For anyone who is born and raised in the West, the notions of rights, liberty, and democracy are second nature, they are common sense ideas about the way in which societies should order themselves politically and culturally. Because of this, liberalism can be a tricky idea to communicate, not because of its complexity or it being too vague, but because treating rights, liberty, and democracy as mere ideas can sometimes be difficult. There are also strong arguments against liberalism that are threats to the theory and by understanding them, we can better understand liberalism. 

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Table of contents

    Liberalism – definition

    Liberalism is a political theory that places the individual and individual rights as the highest priority and relies on the consent of the citizenry for the legitimacy of government power and political leadership. The ideas of natural rights, liberty, and property are the bedrock of the theory and the state is used to ensure these rights from being infringed upon by foreign states or fellow citizens. Because of this, liberalism views the state as a 'necessary evil'.

    Liberalism also believes that humans are rational and because of this they should have the right to make their own choices without the government's input. This is at odds with conservative ideas of Paternalism. The idea of equality of opportunity is also important in Liberalism, that is that everyone should have the same opportunity to succeed or fail.

    Liberalism- a political theory which argues for the natural rights of life, liberty, and property and places the legitimacy of political authority on the consent of the citizenry.

    The above definition does a good job of introducing the terminology of liberalism but as with any complex idea, breaking it down into a simple definition is often not possible. This definition leaves several questions to be resolved; what are natural rights? What is the consent of the citizenry? How does liberalism define property? To understand liberalism and what it is trying to achieve it is best to start with its origins.

    It is important to note that liberalism and being a "liberal" according to the modern understanding of the word is not the same thing. A liberal in this article is anyone who supports the core tenets of liberalism as a theory, not somebody who has left-wing political opinions.

    Origin of liberalism

    Liberalism as a political theory has its roots in the Enlightenment, a period that started at the end of the 17th century and came to a close at the beginning of the 19th century. The Enlightenment was the spawning ground for much of the modern world, with everything from capitalism and liberalism to fascism and communism having roots in the ideas that were developed throughout this period of time.

    Thomas Hobbes was the first political theorist of the Enlightenment to offer a story of civilisation that could exclude god from establishing political authority by introducing the concept of a "state of nature".

    Liberalism Thomas Hobbes StudySmarterFig. 1 Portrait of Thomas Hobbes

    By offering a story that stripped away the narrative of God-given rulership to kings, known officially as the "divine right of kings", Hobbes was able to open the door to new ways of theorising about what government and the state should be able to do, and what the role of citizens in society was. Hobbes famously advocates for an extremely authoritarian type of state, but many others disagreed with this sentiment and developed opposing ideas.

    The state of nature is a theorised period of time before society in which human beings lived without any form of structure or law.

    As the Enlightenment moved into the 18th century many thinkers were hard at work building off of each other's ideas and deconstructing notions of, amongst other things, religious authority, Christian morality, and previously held truths, especially those of a scientific nature. It was in this fertile breeding ground for fresh ideas that John Locke, an English theorist who died as the Enlightenment was beginning to pick up steam, wrote his Two Treatises of Government which would go on to serve as the official blueprint for the theory of liberalism.

    Because political ideologies are not written down in one place as fully formed ideologies, the ideas put forward by Locke quickly encouraged other thinkers to explore these ideas in different ways and apply them to everything from religious toleration to economic systems. This exploration of Locke's thought led to what is now known as the "liberal tradition" which covers theory that retains the core tenets of Locke's work.

    Introduction to liberalism

    Liberalism sets as its foundation two primary points; first, it argues that a government and its leaders gain legitimacy through the consent of the majority. Second, it argues for the existence of natural rights, primarily those of life, liberty, and property.

    Natural rights are the idea that human beings have rights simply by virtue of being born. Locke argued these could be summarised as a natural right to life, liberty and property.

    Liberalism and government

    Liberalism uses these two things as a foundation for establishing the limits of what government is allowed to do and usually, a liberal state will have a constitution and use democracy, though liberalism as a theory does not expressly demand democracy. The pairing between liberalism and democracy is easily seen via the argument liberalism makes regarding what legitimates a government, consent. Democracy is an incredibly effective method for understanding the intent of the people and placing into power those individuals who will have consent from the people, as the vote implies consent. Furthermore, by having a democracy, if the consent changes, an opportunity to express that shift appears in the following election cycle.

    This mixture of liberalism and democracy is very similar to the relationship between Thomas Hobbes and monarchy. For Hobbes, writing in the 17th century, an authoritarian sovereign is needed to protect citizens from the state of nature, lead the state, and provide order to society. While this sounds most like monarchy or totalitarianism, Hobbes would not have cared if the sovereign was elected via a democratic process, so long as the sovereign was obeyed absolutely. Similarly, with liberalism, it does not care how the consent is formed, as long as it is there and the citizenry has an outlet to remove authority they no longer consent to.

    Liberalism and natural rights

    Liberalism is a largely individual-centred political theory that places the individual, as opposed to the collective, at the heart and soul of politics. This makes sense when viewing liberalism's relationship with the notion of natural rights, or the idea that human beings have rights simply by virtue of being born.

    As natural rights are acquired upon birth, it is the responsibility of the state in the liberal tradition to protect each individual's rights. John Locke argued in his Two Treatises of Government that the social contract which exists between the government and the individual is one in which the government adjudicates disputes and protects the citizenry from external threats that would attempt to restrict the natural rights of the population.

    An example of this is clearly displayed in the United States Constitution, which was the first state built using liberalism as its guiding doctrine. The United States is one of the best examples of a liberal state in that its Constitution is a document which restricts government in favour of individual liberty.

    Liberalism Portrait of John Locke StudySmarterFig. 2 Portrait of John Locke

    Liberalism and toleration

    Toleration is another hallmark of liberalism and without it, the theory begins to struggle and open itself up to pressures from other theories such as communism and fascism. Toleration allows individual liberty to flourish as there are guaranteed to be people who fundamentally disagree with each other.

    A great example of this is the issue of gun rights and abortion in the United States. Both abortion and gun rights have people who are unwilling to change their stance on either subject, yet these same people have to live in the same city, neighbourhood, or street. The anti-gun individual has to see the pro-gun individual every day carrying a firearm and the anti-abortion advocate works next to an abortion clinic where they see people going in every day. In both instances, everyone involved has to tolerate the behaviour of the people around them despite finding the behaviour wrong on a fundamental level, this is tolerance for the sake of respecting others' natural rights and it is the glue that holds a liberal state together.

    Liberalism – key thinkers

    As mentioned earlier in the article, liberalism is not a theory recorded in a codified document; it is instead several ideas stretching across hundreds of years with its founding ideas resting largely at the feet of John Locke. Aside from Locke, hundreds have worked in the liberal tradition and gradually expanded the theory. The first major stepping stone for the theory came from Locke, Montesquieu, and Jefferson, and exploring the relationship between these three will help to understand how liberalism went from theory to practice.

    Liberalism Portrait of Charles de Montesquieu StudySmarterFig. 3 Portrait of Charles de Montesquieu

    Understanding how liberalism went from being a theory to being the foundation of the United States requires three major thinkers from the liberal tradition: John Locke, Charles de Montesquieu, and Thomas Jefferson. Locke and Montesquieu each provided the political thought necessary for Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence. Where Locke provides an argument for government by consent and natural inalienable rights, Montesquieu offers an argument for the separation of powers within the government. While Montesquieu was himself a monarchist, his work provided liberal thinkers with a plethora of thoughts they could pick and choose from for establishing a liberal state that would restrain government and favour the individual.

    By the time the American Revolution began Thomas Jefferson had imbedded himself within the liberal thought of his time and read the works of both Locke and Montesquieu. This direct influence by theory drove Jefferson and those he was surrounded by to create a state founded on the principles of liberalism and put all Enlightenment thought up to that point to the test.

    Critique of liberalism

    Understanding criticism against something allows for a more thorough understanding of the thing being criticised, in this case, liberalism. While the ideas of liberalism seem to a Western audience like "common sense" when one begins to peel back the theory more and more inconsistencies and problems begin to show themselves. No individual theorist has gone as far as the German theorist Carl Schmitt in exposing these problems and arguing against liberalism as a political theory. Schmitt, a German jurist and member of the Nazi party, helped lay the foundation for fascism and Nazism and in the process launched an attack against liberalism that modern theorists still struggle with.

    For Schmitt, liberal theory fails in several areas; it lacks a clear sovereign, it cannot genuinely sustain toleration without interfering, its argument for natural rights lacks foundation, and it does not understand politics at the fundamental level. According to Schmitt, politics is nothing more than a sharp and irreconcilable friend/enemy relationship. For him, liberalism is lying to itself when it makes the proposition that irreconcilable views can be mediated through the process of debate and toleration. Referring back to the earlier example of abortion, if two people hold views that lack any room for negotiation and abortion becomes a point of political tension, liberalism has no real way to solve the tension other than to push the problem down the street. For Schmitt, this makes the society more divided and makes the state look weak.

    The essence of liberalism is negotiation, a cautious half measure, in the hope that the definitive dispute, the decisive bloody battle, can be transformed into a parliamentary debate and permit the decision to be suspended forever in an everlasting discussion.- Carl Schmitt, 1922

    Additionally, liberalism claims that the people are the sovereign as it is their consent that allows the government to make decisions. Schmitt looks at this claim and argues that all liberalism really does is hide the true sovereign behind the mask of the people. When a critical issue is at stake, the liberal state will act swiftly and effectively, which would not be possible if there was no sovereign. Liberalism is scared of the idea of a clear sovereign because a clear sovereign can quickly become a dictator or monarch, but by hiding the sovereign, when something goes wrong the citizenry does not know who to blame, so they blame the whole system. In essence, the citizenry consent to be governed, but have no clear picture of who exactly is doing the governing.

    Liberalism - Key takeaways

    • Liberalism is a tradition that starts during the Enlightenment.
    • The core tenets of liberalism were developed by John Locke.
    • After Hobbes theorised about the state of nature, later theorists such as Locke were able to develop a conception of government and rulers that did not include the divine right of kings.
    • Liberalism argues that government is legitimate only with the consent of the people and that every individual is born with natural rights.
    • Natural rights for John Locke and liberalism are life, liberty, and property.
    • Toleration is a critical component of liberalism that allows for the guaranteed plurality of thought that arises with individual liberty.
    • Carl Schmitt is a German theorist who provided an incredibly damaging critique of liberalism.
    • For Schmitt, the toleration required in liberalism does not work becomes politics is fundamentally a distinction between friend and enemy.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Liberalism

    What is Liberalism?

    Liberalism is a political ideology based on ideas of Individualism, freedom, the state as a necessary evil, Rationalism, and equality.

    What are the origins of Liberalism?

    Liberalism originated from the Enlightenment period and especially from John Locke.

    What is a liberal party government?

    A government that uses Liberalism as its ideological position.

    Is liberal democracy the best form of government?

    This is subjective, but most in the West believe that it is.

    What is liberal government 1905-1915 all about?

    This is a reference to the brief liberal government of the UK and Ireland from 1905-1915.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following is a characteristic of Neo-Liberalism?

    Where was John Locke born?

    Whose views did Locke’s build on?


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