Liberalism - Definition, Origin, Core Principles

By : Neha Dhyani

Updated : Mar 23, 2022, 12:14

Individualism and liberty are the two critical ideas of Liberalism as a political and moral philosophy. If one asks to define liberalism, it is a social, moral, and political philosophy that places the individual at the heart of society. Liberals argue that the most meaningful social order is where the individual is free.

The goal of society is to enable people to attain their maximum potential if they so desire, and education is the most effective means of doing so. It is to allow individuals as much freedom as possible.

Therefore, limiting the powers of the State and free flow of information to aid individuals in making rational choices are integral to liberalism.

Liberalism - Origin and Evolution

  • The fall of feudalism marked the beginning of the era of liberalism. While the feudal period saw a greater control of the Church, the post-feudal era tried to limit the role of the Church and the State.
  • Enlightenment contributed to the emergence of liberalism. Intellectuals were vociferous in their advocacy for the logical rebuilding of society for individuals to enjoy sufficient freedom.
  • The Magna Carta (1215), Glorious Revolution (1688), Declaration of American Independence (1776), French Revolution (1789), and the Declaration of the Rights of the Man (1789) further fueled the growth of liberalism.

Major liberal thinkers are Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Charles de Montesquieu, Thomas Gordon, Voltaire, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, among many others.

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Liberalism Core Principles

  • Individualism is the central concept of liberalism. It holds that individual rights shall take precedence over all other principles and beliefs.
  • Individuals are equal, intelligent, moral, and autonomous, capable of establishing their sense of what is good, according to liberals.
  • According to Immanuel Kant, individuals are “ends in themselves, not merely means to another's will.”
  • Liberalism rejects unfettered and arbitrary power. God's divine might, charisma, or historical needs do not provide authority. The goal of authority is to assist the political entity in achieving its objectives.
  • Liberals care about religious tolerance and freedom of conscience. They are against religious monopolies. The sacred and the secular, according to John Locke, are two distinct realms.
  • Liberalism regards each individual as equal and unique. Therefore, liberalism promotes diversity, tolerance, and multiculturalism.
  • As a product of Enlightenment, liberalism believes in the concept of “the age of reason,” highlighting the liberation of humankind from superstition and ignorance.
  • “Just as the King is Law in absolute governments, the Law should be King in free countries, and there should be no other,” according to Thomas Paine.
  • Liberals see the State as a threat to individual liberty. Hence, they believe in limiting its powers through a constitution, the rule of law, and separation of powers. The government that governs the least is the best.
  • They believe in a free-market economy. Classical liberals even believe in a “laissez-faire” economy.

To sum up, liberalism, they would say that it is a political philosophy built upon the idea of liberty.

All tenants of liberal thought- from individualism, tolerance, social contract, and constitutionalism to democracy, rationality, reason, and free-market- emphasize individual liberty.

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FAQs on Liberalism

Q.1. What are the characteristics of classical Liberalism?

Classical liberals believe in abstract individualism, negative liberty, a limited state, and a laissez-faire economy.

Q.2. What are the main tenants of modern Liberalism?

Modern liberals define Liberalism with characteristics like welfare State, positive liberty, and intervention of the State in the market to promote social welfare.

Q.3. Why do liberals call the State a necessary evil?

Liberals believe that the State can be a threat to individual liberty. However, they also acknowledge the role of the State in preserving the life, liberty, and property of individuals.

Q.4. Do liberals believe in the true essence of Athenian democracy?

No. The objective of Athenian democracy was participation. Participation was bliss in itself. However, liberals believe in a constitutional democracy as they see it as mere means to secure individual liberty.