Liberalism rebuffed the predominant social and political norms of hereditary privilege, state religion, absolute monarchy, and the Divine Right of Kings.

    The 17th-century philosopher John Locke is often accredited with creation liberalism as a distinct philosophical tradition. Locke debated that each man has a natural right to life, liberty and property. While adding that governments must not violate these rights based on the social contract. Liberals opposed traditional conservatism and sought to replace absolutism in government with representative democracy and the rule of law. Prominent revolutionaries in the Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution, and the French Revolution used liberal viewpoint to validate the armed overthrow of what they saw as tyrannical rule. Liberalism started to spread speedily especially after the French Revolution. The 19th century saw liberal governments established in nations across Europe, South America, and North America. In this period, the dominant ideological adversary of classical liberalism was conservatism, but liberalism later survived major philosophical challenges from new opponents, such as fascism and communism.

    During the 20th century, liberal ideas expanded further as liberal democracies found themselves on the winning side in both world wars. In Europe and North America, the establishment of social liberalism became major component in the expansion of the welfare state. Presently, liberal parties continue to exert power and influence all over the world.