liberalism, philosophy or movement that has as its aim the development of individual freedom. Because the concepts of liberty or freedom change in different historical periods the specific programs of liberalism also change. The final aim of liberalism, however, remains fixed, as does its characteristic belief not only in essential human goodness but also in human rationality. Liberalism assumes that people, having a rational intellect, have the ability to recognize problems and solve them and thus can achieve systematic improvement in the human condition. Often opposed to liberalism is the doctrine of conservatism, which, simply stated, supports the maintenance of the status quo. Liberalism, which seeks what it considers to be improvement or progress, necessarily desires to change the existing order.
Neither individualism nor the belief that freedom is a primary political good are immutable laws of history. Only in the Western world in the last several centuries have they assumed such importance as social factors that they could be blended into a political creed. Although Christianity had long taught the worth of the individual soul and the Renaissance had placed a value upon individualism in limited circles, it was not until the Reformation that the importance of independent individual thought and action were expressed in the teachings of Protestantism. At the same time, centralizing monarchs were destroying feudalism and alongside the nobility arose the bourgeoisie, a new social class that demanded the right to function in society, especially commercially, without restriction. This process took several centuries, and it may be said that the first philosopher to offer a complete liberal doctrine of individual freedom was the Englishman John Locke (1689). From this period on the doctrines of classical liberalism were evolved.
Classical liberalism stressed not only human rationality but the importance of individual property rights, natural rights, the need for constitutional limitations on government, and, especially, freedom of the individual from any kind of external restraint. Classical liberalism drew upon the ideals of the Enlightenment and the doctrines of liberty supported in the American and French revolutions. The Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, was characterized by a belief in the perfection of the natural order and a belief that natural laws should govern society. Logically it was reasoned that if the natural order produces perfection, then society should operate freely without interference from government. The writings of such men as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill mark the height of such thinking.
In Great Britain and the United States the classic liberal program, including the principles of representative government, the protection of civil liberties, and laissez-faire economics, had been more or less effected by the mid-19th cent. The growth of industrial society, however, soon produced great inequalities in wealth and power, which led many persons, especially workers, to question the liberal creed. It was in reaction to the failure of liberalism to provide a good life for everyone that workers' movements and Marxism arose. Because liberalism is concerned with liberating the individual, however, its doctrines changed with the change in historical realities.
Liberalism in the Twentieth Century
By 1900, L. T. Hobhouse and T. H. Green began to look to the state to prevent oppression and to advance the welfare of all individuals. Liberal thought was soon stating that the government should be responsible for providing the minimum conditions necessary for decent individual existence. In the early 20th cent. in Great Britain and France and later in the United States, the welfare state came into existence, and social reform became an accepted governmental role.
In the United States minimum wage laws, progressive taxation, and social security programs were all instituted, many initially by the New Deal, and today remain an integral part of modern democratic government. While such programs are also advocated by socialism, liberalism does not support the socialist goal of complete equality imposed by state control, and because it is still dedicated to the primacy of the individual, liberalism also strongly opposes communism. Current liberal goals in the United States include integration of the races, sexual equality, and the eradication of poverty.
The classic works of liberalism include J. Locke, Second Treatise on Government (1689); J. S. Mill, On Representative Government (1862); L. T. Hobhouse, Liberalism (1911); J. Dewey, Liberalism and Social Action (1935). See also H. K. Girvetz, From Wealth to Welfare (1950); T. P. Neill, The Rise and Decline of Liberalism (1953); G. L. Cheery, Early English Liberalism (1962); K. R. Minogue, The Liberal Mind (1963); A. Arblaster, The Rise and Decline of Western Liberalism (1986); R. Eccleshall, British Liberalism (1986); N. P. Barry, On Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism (1987); E. Alterman, Why We're Liberals (2008); E. Alterman and K. Mattson, The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama (2012); A. Ryan, The Making of Modern Liberalism (2012).