Liberalism is a political and moral philosophy that arose in the Age of Enlightenment. The English philosopher John Locke is often credited with founding liberalism.
Liberals, as the name would suggest, believe in liberty. They have usually maintained that humans are naturally in a state of perfect freedom (Locke, 1960/1689, p. 287). According to J. S. Mill, another important liberal theorist, the burden of proof is always on those who want to introduce some restriction (Mill, 1963, p. 262).
Liberalism, therefore, is a political and moral philosophy that starts with the premise that any restriction on the natural liberty of individuals must be justified.
There are many other characteristics of liberalism, and not all liberals believe in the same things, but all liberal theories take the liberty to be the primary political value.
Modern private property rights emerged in 17th Century England when John Locke proposed the labor theory of property and argued that property was one of eight natural rights.
Prior to Locke and his contemporaries, most land was held in a feudal or manorial system. In this system, land was distributed by the King or Queen to noblemen and knights who swore fealty to the crown in exchange.
With the rise of the labor theory of property, land rights were proposed to advocate for individuals’ rights to own the land on which they work.
Rights to property were slowly passed down to men and, eventually, all adults. Today, private property ownership is an underlying right in all liberal societies.
The term democracy refers to a method of collective decision-making that is equal among the participants. In politics, it is common to see states that have a representative democracy. This usually means that the people choose who governs them.
Liberal states are usually democratic. Liberal democracies are characterized by elections between multiple political parties, a separation of powers, the rule of law, a market economy, and the just protection of human rights.
Liberal democracies originated in 18th-century Europe, also known as the Age of Enlightenment.
A free market is an economic system that is often associated with liberalism. The prices of goods and services in a free market system are determined by supply and demand.
These markets ideally operate without the involvement of any external authority.
Advocates of a free market system often contrast it with a regulated one in which a government intervenes in the economy using taxes or regulations. In a perfectly free market, by contrast, prices are set by the bids and offers of the sellers and buyers.
Free market advocacy is often characteristic of liberal theory, but it is not essential to it. Many liberals support government intervention in the economy, while there are also several competing schools of liberal economics. Perhaps the most prominent of these is neoliberalism.
Capitalism is an economic system based on private ownership of the means of production. Definitions of capitalism can vary, but capitalist systems are generally characterized by capital accumulation, meritocracy, competitive markets, the existence of private property, voluntary exchange, and wage labor (Heilbroner, 2017).
Capitalism existed before the Age of Enlightenment. The roots of modern capitalism can be traced to the city-states of the early Renaissance. More generally, capital has existed on a small scale for centuries.
Not all liberals believe that capitalism is the best economic system. Rawls, for example, preferred a market socialist regime (Rawls, 2001, pp. 135-138). Most liberals, however, have historically supported some form of capitalism.
Liberals generally advocate for a government that is limited in power. The doctrine of the separation of powers into different branches is itself a way to limit the power of the government.
In the US, for example, governmental power is split into the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches.
John Locke supported several limitations on government power. According to Locke, governments could justly govern only following the rule of law and the equal protection of all citizens under the law.
He also claimed that all laws must be designed in the name of the common good (Locke, 1960/1689). These and many other limitations of government power are characteristic of virtually all liberal theories.
In everyday political discourse, terms like free speech, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression are often used interchangeably. There are, however, different interpretations of these.
Some believe in absolute free speech, but every existing society places some limits on the exercise of speech. Limitations to free speech often include libel, slander, obscenity, incitement, hate speech, copyright violation, non-disclosure agreements, and so on.
Liberal theorists often justify these exceptions by reference to the harm principle proposed by John Stuart Mill. It states that power may be exercised over a member of a civilized community to prevent harm to others (Mill, 1978, p. 9). This is based on the liberal ideal of negative rights, meaning we have rights to not be interfered with.
Freedom of religion is a principle that supports the freedom to establish or believe in any religion.
This often includes the freedom to change one’s religious beliefs and the right not to subscribe to any particular religion.
It is considered by most liberal nations to be a fundamental human right. It is one of the subjects of the first amendment of the constitution of the United States (U.S. Const. amend. I).
The separation of church and state defines the political distance between religious organizations and the government.
It is characteristic of liberal states to be secular and not let religion interfere in large-scale politics.
The separation of church and state was supported by Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke.
Nevertheless, there is debate even within liberal philosophy over whether this is about states not imposing upon religions; or religions imposing on the state. In other words, a question remains over whether religious people should be able to vote for religious laws democratically.
Freedom of the press is a fundamental right in liberal states. It states that communication and expression through various media should be free.
According to most liberal theorists, the state should not decide what the press can and cannot publish, say, or write.
The concept of free speech is often the subject of the same laws as freedom of the press. Spoken and published expressions are, therefore, treated as equal in the majority of liberal states.
Civil rights are guarantees of equal social opportunities and equal protection under the law, regardless of personal characteristics like race or religion.
The right to vote, the right to a fair trial, the right to public education, and so on are all examples of civil rights (Hamlin, 2022).
The civil rights movement in the United States had a strong undercurrent of liberalism. This is perhaps best exemplified in Martin Luthur King’s famous quote “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”.
Gender equality is the state of equal access to resources and opportunities regardless of gender.
When liberalism was founded, it was an era in Europe where women’s rights were heavily restricted. Nevertheless, the fundamental concepts equality and individualism set the groundwork for subsequent generations of liberals to advocate for a philosophy of gender equality.
Gender equality is becoming more and more of a concern to liberal theorists. We now have a significant school of thought known as liberal feminism which applies liberal philosophy to gender and women’s issues.
Generally speaking, smaller groups within larger liberal societies can maintain their unique cultural identities.
It is characteristic of liberal states not to prosecute anyone for their cultural identity. This is what cultural pluralism means. Within sociology, it is not only seen as a description but also a goal of many liberal movements (Hazard & Stent, 1973, p. 13).
Liberals believe that laws must be followed and that people who contravene laws should face a fair trial to defend themselves. Thus, while they believe in a limited government, they respect the right for governments to exist.
The term rule of law is related to constitutionalism, liberalism, and the Rechtsstaat (lit. “state of law”).
It refers to a political situation where all citizens and institutions within a country, state, or community are accountable to the same laws, including the lawmakers and leaders themselves (Ten, 2017).
A fair trial is conducted fairly, justly, and with procedural regularity by an impartial judge.
This is one of the most extensive human rights, and virtually all human rights documents dedicate one or more articles to fair trial rights.
The right to a fair trial is part of any liberal state. This is often extended to the right to representation so that even people who appear obviously guilty are provided a lawyer by the state who will do their best to argue the case for the defendant.
Equality before the law is the principle that all people, regardless of personal factors, must be equally protected by the law.
According to most definitions of liberalism, equality before the law is one of its most basic principles (Evans, 2001, p. 55).
This means that minorities, in particular, have the same rights as any other person in a courtroom. The court should not be biased against people based on their status, and they should not preference anyone based on their wealth or social standing.
We can see this perspective in a lot of civil rights literature, such as the text To Kill a Mockingbird, which explores discrimination against people of color in the US legal system. This book examines the hard-fought push for the United States to realize its constitutional goal of equality and freedom for all.
Read Related: Liberalism vs Libertarianism
Liberalism is a political and moral philosophy that arose in the Age of Enlightenment. It is based on the principle that liberty is the central political value. All restrictions on liberty, according to all liberals, require justification. Definitions of liberalism vary, but the examples discussed above are some of the most common characteristics of liberal states.
Evans, M. (2001). Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Liberalism: Evidence and Experience. Routledge.
Hamlin, R. (2022, August 17). civil rights. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/civil-rights
Hazard, W. R. & Stent, M. (1973). Cultural Pluralism and Schooling: Some Preliminary Observations. In Cultural Pluralism in Education: A Mandate for Change. Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Heilbroner, R. L. (2017). Capitalism. In The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics (pp. 1–12). Palgrave Macmillan UK. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-349-95121-5_154-2
Locke, J. (1960). The Second Treatise of Government. In Two Treatises of Government. Cambridge University Press. pp. 283-446. (Original work published 1689)
Mill, J. S. (1963). Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. University of Toronto Press.
Mill, J. S. (1978). On Liberty. Hackett Publishing.
Rawls, J. (2001). Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Columbia University Press.
Ten, C. l. (2017). Constitutionalism and the Rule of Law. In A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy (pp. 493–502). John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781405177245.ch22
U.S. Const. amend. I