Skip to main content
Select Source:



It is widely agreed that fundamental to liberalism is a concern to protect and promote individual liberty. This means that individuals can decide for themselves what to do or believe with respect to particular areas of human activity such as religion or economics. The contrast is with a society in which the society decides what the individual is to do or believe. In those areas of a society in which individual liberty prevails, social outcomes will be the result of a myriad of individual decisions taken by individuals for themselves or in voluntary cooperation with some others.

Liberalism in the political sphere cannot be a simple application of individual liberty, because decisions have to be taken collectively and are binding on all. Political liberalism means, first, that individual citizens are free to vote for representatives of their choice and to form voluntary associations to promote their ideas and interests in the realm of collective decision-making. Second, it means the adoption of constitutional procedures for limiting government power and making it accountable to the citizens.

Liberal Practice

In discussing liberalism, it is important to distinguish between liberal practices and liberal theories. Liberal practices are those institutional and customary arrangements that support individual liberty. Of prime importance are individual legal rights to engage in certain activities such as to practice the religion of one's choice, to use one's property and labor as one pleases, and to enjoy freedom of opinion, expression, association, and movement. Political rights and constitutional procedures designed to put limits on government power, such as the independence of the judiciary, the separation of legislative and executive power, freedom of the press, and electoral accountability, are liberal practices insofar as they are designed to protect or express individual liberty.

Individual nonpolitical rights are necessarily limited by the equal rights of others. A religion or other association, or a use of property, that violates the rights of others, cannot be protected. Individual rights may also be limited by consideration of the public good, such as limits on public meetings that will produce disorder. A liberal account of such public-good constraints must limit them to whatever arrangements are necessary to protect a liberal society.

In talking about individual rights, it is essential to note, in order to understand liberalism, that the liberal individual is a human being not otherwise differentiated by status, class, race, religion, or gender. This formulation describes an idealimplicit in liberalism and eventually standardly affirmedrather than the actual practice of liberalism as it originally developed. With respect to the latter, many individual rights were variously restricted in different countries: universally at first to men, in America to white men. Nevertheless, the standard justifications for the exclusions were the incapacity of the excluded class of human beings to make effective use of the liberal freedoms or their existence as a threat to the established liberal order. In this way, it was still possible to say that all human beings capable of freedom and not threatening public order were entitled to rights.

As the practice of particular societies, liberal individual rights, although proclaimed as the rights of human beings, would be restricted to members of that society and to resident aliens only under the developing provisions of international law. The standard justification for such limitations was that the rights could be given practical effectiveness only through the legal and political systems of particular states. Liberal practices emerged in the states of northern Europe and North America in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and contributed substantially to their dynamic international power through the early twenty-first century despite the life-threatening challenges to them in the twentieth century by the fascist and communist powers. The liberal societies of the West, above all the United States, have given liberalism as a practice and a theory a dominant status in the contemporary world.

While the aforementioned legal and institutional arrangements are important for the constitution of a liberal society, they are not enough. A fully liberal society requires a tolerant public opinion as well. This is one of the main points of John Stuart Mill's famous essay On Liberty (1859), in which he seeks to defend individuality and difference from the coercive pressure of public opinion.

Liberalism as a social practice is a matter of degree along three dimensions. First, a society may be more or less liberal according to how many aspects of its life are governed by the principle of individual liberty. A society may be very liberal in matters of belief but illiberal in the economic and/or the political sphere or conversely. It may be liberal in all these areas but illiberal with regard to sexual conduct. Second, a society may be more or less liberal with regard to each of these spheres. It may allow only a limited degree of economic freedom or a limited degree of freedom of belief. Finally, a society may be more or less inclusive of its adult population in the scope of the liberal freedoms.

Liberal Theories

Liberal theories are theories designed to show that the liberal organization of society is the best for human beings with regard to their fundamental nature and interests. The Western intellectual tradition includes several discourses of major importance that have this aim. It is widely held that the principles of liberalism can be traced back to the seventeenth-century natural rights and social contract theorists who attach primary significance in just interaction between persons to an equal individual liberty and who derive the constraints of organized society from an agreement by individuals to submit to such constraints for the sake of the protection of their liberty and other natural rights.

A radically different type of liberal theory, which was very scornful of the idea of natural rights, was the utilitarian one. This flourished in the nineteenth century, particularly in Great Britain, and remains influential in English-speaking countries. This theory holds that the best organization of society is the one that produces the greatest amount of utility or happiness, taking equally into account every individual's utility. Such a theory is liberal only insofar as it argues, as the classic British utilitarians did, that the liberal order of society would best satisfy the utilitarian principle.

The theory that has been most influential in liberal thought on the continent of Europe and also on contemporary thought in English-speaking countries is that of Immanuel Kant (17241804) and German idealism. This theory seeks to provide a rational deduction of the natural rights principle of equal individual liberty from human beings' capacity for autonomy, which is understood as a capacity to govern one's conduct by laws or principles that one freely imposes on oneself.

Modern Western political theory from the seventeenth century is largely dominated by liberal ideas. Even thinkers who have been thought to be fundamentally illiberal, such as Thomas Hobbes (15881679), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778), Edmund Burke (17291797), and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831) are really illiberal, if at all, only in regard to the state and not in regard to society. A liberal society may, thus, be supported on very different theoretical bases within Western thought, including religious ones. Indeed, the dominant status of liberalism in the contemporary world, together with the high importance attached to recognizing the equal worth of non-Western cultures, has led to many attempts to construct support for liberal practices from within religious systems of belief. Thus, there exist forms of liberalism that can be called Confucian, Islamic, and Buddhist.

The Historical Development of the Liberal Idea

From the discussion of liberalism above, one might assume that the term itself came into use in seventeenth-century northern Europe. In fact the term liberal was first used in connection with politics in Spain in the early nineteenth century to describe a political movement whose object was to establish constitutional constraints on government power. The term rapidly came to be applied to movements and ideas aimed at promoting individual liberty of choice, and it is now generally considered reasonable to use the term retrospectively to describe thinkers such as John Locke (16321704), Adam Smith (17231790), and many others whose thought exhibited this character.

Natural rights theories.

As claimed earlier, liberalism was nurtured in the natural rights doctrines of the seventeenth century. The Dutch scholar Hugo Grotius (15831645) is widely held to be the main innovator of the modern doctrine, and his mode of theorizing, involving the idea of a prepolitical state of nature and a social contract as the ground for political society, was taken up and given major formulations by Hobbes and Locke in England and Benedictus de Spinoza (16321677) and Samuel von Pufendorf (16321694) on the European continent. The reason for holding these theories to be the ground in which liberalism grew is that they start with a presumption in favor of individual liberty and limit liberty only to protect the equal rights of others or to provide the public order considered necessary to secure everyone's liberty to the greatest extent. These theorists refer to other natural rights besides liberty, as in Locke's classic formulation of rights to life, liberty, health, and possessions. All these rights, however, are to be understood as negative in character. The rights to life and health are rights not to be deprived of one's life or health by the actions of others and are thus rights to go about one's business as one thinks fit without being killed or injured. The right to possessions is again a negative right not to be hindered in the exercise of one's liberty to acquire possessions in order to preserve and enhance one's life. Furthermore, all individuals are held to have the natural right to govern themselves in accordance with their own judgment of their entitlements under natural law.

All these theorists recognize that constraints on individual liberty are necessary if people are to enjoy the maximum of equal liberty in a peaceful society, so it is rational for them to agree to establish a political society on the basis of their natural interests in liberty. This is a new and essentially liberal mode of thinking about a just society, because the aim is to leave people as free as possible to form their own lives as they think fit compatibly with a peaceful and orderly society. The contrast is with conceptions of just order that are based on a substantive conception of the good. In the latter view, one starts with a conception of how human beings should live in order to achieve the good life, such as that of Plato, and then organizes society politically to enable its members to realize this end. Individual liberty, in such a view, is only what is left over after the structure of the good life is in place.

The natural rights theorists explicitly adopted the primacy of liberty conception because they were especially impressed by the quarrelsome nature of human beings and by the devastating consequences of the contemporary disputes over religion involving Protestants and Catholics and the skepticism about the good that could thereby be engendered. These theorists' aim, therefore, was to construct a minimal social ethics that all could agree on while leaving as much room as possible for each to decide for him-or herself what to believe and how to live. Of course, it is always possible to say that the liberal view of just interaction still involves a conception of the good life, namely one of maximum equal liberty. But this is a very thin conception of the good that leaves people as free as possible to make their own choices.

The natural rights theorists developed the central ideas of a liberal society. Their politics, however, was in many cases far from being liberal. Despite the grounding of political society in a social contract and thus apparently basing it on the consent of all, Grotius, Hobbes, and Pufendorf defended absolute monarchy, while Locke and Spinoza restricted political rights to property owners. A crucial argument of the absolutists was that, although the ruler's authority was based on a contract, the contract necessarily involved the surrender by the contractors of their natural right to interpret the natural law for themselves to the sovereign whose judgment could not subsequently be questioned without undermining political society itself and returning everyone to a lawless state of nature. It is for this reason that Hobbes, and later the conservative thinker Burke, can appear to be so illiberal. Although they do not deny that human beings have natural interests in an equal liberty and that sovereigns are well advised to respect that liberty, sovereigns cannot be held to account for not respecting it. Hence, their subjects' enjoyment of their liberties can only be at the discretion of the ruler or the political traditions of the society.

The partial political liberalism of Locke is presented as an attack on the absolutists and consists of making the government responsible to the property owners who are taxed to support it and who are held to be the more rational members of society; and additionally an embryonic version of the idea of the separation of government powers in different hands. Nevertheless, absolute sovereignty still lurks in Locke's theory insofar as citizens who are aggrieved at the actions of a legitimately constituted government have to appeal to the members of political society as a whole whose decision, in principle by majority will, is presented as necessarily binding. Thus, Locke's political theory contains an unelaborated majoritarian democratic principle that could be and was seized on by more radical thinkers and movements concerned to develop the egalitarian implications of liberal rights to promote political democracy.

Rousseau can be understood as one of these radical egalitarian Lockean thinkers in some respects, and his theory was very influential in inspiring the French revolutionaries of the late eighteenth century. But Rousseau is rarely regarded as a liberal. This is largely because his theory of the general will and his belief in direct rather than representative democracy were seen, especially in the light of the actions of the French revolutionaries and through the criticism of the early-nineteenth-century French liberal thinker Benjamin Constant, as wholly antipathetic to individual liberty. He is said to identify liberty with participation in collective decision-making rather than individual choice. However, this is to misunderstand the general will. The general will is supposed to be aimed inherently at securing laws that equally protect the individual liberty of all. Insofar as it is a collective will through participation in which all persons equally impose general laws with a liberal character on themselves and others, its collective nature and positive conception of freedom is merely the necessary political element in a self-governing liberal society.

Rousseau does depart radically from the economic liberalism implicit or explicit in most natural rights theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For Rousseau the equality element in the doctrine of equal rights requires a rough equality of all as property owners and an opposition to capitalist ownership and market society. Because the foundational liberal principle affirms both the equality and liberty of all, Rousseau's interpretation of it would seem to be a possible one while its egalitarian commitments have become more and more influential.

Other notable figures in the democratic development natural rights theory are Thomas Paine (17431809) and the Marquis of Condorcet (17431794). They played noteworthy parts in the political revolutions that transformed America and France at the end of the eighteenth century and produced important theoretical works justifying a liberal-democratic order.

Utility-based liberalism.

Rights-based liberalism has two apparent weaknesses: It is not clear where the natural rights come from, and no principled account of conflicts involving rights is given or seems to be possible. Utilitarian-based liberalism offers a single solution to both. The principle of utility, which tells moral agents to do those acts that will produce the greatest amount of utility, is interpreted by the great liberal utilitarians to mean that one should act to bring about a society in which individuals enjoy the standard liberal rights enumerated earlier in this entry. At the same time what to do when rights conflict is to be settled by appeal to the principle of utility, which establishes a suitable hierarchy of rights in such cases.

The most important liberal utilitarians are Jeremy Bentham (17481832) and Mill. To get a defense of liberalism from the principle of utility, Bentham adopts a number of secondary principles reflecting the fundamental interests of individuals. One of these is that individuals are the best judges of their own interests. So, there must be a presumption on the part of government that social outcomes will be better if individuals are left as free as possible to decide for themselves what to believe and do. His other secondary principles were those of security (or liberty), subsistence, abundance, and equality. Security of person and property involves the protection of people's liberty while ensuring that both subsistence and the possibility of abundance are best accomplished by leaving people free economically. Equality, arising from the fact that in the utilitarian calculus each is to count for one and no one for more than one, might suggest redistribution from rich to poor were that not to conflict in an unacceptable way with the operation of the other secondary principles and so is outweighed by them.

Unlike most of his contemporary rights-based liberals, Bentham believed that the only way of ensuring that governments followed policies that best promoted the general utility rather than their own interest was to establish a representative democracy. He thought that the great majority would see that their interests lay in the institution of a liberal society and polity, a view repudiated by those partially political liberals who doubted that nonproperty owners could be trusted to support liberty because they lacked the necessary independence and rationality.

Mill introduced significant modifications to the liberal theory he inherited from Bentham. One of these is his extension of the liberty principle, which requires persons to be allowed to pursue their own good in their own way so long as they do not harm others, to cover the coercive pressure of public opinion mentioned earlier. Furthermore, the area of conduct falling within this principle includes what Mill calls experiments in living. People should be encouraged to experiment (so long as they do not harm others) in order to promote the long-term utility of the human race. Underlying these views is a belief in the fundamental importance of individuality to a person's happiness. This is the capacity to make choices for one's life that express one's own individual nature. A liberal society will be one that promotes the development in its members of this capacity. Adult human beings and whole societies will not necessarily manifest it and can benefit up to a point from the tutelage of others.

Kant and post-Kantian liberal idealism.

Kant, the deeply anti-utilitarian and still very influential German philosopher, identifies human beings' capacity for autonomy as the grounds for claiming the existence of a natural right to an equal liberty. Autonomy is the capacity to govern oneself by freely imposing rational laws on the operation of one's natural inclinations. In following one's inclinations even through rational calculation, one is bound by causal laws operating independently of one's will. One is free and self-determining only insofar as one's end is rational and self-imposed. One achieves this in willing principles that are universal and apply to everyone. In subjecting one's natural self-interested maxims of conduct to the requirement of a universal legislation for its own sake and not for any advantage, one is treating rational being in oneself and others as an end in itself and of absolute worth. The laws one wills from that perspective will be ones that could be willed by every rational human being, who is not only a rational being but also a natural one. One will then be participating as an equal colegislator in willing rational laws to govern the pursuit by each of his or her natural ends.

Among the fundamental laws such beings will legislate is one bestowing the universal right to an equal liberty. Human beings as rational beings embodied in a particular natural being are ends in themselves, and this means that their will insofar as it is rational and thereby conforms to rational universal law must not be coerced but must be left free to pursue its natural ends as it chooses. To the extent that a person's will violates the equal freedom of another, however, that will itself may be coerced, and in order to ensure the precision and effectiveness of this fundamental law, human beings must rationally will their entry into political society and their formation of a public order and sovereign will.

Kant's significance lies not so much in his working out the implications of the principle of equal liberty but in his invention of a new rational ground in autonomy for it. Contemporary liberals who still seek to provide justifications for preferring liberalism to other social and political schemes are largely either Kantians or utilitarians, with Kantians for the moment predominating.

Post-Kantian idealism, most elaborately developed by Hegel in Germany but also influential in Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century through the writings of Thomas Hill Green, Francis Herbert Bradley, and Bernard Bosanquet, historicizes and socializes the Kantian scheme. The general idea is that historical forms of society and the reflective philosophies that arise in them are the result of the struggle of human beings to grasp and actualize the free will inherent in their nature as rational beings. This struggle culminates in the development of a liberal civil society and a partially liberal state. A liberal self-organizing civil society in which all persons are responsible for their own life economically and socially is necessary to develop in all the idea and partial actualization of their autonomy. This society, however, can exist only within the framework of a system of legislation that is the ultimate locus of the self-determining free will of human beings through their participation in and identification with the general will of the state. This theory socializes the individualist character of the liberal philosophy, because although individuals are the beings within which free will is realized, this is achieved only through their development in and membership of liberal social forms.

Twentieth-century liberalism and the influence of Rawls.

A striking characteristic of twentieth-century political theory is its loss of belief in the possibility of finding rational foundations for moral and political prescriptions. Adherence to liberal or antiliberal principles became a matter of espousing an ideology.

Liberal practices were, nevertheless, deeply embedded in English-speaking societies but, as it turned out, less so in the societies of Continental Europe, above all Germany and Russia. In those nations, in the chaos of the aftermath of World War I and the economic misfortunes of the 1920s and 1930s, the powerful antiliberal political movements of fascism and communism seized power, destroyed the forms of liberal society, and threatened the very survival of liberalism in the Western world. The victory of the liberal states (together with the Soviet Union) in World War II led to their strong reaffirmation of the individualist values of liberalism. This was least marked in the economic sphere, where the apparent industrial success of Stalinist Russia encouraged many Western and developing states to adopt extensive policies of economic socialism in the form of the nationalization of major industries. The postwar liberal states also for the most part greatly expanded the provision of state welfare to their subjects. While such policies were contrary to the principles of classical liberalism, they were perfectly justifiable under the revision of liberal theory that took place in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Political and moral theory remained marooned in the swamp of ideological contestation largely between liberalism and communism until the publication of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice in 1971 and the collapse of the other great antiliberal power in the 1980s (that is, the Soviet Union). The former generated an extraordinary revival of political theory based on the belief that Rawls had invented a new rational justification of liberalism. Rawls supposes that persons engaged in social interaction have the need and the desire to justify their actions to those affected by them and that this justification must take the form of everyone agreeing from an initially fair position to a set of cooperative principles that will then be seen to be fair. The initially fair position is one in which the contractors are understood to be free and equal personsfree because they have the capacity to form conceptions of the good and govern themselves by these conceptions, and equal because no one has any more power than another to secure favorable terms for him-or herself. The contractors would choose two principles. The first is a principle of equal liberty by which each is to have as much liberty as is compatible with a like liberty for all. This principle takes priority over the second principle, which is concerned with fair equality of opportunity and the distribution of income and wealth. With regard to the latter Rawls holds that the contractors would choose that distribution that maximizes the long-run position of the worst-off group in society. These principles are commonly taken to justify a liberal welfare state with a leaning toward egalitarian outcomes.

One of Rawls's main claims about liberalism is that it is a method of political cooperation that is neutral between different conceptions of the good. Rawls believes, as did the original natural rights theorists, that human beings differ and tend to quarrel disastrously about the good. Any attempt to establish a coercive state on the basis of a particular conception is bound to generate conflict and be unfair to those holding different conceptions because there is no way of conclusively establishing the truth of any one conception. Liberalism, as Rawls understands it, and as presented in this entry, is a way of achieving peaceful social cooperation on the basis of agreement on principles that leave people as free as is compatible with allowing a like freedom to others.

In A Theory of Justice, however, Rawls claims that the ultimate ground for accepting his liberalism is that it expresses the Kantian idea of free and equal autonomous persons cooperating together in a social order. Rawls later came to accept the criticism that to base the theory on a Kantian conception of autonomy, which some persons could reasonably reject, violated the neutrality of the scheme. So in Political Liberalism (1993) he holds that the burdens of judgment regarding the good are such that it is unreasonable to seek to impose one's own conception on others by making it the basis of the state's order. But this claim raises the question of whether the unreasonableness of imposing one's conception of the good is solely pragmatic or whether it is based on principle, and, if the latter, what that principle is if it is not the Kantian one. Taking the former view would force one to abandon the belief that Rawls has effectively countered the general twentieth-century skepticism regarding foundations.

Some Issues in Liberal Theory and Practice

Liberalism has deep internal tensions primarily between the claims of equality and those of liberty arising from its equal commitment to both these principles. The tensions are held by some thinkers who are not well-disposed towards liberalism to be contradictions that prevent liberalism from living up to its own principles. Some of these issues are discussed briefly below together with some important distinctions between types of liberalism.

Liberalism and cultural difference.

Liberalism prides itself on its toleration of cultural and other differences. Some cultural groups, however, are internally illiberal. They do not treat their members as free and equal autonomous individuals with rights but as having identities defined by their membership in and place within the group, and by relation to the group's values. They are communal selves rather than individual ones. People so identifying themselves cannot easily flourish in liberal society by taking advantage of its freedoms. Hence, it is said that liberalism cannot treat such minority cultures fairly in accordance with its own principles.

Liberalism can tolerate such groups provided that they do not harm others and provided that their members are free to leave without suffering unjust discrimination. The problem is whether persons formed in such groups are really free to leave unless they have had a liberal education that enables them to think of themselves as individuals with the power and right of choice. But if they do think of themselves in this way, they will no longer be the communal selves they were. The liberal education of its members would undermine the group's illiberal identity and force it to reconstitute itself in liberal terms. It is clear also that illiberal groups could not be specially represented in the political realm without turning that realm from a principled association into what would be at best a pragmatic compromise between conflicting groups. There is no reasonable compromise between liberalism and illiberalism. In the end one must seek to show the superiority of a liberal society by appealing to some foundational principle and by reiterating that there is no possible social scheme compatible with a principled order that is more tolerant of difference than liberalism.

A more modest claim for the special recognition of cultural difference would be that of cultural minorities whose values are not incompatible with liberalism but whose members are disadvantaged relative to the majority in terms of their ability to compete on fair terms to obtain the benefits of liberal society. The demand would be in part for the preferential treatment of the members of such groups so that they could enjoy fair equality of opportunity. But this would not be to give special recognition to the culture as such but to its members as disadvantaged individuals. Some cultural minorities might also reasonably claim to be given symbolic public recognition as distinct and loyal members of the polity in public ceremonies celebrating the history of the nation and the contributions of its various citizens.

Liberalism and women's difference.

In the beginning, feminism was just the application of liberal principles to women. Women were conceived as having fundamentally the same nature and interests as men and thereby entitled to the same rights.

Radical feminists from the 1970s, however, opposed the liberal assimilation of women's claims on the grounds that the liberal conception of the person did not reflect women's nature. This nature had been obscured by millennia of patriarchal rule and needed liberation from patriarchal society before its true content could be revealed. But whatever it turned out to be, the radical feminists were certain that it would not be a liberal individual. They held that whereas the liberal individual was based on impersonal rationality and abstraction, women's ethical life was rooted in her body and its emotions.

Insofar as women's difference amounts to an illiberal nature opposed to liberal man, the same issues are raised as those that occur in the cultural case, although compounded by the fact that men and women would seem to have to live together in the private realm if the race is to be satisfactorily continued. Women cannot be treated as a self-reproducing cultural group. Nevertheless, illiberal women could be specially represented in the public sphere. Yet, this would turn it once again into a reasonable compromise between the representatives of conflicting values.

Women could, of course, be seen as a disadvantaged group whose members need preferential treatment in order to achieve fair equality of opportunity. But this is not incompatible with liberalism. Some contemporary women writers claim that it is incompatible on the grounds that if women are given special treatment because of their difference, for example, their maternal being, then liberalism's claim to treat all persons equally without respect for gender will be breached. Nevertheless, because the ground for special treatment is to achieve fair equality of opportunity for different individuals in regard to their different circumstances, this argument seems invalid.

The radical feminists belief in a special women's nature was subverted by the postmodernist feminists, who reject the idea of essential selves. Identities are socially produced and always subject to challenge and change. This view would seem to make it impossible to claim that women as such are oppressed in patriarchal or liberal society because there is no such thing as women as such. Nevertheless, postmodern feminists believe that it is still possible within particular discourses to resist established conventions and develop alternative discourses regarding women. But to what end is unclear.

Economic liberalism.

Economic liberalism is the view that the best economic order is a free market. This view may be justified by utilitarian considerations, as in those of Bentham, or by a combination of natural rights and utilitarian consequences, as in the theory of Adam Smith.

Fundamental to Smith's view is the idea of a natural order. This is the social order that develops when individuals are allowed to pursue their interests through specialization and exchange of goods and services. It is an expression of human beings' natural right to liberty. But it is also the best way for a society to promote the accumulation of wealth and national power.

Individuals are motivated in the natural order by the desire to improve their material condition, and given a suitable economic environment competition among them will normally produce beneficial consequences. Such an environment requires the free movement of labor, capital, and goods; many buyers and sellers; sound information among buyers and sellers; security of person and property; and the abolition of monopolies, tariffs, and government regulation of production and consumption. Yet Smith acknowledges that there exists a class of public goods that it is the function of government to provide, including the administration of justice, defense, and education.

Smith is not blind to the defects of the liberal economic individual and society but thinks liberal society is still preferable to aristocratic society. In particular, he deplores the condition of the poor but believes that their only hope lies in the accumulation of wealth. Furthermore, he distrusts the capacity and interests of the poor to make political decisions in the general interest, which he identifies with the system of liberal liberty. So, like many other early liberals, he wants a liberal polity to be restricted to property owners.

Smith is the founder of classical economics, which is committed to free markets and hence economic liberalism. Another major figure in this school is David Ricardo (17721823), whose Principles of Political Economy and Taxation dominated the subject until the end of the nineteenth century. However, in Ricardo the subject becomes more technical and abstract and less concerned with its connections with liberal values more generally.

Economic liberalism of the Smithian kind is commonly thought to have been practiced by the British government during the nineteenth century and to a lesser extent by others. But this is far from being unqualifiedly true. The British government interfered in market outcomes during this period by regulating working conditions, trade unions, and the rates of utility companies, and by imposing an income tax and maintaining a monopoly of the money supply. The general spirit of economic liberalism is better described as a strong presumption in favor of laissez faire unless it was clear that intervention was to the general benefit.

Classical and revisionist liberalism.

Classical liberalism is the liberalism that prevailed mainly in northern Europe and North America up to the second half of the nineteenth century. It consisted of minimal government intervention in economy and society. But it was by no means politically democratic, especially in Europe where liberals were for the most part and for a long time strongly resistant to the inclusion of the propertyless in the benefits and burdens of a liberal polity. Its principles received notable political expression in the declarations of the rights of man and the citizen of the American and French Revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century, while the extremes of the latter revolution confirmed many middle-class liberals in their hostility to democracy. Because of its economic and political association with the middle classes, classical liberalism can easily be represented as the ideology of the capitalist class, a position taken by Karl Marx (18181883) and other socialists. As presented in this entry, however, the fundamental tenets of classical liberalism go far wider and deeper than that claim implies. This is shown by the way the application of its principles was revised in the course of the nineteenth century to accommodate what most liberals came to accept as inevitable, namely the arrival of democracy.

The revision in practice took the form of increasing government intervention in the economy to protect the interests and promote the welfare of workers. Government resources, obtained through general taxation, are used to provide for the basic needs of the population. The revision in liberal theory that justified the change to big government involved a shift from the belief of the classical liberals that normal adult human beings would automatically have developed the capacity to exercise their freedom in their own interests to the view that this capacity needed suitable economic, educational, and social conditions for its developmenta belief found in the works of Mill and especially the nineteenth-century idealists. If individuals cannot provide these conditions for themselves, then fellow citizens must do so through state action. In general the move is to a greater emphasis on the equality aspect of equal liberty, as exemplified in Rousseau's thought, a change requiring more protection for workers and the poor.

Rather than as an abrupt and radical break, this revision of classical liberalism should be considered a movement along a continuum of possible social forms, all based on the liberal principle of equal liberty. At one extreme of this continuum is libertarian anarchy with no government at all, which is followed by the minimal state as described above in Smith's theory, and increasing levels of government intervention all the way to the government ownership of the means of production at the other extreme. The latter can still be called liberal provided that individual freedom prevails in all but the economic realm and that economic socialism is understood as the best means of assuring an equal liberty. Classical liberalism shares with revisionist liberalism the belief that government intervention can be justified if it works out to the general advantage.

Liberalism and nationalism.

Liberalism and a weak form of nationalism developed together. Liberalism was a way of organizing society for the benefit of its members in a manner that promoted, better than any alternative, the society's harmony, prosperity, and power in a world of independent states. The nation here is just the collection of people organized in a state and thereby sharing common interests in their peace, prosperity, and power.

A strong form of nationalism holds that a nation is an ethnocultural group sharing a common ancestry, history, and culture and that membership in such a group is fundamental to the identity and value of the individual. Nationalism in this sense is totally antithetical to liberalism, for which individual identity is deeper than national identity.

A form of nationalism intermediate between the two is to be found in Mill and the contemporary thinker David Miller. According to this view a democratic liberal state will work betterbe more harmonious and justif the great majority share a nationality in the ethnocultural sense.

Liberalism has also been allied with imperialism. The argument here is that the rule of a liberal state over other peoples, such as the rule of Britain over India, may be justified if it serves to develop the subject peoples' capacity to become self-governing individuals and a self-governing peoplein other words to develop in them the culture of liberalism. It is held by some that cultural imperialism of this kind, if not political imperialism, has been pursued by the Western powers after World War II through the United Nations program on Human Rights. Ultimately, the only justification for pursuing a liberal program domestically or internationally is that liberalism describes a better way for human beings to live together than any alternative because it better expresses and actualizes their fundamental nature and interests.

See also Conservatism ; Constitutionalism ; Democracy ; Enlightenment ; Utilitarianism .



Bentham, Jeremy. The Works of Jeremy Bentham. Vol. 1. Edited by John Bowring. 18381843. Reprint, New York: Russell and Russell, 1962.

Condorcet, Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de. Sketch of a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. Translated by June Barraclough with an introduction by Stuart Hampshire. New York: Noonday Press, 1955.

Constant, Benjamin. "The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with That of the Moderns." 1819. In Political Writings, edited and translated by Biancamaria Fontana. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Grotius, Hugo. The Law of War and Peace. 1625. Translated by Francis W. Kelsey. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Elements of the Philosophy of Right. 1821. Edited by Allen W. Wood and translated by H. B. Nisbet. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. 1651. Reprint, edited by Richard Tuck, Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Kant, Immanuel. The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. 1785. Edited by Thomas E. Hill Jr. and Arnulf Zweig and translated by Arnulf Zweig. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

. The Metaphysical Elements of Justice. 1797. Translated by John Ladd. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965.

Locke, John. "A Letter concerning Toleration." 1689. Reprint, in John Locke: "A Letter concerning Toleration," in Focus, edited by John Horton and Susan Mendus. London: Routledge, 1991.

. Two Treatises of Government. 1690. Reprint, edited with an introduction and notes by Peter Laslett, Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. 1859. Reprint, edited by Gertrude Himmelfarb, New York: Penguin, 1982.

Paine, Thomas. The Rights of Man, Common Sense and Other Political Writings, edited with an introduction and notes by Mark Philp. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Pufendorf, Samuel. On the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law. 1673 Edited by James Tully and translated by Michael Silverthorne. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Rawls, John. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1971.

Ricardo, David. The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, with an introduction by Donald Winch. London: Dent, 1973.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. "The Social Contract" and Other Later Political Writings. Edited and translated by Victor Gourevitch. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. 1776. Reprint, edited by R. H. Campbell, A. S. Skinner, and W. B. Todd, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.

Spinoza, Benedictus de. Tractatus theologico-politicus. 1670. In The Political Works, edited and translated by A. G. Wernham. Reprint, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958.


Arblaster, Anthony. The Rise and Decline of Western Liberalism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984.

Barry, Brian. Culture and Equality: An Egalitarian Critique of Multiculturalism. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2001.

de Ruggiero, Guido. The History of European Liberalism. Translated by R. G. Collingwood. 1927. Reprint, Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1981.

Freeden, Michael. The New Liberalism: An Ideology of Social Reform. Oxford: Clarendon, 1978.

Girvetz, Harry K. The Evolution of Liberalism. New York: Collier, 1963.

Grampp, William D. Economic Liberalism. New York: Random House, 1965.

Gray, John. Liberalism. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

Hobhouse, L. T. "Liberalism" and Other Writings. Edited by James Meadowcroft. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Kymlicka, Will, ed. The Rights of Minority Cultures. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Laski, Harold J. The Rise of European Liberalism. 1936. Reprint, with a new introduction by John Stanley. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1997.

Miller, David. On Nationality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Phillips, Anne, ed. Feminism and Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Tamir, Yael. Liberal Nationalism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Weedon, Chris. Feminism, Theory, and the Politics of Difference. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.

John Charvet

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Liberalism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Liberalism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (January 18, 2018).

"Liberalism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from



The heritage of liberalism

Classical liberalism

Liberalism in Europe and America

Modern liberalism

The future of liberalism


Liberalism is the belief in and commitment to a set of methods and policies that have as their common aim greater freedom for individual men. Early liberalism was identified with political parties or social classes and often with specific programs. Today, although some parties in Europe, Great Britain, and elsewhere bear the title Liberal, in contemporary usage the term ℌliberalism” refers to a system of thought and practice that is less specific than a philosophical doctrine and more inclusive than party principle. Liberalism is also too ecumenical and too pluralistic to be called, properly, an ideology. Contemporary liberalism is the product of centuries of development and of attitudes and responses widely shared among individuals. It can be described as: (1) a valuing of the free expression of individual personality; (2) a belief in men’s ability to make that expression valuable to themselves and to society; and (3) the upholding of those institutions and policies that protect and foster both free expression and confidence in that freedom.

The term “liberal” probably first acquired its modern political connotation from the Liberates, a Spanish party that supported for Spain a version of the French constitution of 1791. As a coherent system of ideals and practical goals, however, liberalism first developed in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Thereafter, liberal parties and liberal views, developing independently or derived from the English model, appeared in Europe, several British colonies, and elsewhere in the world.

Liberal thought and practice have stressed two primary themes. One is the dislike for arbitrary authority, complemented by the aim of replacing that authority by other forms of social practice. A second theme is the free expression of individual personality. Liberal movements and liberal thought have usually emphasized one theme more than the other, though seldom one to the virtual exclusion of the other. Much of liberal political and social theory has, in fact, been devoted to reconciling these two aims, especially with respect to their philosophical and practical implications.

Early liberalism emphasized freedom from arbitrary authority. One mode of attack was the assertion of free conscience and the demand for religious tolerance. Liberals have often been nonconformists in religion, secularists, skeptics, and even antireligious. In place of traditional authority they have supported the authority of reason and of demonstrated, rather than revealed, truth. Liberalism has stressed also the desirability of impersonal social and political controls: the rule of law and the market. Liberals have usually been individualists and pluralists and have supported local and group liberties and the methods of consent and persuasion.

Also vital to liberalism has been the goal of an active freedom, the ideal that the individual has the opportunity and the capacity for free expression. To this end, liberals have supported a more equal distribution of liberty, the abolition of monopolies, the destruction of aristocratic privilege, and a law that was general and founded upon rational principles. Liberals have argued also for the expansion of opportunity, including state intervention to equalize and increase the opportunities open to individuals. For all these reasons, liberalism has usually been “progressive,” i.e., concerned with economic and social progress and favorable to science, technology, and pragmatic experimentalism.

The two most important objectives of liberalism —noninterference and enfranchisement—support each other but also conflict. The first objective, pur-sued to an extreme, would leave the individual at the mercy of nature, society, and group and economic power. The second, followed alone, leads ultimately to statism and technocracy. Liberalism is neither of the extremes. It is a reconciliation of the two goals, with the relation between them determined by the needs of a society and the means available to it. Thus, liberalism does not, in fact, include such disparate figures as Rexford G. Tug-well, John Dewey, and Ludwig von Mises. Each is in part illiberal. Liberalism requires a rational and conscientious reconciliation of two essential goals.

The heritage of liberalism

Liberalism, in both its classical and its more contemporary, or “revisionist,” forms, is essentially a modern phenomenon. It is the heir of a rich tradition. Liberty, constitutionalism, and toleration were known to the ancient world, and the Western liberalism of England, Europe, and America is the beneficiary of several religious traditions, of Greek philosophy and literature, of Roman law and constitutionalism. In the ancient world, however, liberty was closely associated with religion, ethnic culture, and citizenship. Liberalism itself did not exist as a separate and self-sustaining tradition. Moreover, the line of descent from ancient to modern liberty is not a direct one. The liberalism that developed in England and Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was, at that time, a unique occurrence, resulting from the convergence of social and political tendencies peculiar to a specific time and environment.

Liberalism benefited from medieval constitutionalism and from the religious traditions of the church and Western Christianity. English liberalism, because of the common law, the parliamentary tradition, and the peaceful character of the English Reformation, drew much from this background, a fact illustrated by the works of John Fortescue, Richard Hooker, and Edward Coke. On the Continent the same materials proved less usable, but they served in a limited way to legitimate ancient liberties, a measure of toleration, and the rule of law.

The Renaissance and the Reformation were important in fostering liberalism, especially through the contribution they made to individualism. The Protestant doctrine that each believer could communicate directly with God, without dependence upon priest or churchly hierarchy, was an important anti-institutional influence and therefore favorable to individualism. Ideals of personal sanctification and inwardness of moral life that earlier had been restricted to orders of monks, knights, and burghers were democratized during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In addition, the Reformation and the Counter Reformation, by stressing internal energy, individual responsibility, and the need for reconstructing the worldly order, greatly stimulated individualism, despite the intentions of Luther and Calvin or St. Ignatius and Pope Paul III.

Political changes, especially during and after the Reformation, contributed ultimately to the rise of liberalism. Wars decimated nobilities, broke down settled relations between lord and commoner, engaged new groups in collective activity. The domestic and international policies of monarchs brought to prominence bureaucrats of common or semi-noble status, lawyers, town merchants, military adventurers, and scholars and scientists. The new nation-states fostered changes in law, in the economy, and in personal relations that increased commerce and the circulation of money, and the numbers of merchants, masters, and artificers. Not to be ignored is the further fact that many of these political changes entailed taxation, intervention, oppression, and suppression, which were important issues in later constitutional struggles and liberal protests.

From the policies of modern states, from economic change, and from a diffusion of culture and literacy came the small self-conscious middle class, which was the most important vehicle for liberal doctrine. Scientific discovery and technological innovation, capitalist methods of economic venture, modified legal concepts, and new forms of property worked reciprocally, especially from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, to provide both the opportunity and the incentives for individual and group initiative. The consequence was the increase not only of a small commercial and industrial middle class but, even more important, the spread of attitudes hospitable to individual enterprise and to the creed of individual responsibility.

A comparatively rapid and wide diffusion of enlightened and cosmopolitan attitudes among social and political elites, as well as among burghers, professional men, merchants, and country gentry, was of enormous importance to the development of liberalism, especially in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This development depended upon and grew from the earlier humanism and enlightenment of the Renaissance and Reformation. But the earlier tradition had been restricted largely to the court, the city, and the clergy. During the eighteenth century the arts and the sciences, political life, and a comparatively sophisticated culture became accessible to a much wider circle. Many more read; many more discussed.

Liberalism, viewed in historical perspective, was the culmination of several broad social and political trends. It involved a change in the scope of individual aspirations and, perhaps more important, in the people who had them. Prior to the nineteenth century these aspirations were restricted to an elite of birth and wealth. Social environment, individual aspiration, and consciousness of capacity combined to produce, in the nineteenth century, a widely shared and politically potent liberal faith.

Classical liberalism

Liberalism, both as a doctrine and as a political program, developed most fully in England between the Glorious Revolution (1688) and the Reform Act of 1867. Liberalism was first a limited appeal for constitutional guarantees and individual rights. It became a positive theory of economic and political organization and a political program with broad national appeal extending to many groups and classes. Neither on the Continent nor in the United States did early liberalism develop in a similar fashion. The experience of England stands alone; and the term “classical liberalism” is ordinarily used with reference to England.

Liberalism in England first took the form of a demand for religious liberties and toleration, constitutionalism, and political rights. During the Puritan revolution and the Commonwealth, written constitutions were proposed and pamphlets published demanding a number of liberties. Digger and Leveller tracts, the pamphlets of John Lilburne, the more reflective Commonwealth of Oceana of James Harrington, and Milton’s exalted defense of free speech in Areopagitica not only illustrate the scope of the constitutional controversy but also afford a sample of the political literature of the period. The revolution of 1688, the first “liberal revolution” in history, consolidated and gave definite constitutional form to the liberal gains of that century. The liberalism recognized and vindicated in 1689 was essentially negative in character, protecting groups and individuals from government, especially from the prerogatives of the crown. It was also aimed at securing chiefly political rather than economic objectives. Among those political objectives are some of the most important principles of liberal constitutionalism: the right of opposition, the rule of law, and the separation of powers. The settlement also included a recognition of important civil liberties by acts securing toleration, in 1688, and liberty of the press, in 1695. Locke’s Second Treatise of Government and the American Declaration of Independence stand as the great monuments of this phase of liberalism. [seeConstitutions AND Constitutionalism;and the biography of Locke.]

The constitutional settlement and civil peace gave enormous impetus to a second theme of classical liberalism: the theory and practice of economic liberty. The English liberal economists, led by Adam Smith, were neither the first nor the only group to erect a theory upon the postulate of laissez-faire, but they were the most influential. Their ideals were: in the juridical sphere, free contract and the rule of law; in the economic sphere, a self-regulating market, unrestrained either by monopoly or political intervention; and in the social sphere, voluntarism and collaboration for mutual benefit. The laissez-faire doctrine and the practical organization of the economy that the classical economists advocated greatly strengthened liberalism. They did so, first of all, because they broadened and democratized the values of liberalism, extending them to mercantile, commercial, and laboring classes. Second, they did so because they encouraged forms of social and economic activity that could substitute for more compulsive and bureaucratic techniques of regulation. Thus, the point of Adam Smith’s “obvious and simple system of natural liberty” was not only that it was “free” and “impersonal” but—equally important—that it was a “system” allowing men to exert their energies both to their own and to the common benefit [seeLaissez-Faire; Smith, Adam].

The English utilitarians and their political allies completed the edifice of classical liberalism. Jeremy Bentham and James Mill accepted the market economy and especially the ideals it served. They accepted, for the most part, the aims but not the methods of the liberalism of 1689. They brought the two species of liberalism together by applying the concepts of utility and the market to politics and the tasks of constitutionalism. Arguing from the hedonistic calculus and the principle of equality, they advocated “the greatest good of the greatest number.” They insisted in law and politics upon general rules that provide for a maximum of free choice and practical liberty for all, or as many as consonant with general utilitarian maxims. And they argued that only education and free speech, inclusive representation and an expanded suffrage, and the regular accountability of the governors to the governed—politics organized on the model of the free economy—could provide constitutional security and good government. English utilitarianism, as propounded by Bentham and James Mill, provided a philosophical foundation for political liberalism. It also unified economic liberalism with a theory of positive political action. Properly, this utilitarian doctrine deserves the title of the first comprehensive liberal philosophy [seeBentham; Mill; Utilitarianism].

Classsical liberalism in England owed much of its success to the fact that three liberal traditions— constitutionalism, economic liberalism, and utilitarianism—each developing in a different historic period and having a different group appeal, could be effectively joined in practical politics. Liberalism in England became a party with a broad appeal and sustained its appeal for many years. At the time of the corn law repeal (1846) liberalism in England had its broadest support, including many Whigs, Cobden and Bright liberals, utilitarians, and middle-class and working-class adherents. Probably this alliance marked the natural limits of the older liberalism. It also occupied the common meeting ground of several varieties of liberal program and ideology. Liberalism at this point in England achieved a maximum synthesis of its two competing themes: noninterference and enfranchisement.

Liberalism in Europe and America

Two vital conditions for a classical liberal synthesis existed only in England—a broad liberal movement and a powerful liberal party. In the United States the second condition was missing; on the Continent, the first.

In the United States classical liberalism did not exist, partly because conservatism in the European sense did not exist either. From Europe, Americans inherited the libertarian precepts of the Puritan revolution, the Whig settlement of 1689, and some liberal economic values. These were “received” in the colonial tradition and figured in the American Revolution, the Constitutional Convention, and, broadly, in the politics and jurisprudence of the developing nation. But they were a part of the national heritage and the spirit of the laws, not the self-conscious creed of a party or a class. Liberalism as such did not need to be vindicated, nor did it have a specific role to play. Moreover, liberalism was mixed with other issues of democracy and equality, as, for instance, in the eras of Jefferson and Jackson. When, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, social Darwinism and natural-rights jurisprudence were erected into a creed of noninterference and supposed liberty, they were already “ideology” and not “utopia.” America was, then, in large measure the unreflective inheritor of classical liberalism, especially the Lockean variety. Conscious or self-conscious liberalism in America came with the second phase of liberal development—the transition to a modern liberalism.

The classical liberal synthesis was sought in Europe but never fully achieved. Instead of developing into a broad and powerful movement and a comparatively effective political party, European liberalism remained fragmented and sectarian. Civil and religious strife and the slow development of commerce and industry contributed to this result. So did war. The state and the traditions of authority were too strong, liberalism too divided and weak, at the time when a liberal synthesis might have been realized. As a consequence, classical liberalism did not fully develop in Europe; instead several leading liberal creeds arose, which were usually doctrinaire in social philosophy and narrowly based in group support.

In Europe the primary task of securing and protecting the rule of law and constitutionally sanctioned liberties was more difficult. That task tended to become, for some European liberals, almost an end in itself, creating a liberal philosophy that Guido de Ruggiero (1925) has called “guarantism.” Unfortunately, what needed to be guaranteed in the interests of constitutionalism were often ancient liberties and privileges that because of their oligarchic origins and reactionary tendency worked against a more common liberty and the general good. Consequently, one species of European liberalism was decidedly aristocratic, supporting not only liberty but also the inequitable privileges of localities, corporations, and social and religious groups. Montesquieu and Benjamin Constant afford good illustrations of aristocratic liberalism in political theory. The Restoration and the July Monarchy in France and the revolt of 1848 in Germany are historic tragedies of this divided heritage of European liberalism.

Rationalistic and utilitarian liberalism found expression, during the age of reason and afterward, primarily in an appeal for reform from above. The philosophes in France and German liberals such as Goethe and Herder adopted the goals of individualism, widened liberty, and a rational code of laws. They did not associate these objectives with political liberty or popular participation. For some the ideal was enlightened despotism and utilitarian standards, whatever the cost to particular and historic liberties or a constitutional tradition. The reform of civil and administrative institutions for liberal ends took precedence over the liberal method. And the liberal tradition was further divided within itself: some liberals espoused a despotic method, and others such as Rousseau, Fichte, and Mazzini sought the liberal spirit in a “general will” or “the people.” Louis Bonaparte in France and Bismarck in Germany built much of their power upon this division.

In Europe there were liberal economic theorists, such as Jean Baptiste Say, Frederic Bastiat, and Friedrich von Hermann; there were also middle-class political movements and parliamentary factions supporting laissez-faire and free trade. But Europe lacked the well-grown middle class and the economic, legal, and political environment needed to make the cause of economic freedom effective and, more important, to give liberalism a central direction. As a consequence, economic liberalism remained too long the creed of a part of the bourgeoisie and an intellectual preoccupation for scholars and a few publicists. Later, when economic liberalism was both possible and widely adopted— for instance, in the French Third Republic and in unified Italy—that policy served less fully the original liberal objectives of expanding liberty and equalizing opportunity. Economic circumstances made laissez-faire, as socialists protested, not a service to liberty as a whole but to the interests of a comparatively small number of economically advantaged individuals.

At an early stage, in Europe, liberalism failed because it was weak and divided. In the later decades of the nineteenth century it was “too late” for classical liberalism. This is not to say that liberalism was not a vitally needed political and doctrinal element of European society: it was. But liberalism had to appeal to a radically changed world, one in which democracy or republicanism, nationalism, and socialism were the popular gospels.

Modern liberalism

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries classical liberalism and the traditions of thought and policy closely related to it were progressively modified. Later liberalism—especially in Great Britain and the United States, but to some extent almost everywhere in the modern world— has emphasized the positive rather than the negative aspect of liberty: the opportunity to form and accomplish self-appointed goals, rather than freedom from the state. Along with this shifting of proximate goals of liberalism came an adoption of new methods. The central value of the liberated individual, of man as far as possible his own sovereign, did not change; the understanding of that value and of the means for achieving it did.

An important cause of this revision was the success of liberalism itself: the securing of a considerable measure of political and economic liberty and the conversion of liberalism from a sectarian demand for noninterference into a program of political and economic organization. Success raised not only the question, What next? but also, Liberty for whom? Aristocrats and the bourgeoisie now had substantially the bundle of rights they needed. The franchise gave them the means of self-defense. But the same concessions—even when granted—were not enough for the peasant or the worker. Effective liberty for them required more positive action by the state, a fact that conservatives, Catholic social theorists, and Marxian and other socialists pointed out emphatically.

Liberal reorientation came partly through challenge and response, from a need to meet political and philosophical criticism. Liberalism was itself a philosophical and reasonable doctrine and therefore responsive to the new theories of man and society announced by nineteenth-century scientists and made popular by parliamentary inquiry, governmental commissions, and the newspapers. Politics was also important. The varied appeals of Tory Democracy in England, Louis Bonaparte’s imperialism in France, and monarchical socialism in Germany were political forces that could not be ignored. Nor could a liberalism that served principally the bourgeoisie of the French Second Republic or the textile manufacturers of Manchester prosper in an age of the expanded franchise, effective mass communications, and social consciousness. The liberalism that survived after 1848 had, perforce, to accommodate itself to democratic, nationalist, and socialist sentiment.

The growth of cities, of industry, and of national and world-wide commerce also forced revisions of the liberal position. Earlier liberal theory, with its individualistic premises, had contrived a model of man, his institutions, and society that minimized the facts of organizational power, of community cost and benefit, and of national history and common fate. Time progressively falsified that model, especially after the growth of the modern corporation and industrial technology. Great inequalities in market power made one man’s economic freedom another’s oppression. Similarly, free trade in commodities—such as child labor, slum housing, poisoned meat, and bad gin—made the common benefit of regulation obvious. Liberals split among themselves. One group argued for a remedy of abuses other than those perpetrated by the state. Another group clung to the dogmas of nonintervention and free trade. They made the means of liberalism into ends in themselves and liberalism itself into a conservative ideology. Thus, one heir of Bentham and Adam Smith is John Stuart Mill, and another is Herbert Spencer [seeSpencer].

With consciousness of changed circumstances came a major reassessment of the means to liberty. Later liberals assigned greater importance to the social environment within which liberty had to be realized. Their revision of liberalism followed from a recognition that certain forms of coercion and obstacles to liberty arise from society itself rather than the activities of officials. The revision had another important foundation. A society of great economic and social interrelatedness makes access to culture, the capacity to participate, and membership and status in natural and artificial groups increasingly important both to the pursuit of liberty and to its defense. Rousseau and Hegel, and, later, T. H. Green and John Dewey, all argued this theme. Man is in society, the point at which many impinging groups, institutions, and cultural influences intersect. Seldom can he effectively withdraw. He can realize and defend his liberty only by participation. But a live option of participation does not simply happen: it is a social product depending upon education, incentive, opportunity, and a supporting system of political and social values. Modern liberalism tends necessarily, therefore, to be closely associated not only with social reform but with democracy and popular participation.

The modern liberal’s view of the individual is also different from the classical description. It was not merely that the life and goals that suited a Bentham or an English merchant would distress a Coleridge, a Cardinal Newman, and, indeed, even a John Stuart Mill. The earlier liberal view of human nature was two dimensional and overly rational-istic. Nineteenth-century sociology and psychology destroyed that view thoroughly. Modern liberalism has assimilated much of the critique. Liberals today see man not only as an individual in society but as a person with a continuing need for self-expansion and reintegration. For this reason the emphasis of modern liberalism is less upon external impediments to motion and more upon the individual person’s subjective feeling of freedom and those circumstances that give to this feeling an objective reality in the experience of the individual. If a man does not feel free, he is not free. [seePersonality, Political.]

One question that arises is whether modern, or “revised,” liberalism can still appropriately be called liberalism. Liberty and equality, rights and powers are not the same things. Modern liberalism advocates collectivist means, invoking the state in aid of individuals and disadvantaged groups. It has adopted much of the program of democratic and socialist movements. Is modern liberalism still “liberal”? Three considerations argue that this query be answered with a qualified affirmative. In the first place, modern liberalism retains the same end of the autonomous individual that has guided all true liberalism. The means to that end and proximate ends have changed, but the final end remains the same. Second, those changes in method and policy that most writers identify with the expansion and modernization of liberalism have served not only to reduce arbitrary compulsion but also to extend the scope, equalize the distribution, and enrich the liberty enjoyed by individuals. Third, constitutional rights and the rule of law not only survive in the mixed regime of liberty, democracy, and the administrative state but have in some ways grown stronger. They are stronger to the extent that the mixed regime is a representative one—in which the state cannot be used as a tool for the purposes of any one group or class but must serve and be responsive and accountable to all. Certainly, modern liberalism invokes the coercive power of the state. In relation to the state itself men are, in some ways, less free to do with their own as they please. For this reason it is important that the options open to men be many and that the relations of state, society, and individual afford alternate ways of suiting means to essential ends. Pluralism, decentralization, and a variety of relations between the state and society answer to these needs. They probably afford men, given an established welfare state, a better marginal choice in distributing their energies and opting for one of several modes of liberty than ever before in history. [seeWelfare State.]

The future of liberalism

Although liberalism has been important to Western civilization, it may not continue to be so. Since the two world wars, many argue, liberalism has been in decline. Liberalism means less, so the argument runs, to the developing nations, to the semi-socialist states of western Europe, to a world menaced with war and preoccupied with material benefit. Liberal parties and liberal ideology, it could also be argued, have served their function. The programs they supported have been adopted by others who have gone further. Historic liberalism survives only as a temper or mood of politics.

Liberal parties and liberal movements have been on the wane. In the British Commonwealth and Europe they have not fared well since World War II. Some maintain their electoral following, but mainly by altering their liberal stance. Specific movements, such as the neoliberalism of Germany and the Low Countries or the Mouvement Republicain Populaire of France, show an attrition of membership, unity, and purpose. The conclusion that liberalism as an organized party or self-conscious movement is for the present in decline is warranted by the facts. In no place, presently, are liberal parties or liberal movements gaining significantly in organized power or appeal.

Liberal policies have also received scant support among developing nations struggling for independence and material prosperity. The conditions that made Adam Smith’s strategy of liberty suitable for England are missing today. Even such countries as Mexico and India, which seem determined to save liberty, are far from classical liberalism and even from more modern versions of liberalism. They are nationalistic and socialistic in many of their policies and are so by conscious intent and design.

The cold war has also weakened liberalism. In the short run, the communist challenge threatens liberty and constitutionalism directly. In the longer run, the danger is more insidious: external threats evoke response; and response demands collective effort. That effort is stimulated by nonliberal incentives and appeals: appeals to national purpose and common action and the incentives of a war economy. Liberty is not broken; but it shrinks. Liberalism is not vanquished; but it is not pursued. If, as John Stuart Mill said, “things left to themselves inevitably decay,” the threat is greater than at first sight it appears. The danger to liberalism is not that it will be openly destroyed but that it will be forgotten or perverted.

From these facts it does not follow that liberalism is unimportant for the future. The importance of the liberal temper and of liberal principles applied to politics has not diminished; probably it has increased. Liberalism thrives on material prosperity, social peace, and common enlightenment. In the programs of the nations of western Europe immediately after World War II liberalism did not have a prominent place, nor has it been important in the programs of the developing nations. These nations have been engaged in creating the conditions of material prosperity and economic security. Hopefully, their labor will eventually bear fruit in comparatively stable, pluralistic democracies and welfare economies capable of providing security and abundance for their populations. Such developments would not make liberalism outmoded. They would, in fact, make it possible and profitable: for they make it possible to realize liberty along with abundance and social justice; and they make the finer qualities of human relations increasingly accessible and valuable to all.

David G. Smith

[See alsoConservatism; Constitutions AND Constitutionalism; Democracy; Equality; freedom; laissez-faire; Utilitarianism; Welfare STATE; andthe biography of MILL. Other relevant material may be found inEconomic THOUGHTandPolitical THEORY.]


Dewey, John (1927) 1957 The Public and Its Problems. Denver: Swallow.

Girvetz, harry K. (1950) 1963 The Evolution of Liberalism. Rev. ed. New York: Collier. → First published as From Wealth to Welfare: The Evolution of Liberalism.

HalÉvy, Élie (1901-1904) 1952 The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. New ed. London: Faber. → First published in French.

Hartz, Louis 1955 The Liberal Tradition in America. New York: Harcourt.

Hayek, Frederick A. VON 1960 The Constitution of Liberty. Univ. of Chicago Press; London: Routledge.

Hobhouse, Leonard T. (1911) 1945 Liberalism. Oxford Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1964.

Hughes, Emmet J. 1944 The Church and Liberal Society. Princeton Univ. Press.

Keynes, John M. 1926 The End of Laissez-faire. London: Woolf.

Laski, Harold J. (1936) 1958 The Rise of European Liberalism: An Essay in Interpretation. London: Allen ' Unwin. → A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Barnes ' Noble.

Locke, John (1689) 1963 A Letter Concerning Toleration: Latin and English Texts. . .. The Hague: Nij-hoff. → First published as Epistola de tolerantia.

Locke, John (1690) 1960 Two Treatises of Government. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Mill, John Stuart (1859) 1963 On Liberty. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill.

Polanyi, Karl 1944 The Great Transformation. New York: Farrar. → A paperback edition was published in 1957 by Beacon. Also published in 1945 by Gollancz under the title Origins of Our Time.

Ruggiero, Guido DE (1925) 1927 The History of European Liberalism. Oxford: Collingwood. → First published as Storia del liberalismo europeo. A paper-back edition was published in 1959 by Beacon.

Watkins, Frederick 1948 The Political Tradition of the West.-A Study in the Development of Modern Liberalism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Liberalism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Liberalism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (January 18, 2018).

"Liberalism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from



LIBERALISM. For centuries the word "liberal" has carried multiple meanings, on the one hand meaning generous or broad-minded, on the other dissolute or undisciplined. In American history the concept of liberalism has been similarly multivalent despite its champions' and critics' efforts to narrow or simplify its significance. Despite an enduring myth that a single "liberal tradition" has dominated American history, the central liberal values of generosity toward the poor and toleration of diversity have always been contested. Contemporary critics of liberalism fall into two distinct camps. Conservatives, including many Republican Party loyalists, accuse liberals of mobilizing the resources of big government in a futile effort to engineer equality without respecting individual property rights. Academic cultural radicals, by contrast, accuse liberals of neglecting the egalitarian aspirations of marginalized Americans and paying too much attention to individual property rights. Can the ideas of liberalism, assailed from the right and the left, be salvaged?

Varieties of Liberalism

Viewed historically, liberalism in America bears little resemblance to today's stereotypes. From the seventeenth century onward, liberals have tried to balance their commitments to individual freedom, social equality, and representative democracy. Until recently, most American liberals conceived of individual rights within the ethical framework provided by the Christian law of love. Puritan John Winthrop, for example, was neither an egalitarian nor a pluralist, but in 1630 he characterized "liberallity" toward the least fortunate members of the community as a duty Christians must observe. Massachusetts pastor John Wise, writing in 1707, invoked the German philosopher of natural law Samuel von Pufendorf rather than the Englishman John Locke to bolster his claim that the principles of sociability and love of mankind operate alongside the principle of self-reservation. Similar combinations of religious, ethical, and traditional restraints on personal freedom provided the vocabularies employed when Americans began to challenge different aspects of British rule after 1767. The resulting discourses of protest culminated first in local and state declarations of independence, then in state constitutional conventions, and finally in the United States Constitution, complete with its Bill of Rights. As all these documents stipulated, what Thomas Jefferson termed the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" could be pursued legitimately only within boundaries established "by certain laws for the common good," as John Adams put it in the 1779 Constitution of Massachusetts. Whether that concern for the public interest derived from the Christian law of love or the Scottish common-sense philosophers' principle of benevolence, from the English common law or colonial legal practice, from classical republicanism or Renaissance civic humanism, from Pufendorf or Locke, the concept of justice as a goal transcending the satisfaction of individuals' personal preferences pervaded the founding documents that secured the rights of citizens in the new nation.

But what about those denied citizenship? Proclamations of the common good clashed with the fact that a majority of Americans did not enjoy equal liberties. In response, some mid-nineteenth-century liberal reformers such as Sarah Grimké and Frederick Douglass began to clamor for women's rights and the abolition of slavery. A few invoked the principle of toleration to protest the removal of Indians from their ancestral lands. Others invoked the language of liberty on behalf of a campaign for economic enterprise that extended Enlightenment convictions about the civilizing effects of commerce and economic growth. But local and state laws continued to circumscribe much economic activity with regulations premised on the common-law doctrine of the people's welfare, a principle invoked to justify laws controlling the use of waterways, the operation of stables and slaughterhouses, and the licensing of butchers, bakers, grocers, physicians, and lawyers. Many of those who clamored for the right of all to own property justified their claims by invoking egalitarian ideals rather than more individualist concepts of natural rights. The notion of laissez-faire never succeeded in uprooting such practices and traditions. In the decade prior to the Civil War, contrasting appeals to equal rights assumed strikingly different meanings in the North and the South. When Lincoln succeeded in tying the expansion of slavery to the degradation of free labor, he bound the political, economic, and religious strands of liberal reform sentiment into a fragile but impressive coalition perceived by the South as a threat to slaveholders' property rights.

Setting a pattern for times of peril, during the Civil War the restriction of civil liberties was justified by the goal of securing liberty. Afterward the sacrifice of the freed slaves' rights and the postponement of women's rights were both justified by the goal of restoring a Union rededicated to the principle of liberty for white men. Lincoln's more generous and more broad-minded vision of the national purpose faded from view.

For a brief moment in the late-nineteenth century, gangs of greedy industrialists and politicians hijacked liberal principles to rationalize the unchecked exploitation of people and resources, but by the turn of the century agrarian and labor activists were working to bring that anomalous period to a close. Some coalitions of progressive reformers sought to restore the earlier liberal balance between rights and obligations, invoking the eighteenth-century concept of the common good to justify restoring the authority of government as a counterweight to the assertion of private prerogatives. Their "new liberalism" sought to harness the techniques of science to regulate an industrializing and urbanizing America in order to secure effective freedom for all instead of protecting empty, formal rights that enabled "the interests" to oppress "the people." Thinkers such as John Dewey and W. E. B. Du Bois and reformers such as Louis Brandeis and Jane Addams yoked the language of liberty and justice to the philosophy of pragmatism and the energetic engagement of public authority to address social and economic problems.

Although business interests protested at first, during and after World War I they learned how to live with government because it promised to secure and legitimate the stability they prized. The Great Depression shattered their hopes and altered their strategy. Although large enterprises continued to depend on the state's cooperation, the business community developed an ideology of implacable opposition to "liberal" government intrusions into the "private" sector.

The New Deal emerged from the chaos of the depression, established a new social vision, then ended in retreat in the late 1940s when its opponents in both parties joined forces to defend hierarchies of race and privilege. Although Franklin D. Roosevelt initially lacked a coherent program of national recovery, by the end of World War II he and his advisers had transformed the meaning of liberalism. When he declared in 1944 that the Allies were fighting to secure a "Second Bill of Rights," including the rights to higher education, a job, a living wage, decent housing, and health care for all citizens, he established an agenda that has continued to drive liberal politics ever since. During the Cold War, critics derided such programs as being antithetical to an "American way of life" that sanctified the individual rights of a privileged majority, and interpreted invocations of a shared common good as evidence of dangerous communist sympathies.

Recent Debates

In the wake of World War II, renewed efforts to secure rights for African Americans and women culminated in legal and legislative milestones but failed to achieve social and economic equality. Many liberals who championed the rights of blacks and women in the 1960s eventually also allied themselves with campaigns against discrimination stemming from sexuality, age, and physical and mental disability. Such movements have proliferated since 1980, when Ronald Reagan became president, by proclaiming that government is the problem rather than the solution. Since then many liberals abandoned FDR's ambitious plans for a more egalitarian form of social democracy and turned instead toward a strategy that emphasized the rights of individuals who are members of disadvantaged groups. As a result, liberalism seemed to many Americans in the twenty-first century nothing more than a catalog of complaints asserted on behalf of minorities asserting themselves against the traditions and the will of the majority.

Although the proclamation of equal rights for aggrieved groups has been an important part of liberalism ever since theorists such as Locke and Jefferson asserted the importance of religious toleration, liberals surrender precious resources from their heritage when they narrow their discourse to rights talk. They risk appearing as narrowly self-interested as those conservatives who, following in the path of Thomas Hobbes, have tried to reduce politics to the protection of individual rights, particularly the right to property. The historical record indicates that Americans drawn to liberalism have tried instead to balance liberty, equality, and the common good. They have understood, as James Madison wrote to James Monroe in 1786, that the idea of self interest must be "qualified with every necessary moral ingredient" or else it can be used to justify all sorts of injustice. Insofar as liberals neglect the ideas of ethical responsibility, social obligation, and justice that animated the writings and reform activities of many of their predecessors, they will find themselves vulnerable to such criticism.

Sturdier versions of liberal theory emerged in the late twentieth century through the efforts of scholars influenced by John Rawls, whose monumental work A Theory of Justice (1971) provided a rationale for keeping alive the spirit of FDR's Second Bill of Rights. Rawls argued, in the tradition of theorists such as Locke, Wise, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Dewey, that a liberal society must balance the values of liberty and equality. Rawls reasoned that individuals entering a hypothetical social compact, ignorant of their own gifts and goals, would choose two principles of justice. First, and for Rawls this principle takes precedence over the second, they would provide each person with the most extensive set of liberties compatible with an equally extensive set of liberties for others. Second, any social or economic inequalities in the society would be attached to positions open to everyone and must be in the interest of the least advantaged members of the society. Rawls's theory, which updates the original liberal injunctions to protect liberty and provide for the weak, sparked a lively controversy and prompted Rawls to refine his views in Political Liberalism (1993). Critics from the right charged Rawls with overstating the redistributive claims of the community against the rights of the individual. Some imagined a "night watchman state," a chimera that has bewitched conservatives who overlook the dependence of market economies on the (government-enforced) rule of law and the (government-funded) provision of social services. Critics from the left challenged Rawls's abstract, rights-bearing individuals, reasoning that real human beings are influenced more by the cultural traditions they inherit and the aspirations they cherish than by any abstract rights they might envision.

Many early twenty-first century liberal theorists emphasized the importance of such cultural traditions, whether religious, ethnic, national, or civic, in shaping the debates that yield liberal democratic ideals and procedures. Some, such as Richard Rorty, insisted that liberalism could no longer rest on solid footing in the universal principles that earlier liberal thinkers invoked. Others, such as Michael Walzer, continued to turn to the Western tradition itself for the religious, philosophical, and political resources necessary to renew liberalism through democratic deliberation in a pluralist and contentious age. Thus liberalism, best understood as a fluid discourse concerning the meaning and relative importance of the ideals of generosity and broad-mindedness, still attracted adherents. Against competing conservative values such as hierarchy and tradition, and against radical doubts about norms such as reason and fairness, liberalism continued to assert itself as a rich and important constellation of ideas in the highly charged atmosphere of American culture.


Galston, William. Liberal Purposes: Goods, Virtues, and Diversity in the Liberal State. Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Glendon, Mary Ann. Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse. New York: Basic Books, 1991.

Hartz, Louis. The Liberal Tradition in America. New York: Harcourt, 1955.

Kloppenberg, James T. The Virtues of Liberalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Walzer, Michael. Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. New York: Basic Books, 1983.

James T.Kloppenberg

See alsoConservatism .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Liberalism." Dictionary of American History. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Liberalism." Dictionary of American History. . (January 18, 2018).

"Liberalism." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from






Liberalism has been conceived of as at once a political philosophy, as an allied political movement, and as a way of thinking about the foundations and practices of government. Liberalism has historically been defined by a great diversity of ideas, largely due to the changing contexts within which and against which liberal thought has taken shape. Despite this diversity, there are a number of basic premises common to all liberal traditions. The most central of these is a valorization of the individual and of individual liberty, and much liberal debate has concerned the conceptions of human nature that undergird these terms. Linked to this, liberal thought has been preoccupied with how individuals should govern and be governed with the least possible intervention or coercion. While liberalism arose simultaneously with the Enlightenment as an often revolutionary response to religious and absolutist forms of government, liberal democracy has, in the aftermath of the Cold War, become the dominant form of government.


While the term liberal was not commonly used until the mid-nineteenth century, much liberal thought traces its origins to early modern writing, and in particular to John Lockes (16321704) writings on natural law in the context of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Against the doctrine of the divine right of kings, Locke ([1690] 1988) argued that individuals are Gods property and as such have a natural right to the means of survivallife, health, liberty, and property. The social contract is not, as it was in Thomas Hobbes (15881679), necessitated by fear, but rather secures the protection of the natural rights that individuals enjoyed in the state of nature. Lockes most lasting contributions to liberal theorizing were his conception of civil society as a society of free men, equal under the rule of law, and the link he drew between liberty and property. Lockes thought and in particular the emphasis he placed on consensual government would become central in the formulation of the American Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

With the eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment and the rise of free market capitalism, liberal thought came to entail a more encompassing framework, including most importantly an economic theory. Against mercantilism, Adam Smith (17231790) argued in The Wealth of Nations ([1776] 2000) that a free market economy, if left to its own devices, would automatically regulate itself through an invisible hand. Smith viewed human nature as inherently propelled by self-interest that is, however, softened by the capacity for sympathy. Through the process of competition, individuals would fulfill their self-interest and, in the process, produce a balanced society. On the European continent, the Enlightenment tradition was defined by a much more rationalist conception of human nature that centered on the individual ability to reason and to direct change. The conceptions of individual reason and limited government in the work of Immanuel Kant (17241804) and Wilhelm von Humboldt (17671835) in Germany and Voltaire (16941778) and the Marquis de Condorcet (17431794) in the context of the French Revolution (17891799) had a lasting influence on liberal thought.

In the nineteenth century, English liberal thought developed an increasingly rationalistic turn. Starting with the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham (17481832) and James Mill (17731836), increasing trust is placed in the human capacity for reason and for the rational design of social institutions. The principle of utility, which in Adam Smith was reduced to individual calculations unknowable to the sovereign, now becomes the basis of governing society as a whole. Human action, argue the utilitarians, needs to be judged according to whether it promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. John Stuart Mill (18061873), while placing himself within the utilitarian tradition, argued that representative democracy was the best system to ensure that everyone had the freedom to pursue his own conception of happiness. In his most seminal contribution to liberal thought, On Liberty ([1859] 1989), Mill sought to fuse his fathers utilitarianism with a strong defense of individuality and personal autonomy. His argument hinged on the idea of character and self-development based on a notion of human nature as perfectible. By extension, however, Mills argument allowed for gradations of democracy based on the principles of civilization and progress that, especially in the colonies, entailed the justification of despotism (Mehta 1999).

In the early twentieth century, in the context of the crisis of the free market regime and the rise of socialism, a more state-centered strand of liberalism developed in Britain that sought to balance individual freedoms with equality in the form of welfare provisions. Elaborated in the work of sociologist Leonard Hobhouse (18641929) and later supported by the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes (18831946), the new liberalism was central to the development of the welfare state. In the aftermath of World War II (19391945) and in the context of the Cold War, a liberal conception and critique of totalitarianism arose in the work of Karl Popper (19021994) and in Isaiah Berlins (19091997) conception and valuation of negative liberty (freedom from) over positive liberty (freedom to). For much of the century, however, welfare-state liberalism remained hegemonic in liberal thought and politics.

However, in the context of the crisis of the 1970s and rising critiques of the welfare state, liberal debate on the role of the state was reinvigorated. Arguing against the aggregating postulates of utilitarianism, John Rawlss (19212002) A Theory of Justice (1971) proposes a neo-Kantian, rights-based conception of justice as fairness. Against a teleological conception of the good, this contractarian approach is premised on a heuristic device Rawls terms the original position in which individuals are imagined to be behind a veil of ignorance about their potential standing and attachments within society. From this position of distance and ignorance, individuals will rationally decide on a generalizable principle of justice. Importantly, this conception enables Rawls to move away from making any substantive claims about the public good or liberal society, to instead propose a procedural-ist conception of justice based on rights rather than any particular version of the good. Partly as a response to his critics, Rawls (1993) later proposed the concept of political liberalism. Here, the question of pluralism is addressed by reducing the conception of justice to the idea of public reason defined by an overlapping consensus. According to Rawls, this revised conception is necessitated in order to guarantee the stability of society in the context of diverging conceptions of the good.

In a 1974 critique of A Theory of Justice, Robert Nozick (19382002) proposes a minimal state, responsible primarily for the protection of private property. Friedrich von Hayek (18991992), who had throughout the period of welfare-state liberalism argued against state intervention into the economy, became one of the most influential proponents of a return to classical liberalism. Drawing on the Scottish Enlightenment tradition, Hayek proposed that society and in particular the economic sphere were unknowable to policymakers and would be governed by a spontaneous order as long as state intervention would be reduced to sustaining a peaceful order. Hayeks theorization of the limits of state reason became one of the most influential tracts in the rise to hegemony of neoliberalism in the last decades of the twentieth century.


Critiques of liberalism have usually converged on liberalisms disembodied conception of the individual. Edmund Burkes (17291797) writing on the French Revolution ([1790] 2001) lay the groundwork for the conservative critique of liberalism. Burke posited the organic nature of traditions evolved over time against what he perceived to be the ephemeral and dangerous rationalism of the Enlightenment. More recently and in explicit response to John Rawls, what has come to be known as the communitarian critique faults liberalism on both an ontological and a normative basis. The individual, communitarians like Michael Sandel (1984) argue, is not presocial; rather, the individual only emerges through and within social and communal relations. Secondly, a society of atomized individuals is undesirable, since it removes the individual from the relations through which life becomes intelligible (MacIntyre 1981) and morally meaningful (Taylor 1979).

In his critique of liberal conceptions of freedom, Karl Marx (18181883) argued that the political emancipation of the individual is enabled by removing all difference from the political to the private realm. The liberal conception of autonomy is thus fictitious in that an individuals socioeconomic and religious particularities continue to exist outside liberalisms purview. Later, and here more explicitly linking liberalism to the rise of capitalism, Marx showed the ambiguities of liberal emancipation, famously suggesting that capitalism freed workers to sell their laborpower in the market place and simultaneously freed them from the means of production.

Similarly concerned with the constitution of the individual, Michel Foucault (19261984) viewed liberalism as a political rationality, as a practical way of thinking about the modalities and targets of government. Liberalism entails both the critique of previous ways of governing and the rise of new modalities of power that seek to produce a citizenry capable of self-government. Processes of responsibilization, disciplining, and normalization are thus not antithetical to liberalism, but rather the condition for liberal forms of rule. Liberal freedom is here not conceived of as the gradual removal of state intervention, but as entailing a new regime of power and a new approach to how one should govern oneself and others.

SEE ALSO Cold War; Colonialism; Foucault, Michel; French Revolution; Globalization, Social and Economic Aspects of; Hobbes, Thomas; Identity; Locke, John; Marx, Karl; Marxism; Neoliberalism; Pluralism; Rawls, John


Berlin, Isaiah. 1969. Two Concepts of Liberty (1958). In Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Burke, Edmund. [1790] 2001. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Ed. J. C. D. Clark. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 2004. Naissance de la biopolitique: Cours au collège de France, 19781979 [The birth of biopolitics]. Eds. François Ewald, Alessandro Fontana, and Michel Senellart. Paris: Éditions Gallimard.

Hayek, Friedrich A. von. 1978. The Constitution of Liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hobhouse, Leonard T. 1911. Liberalism. New York: Holt.

Locke, John. [1690] 1988. Two Treatises of Government. 3rd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

MacIntyre, Alisdair. 1981. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Marx, Karl. 1977. On the Jewish Question (1844). In Karl Marx: Selected Writings, ed. David McLellan, 3957. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mehta, Uday Sing. 1999. Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mill, John Stuart. 1989. On Liberty (1859). In J. S. Mill: On Liberty and Other Writings, ed. Stefan Collini, 1116. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Nozick, Robert. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books.

Popper, Karl. 1945. The Open Society and Its Enemies. London: Routledge.

Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.

Rawls, John. 1993. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Sandel, Michael. 1984. The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self. In Political Theory 12 (1): 8196.

Smith, Adam. [1776] 2000. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. New York: Modern Library.

Taylor, Charles. 1979. Atomism. In Powers, Possessions, and Freedom: Essays in Honour of C. B. Macpherson, ed. Alkis Kontos, 3961. Toronto, ON: Toronto University Press.

Antina von Schnitzler

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Liberalism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Liberalism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (January 18, 2018).

"Liberalism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from



Any discussion of Russian liberalism must start with a general definition of the term. The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy emphasizes liberals' advocacy of individual liberty and freedom from unjustified restraint. In the nineteenth century, liberalism had a strong economic strain, stressing industrialization and laissez-faire economics. With one notable exception, Russia's first liberals were little concerned with economic affairs, as the country remained mired in a semi-feudal agrarian economy. And at all times, the quest for political liberty was at the heart of Russian liberalism.

While it is impossible to select a starting point that will satisfy everyone, an early figure in the quest for freedom was Alexander Radishchev, a well-educated and widely traveled Russian nobleman. He is best known for his A Journey from Petersburg to Moscow (1790) that vividly exposed the evils of Russian serfdom, an institution little different from slavery in the American south of the time. An enraged Empress Catherine the Great (r. 17621796) demanded his execution but settled for Radishchev's banishment to Siberia. Pardoned in 1799, he was nonetheless a broken man who committed suicide in 1802. Yet Radishchev served as an inspiration to both radicals and liberals for decades to come.

In particular he inspired the Decembrist movement of 1825. This group of noble military officers attempted to seize power in an effort so confusing that they are known simply by the month of their failed coup. Five of the conspirators were executed, but many of them advocated the abolition of serfdom and autocracy, two hallmarks of early Russian liberalism.

Under Emperor Nicholas I (r. 18251855), virtually all talk of real reform earned the attention of the secret police. Yet some Russians found a way to express themselves; most important was the historian, Timofei Granovsky, who used his lectern to express his hostility to serfdom, advocacy of religious intolerance, and his admiration for parliamentary regimes. His influence was largely limited, however, to his pupils, including one of Russia's most famous liberals, the philosopher and historian Boris Chicherin.

Chicherin's political career began under the reform-minded Emperor Alexander II (r. 18551881) and included both theoretical and practical pursuits. The author of several books and innumerable articles and reviews, Chicherin was also a professor and an active politician. His liberalism included a vigorous defense of personal liberties protected by law and a consistent rejection of violence to achieve political change. He was the first prominent Russian liberal to defend a free market as a prerequisite for political liberty, squarely breaking with the emerging socialist movement.

Another important liberal was Ivan Petrunkevich. Following two attempts on the life of Emperor Alexander II, the government issued an appeal for public support against terrorism. In response, Petrunkevich declared in 1878 that the people must resist not only terror from below, but also terror from above. That same year, he met with five terrorists in an effort to unite all opponents of the status quo, an effort that failed because the terrorists rejected Petrunkevich's demand that they disavow violence. In an 1879 pamphlet he insisted upon the convocation of a constituent assembly to guarantee basic civil liberties. Despite frequent clashes with the government, Petrunkevich remained active in politics even after his exile following the Bolshevik revolution.

At the turn of the century, Russia was on the eve of revolution. Rapid industrialization under appalling conditions fostered a radical working class movement, while a surge in the peasant population produced widespread land hunger. At the same time a middle class of capitalists and professionals was emerging, and from it came many of Russia's leading liberals.

The last emperor, Nicholas II (18941917), proved singularly incapable of handling the Herculean task of ruling Russia. He quickly dashed any hopes liberals may have entertained for reform when he dismissed notions of diluting his autocratic power as "senseless dreams." Nonetheless, the liberals remained active.

In 1901 they established their own journal, Liberation, and two years later an organization, the Union of Liberation. When Russia exploded in the Revolution of 1905, the Union coordinated a movement that ranged from strikes to terrorist assassinations. Nicholas made concessions that only fueled the rebellion and in April, liberals were demanding the convocation of a constituent assembly to create a new order. In October, Nicholas issued the October Manifesto, guaranteeing basic civil liberties and the election of a national assembly, the Duma, with real political power. By then the liberals had their own political party, the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets).

It seemed that liberalism's great opportunity had arrived. At the very least, several liberals achieved national prominence in the years after 1905. Pyotr Struve, an economist and political scientist, originally embraced Marxism, but by 1905, he espoused a radical liberalism that called for full civil liberties and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. He was elected to the Second Duma and supported Russia's entrance into the World War I. When the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, Struve joined the unsuccessful opposition and soon left Russia for good.

The most prominent liberal of the late imperial period was the historian, Pavel Milyukov. In 1895 his political views cost him a teaching position, and he used the time to travel abroad, visiting the United States. His public lectures emphasized the need to abolish the autocracy and the right to basic civil liberties. But Milyukov also realized that liberalism was doomed if it failed to address the land issue in an overwhelmingly agrarian nation.

Milyukov supported Russia's participation in World War I, but by 1916 he was so exasperated with the catastrophic prosecution of the war that he publicly implied that treason had penetrated to the highest levels of the government. When the autocracy collapsed in February 1917, Milyukov became the foreign minister of the provisional government, the highest office ever reached by a Russian liberal. It did not last long. Under great pressure, in May he issued a promise to the allies that Russia would remain in the war to the bitter end. Antiwar demonstrations ensued, and Milyukov was forced to resign. He died in France in 1943.

Despite the efforts of Milyukov, Struve, and others, Russian liberalism increasingly fell between two stools. On the one hand were the revolutionaries who had nothing but contempt for liberals with their willingness to compromise with the imperial system. The regime's supporters, on the other hand, saw the liberals as little better than bomb-throwing revolutionaries. In a society as polarized as Russia was in 1914, with a political system as archaic as its leader was incompetent, any form of political moderation was likely doomed.

The Communists thoroughly crushed all opposition, but some brave individuals continued to call for human freedom, the most important being Andrei Sakharov. A physicist by training, he was a man of extraordinary intelligence and courage. Admitted as a full member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences at the age of thirty-two, he was deprived of the lavish privileges accorded the scientific elite of the USSR on account of his subsequent advocacy of human rights and civil liberties. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, Sakharov returned to national prominence; he died almost exactly two years before the demise of the Soviet Union on Christmas 1991.

In the Russian Federation of the early twenty-first century, political terms such as liberal, conservative, radical, and so on are almost meaningless. But liberalism in its more traditional sense won a major victory in the 1996 presidential election when Boris Yeltsin defeated the Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov. Yeltsin's liberal credentials were later much criticized, but he successfully defended freedom of speech, the press, and religion, and he initiated free market reforms. At the very least, liberalism became more powerful in Russia than any time in the past.

See also: constitutional democratic party; decembrist movement and rebellion; milyukov, paul nikolayevich; nicholas ii; radishchev, alexander nikolayevich; sakharov, andrei dmitrievich


Fischer, George. (1958). Russian Liberalism: From Gentry to Intelligentsia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hamburg, Gary. (1992). Boris Chicherin and Early Russian Liberalism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Roosevelt, Patricia. (1986). Apostle of Russian Liberalism: Timofei Granovsky. Newtonville, MA: Oriental Research Partners.

Stockdale, Melissa K. (1996). Paul Miliukov and the Quest for a Liberal Russia, 18801918. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Timberlake, Charles, ed. (1972). Essays on Russian Liberalism. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Walicki, Andrzej. (1986). Legal Philosophies of Russian Liberalism. Oxford: Clarendon.

Hugh Phillips

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Liberalism." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Liberalism." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . (January 18, 2018).

"Liberalism." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from


liberalism Although liberalism is usually seen as the dominant ideology of the Western democracies, with its roots in Enlightenment thought, there are many variations and hybrids of its doctrines. Nevertheless it is clear what liberalism is opposed to: namely, political absolutism in all its forms, be they monarchist, feudal, military, clerical, or communitarian. In this opposition it attempts to ensure that individuals and groups can resist any authoritarian demands. In practice, this has most commonly meant a split between (on the one hand) a public world and a private world where rights are defined, the most common of which are to private property, and (on the other) the free exercise of religion, speech, and association.

Classical liberalism is usually identified with the philosophies of John Locke, David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill (all of whom have separate entries in this dictionary). These writers emphasize social contract theory, a world where human beings are guided by enlightened self-interest, rationality, and free choice, and argue for the minimum intervention of the state in the lives of individuals. It is strongly associated both with economic doctrines of laissez-faire (as in the writings of Adam Smith), and with constitutional guarantees and representative democracies, in which all citizens are held to hold inalienable rights to certain freedoms—such as the right to life, to property, to free speech, association, and religion, along with the right to have some say in the running of the country (usually the right to vote).

The philosophy of liberalism has been attacked for creating a world of ‘possessive individualism’ ( C. B. Macpherson , The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, 1962
). Among sociologists, the key objection has centred upon its (presumed) beliefs in the individual autonomous self, and in the possibility of neutral rules. Both arguments are asocial–assuming the existence of individuals and abstract rules without a society that shapes them. However these sorts of criticisms are often directed at a mere caricature of a particular liberalism. In fact, many liberals recognize the profoundly social nature of its claims, as can be seen, for example, in Susan Moller Okin's Justice, Gender and the Family (1989).

There are many debates and strands of divergent thought from the above simple outlines. Some liberals place much more emphasis on economic freedoms but wish for wider government intervention in the moral life (the political philosophies of Prime Minister Thatcher and President Reagan are often described in these terms). Others stress minimum state intervention in all spheres–a position often identified as libertarianism. Probably the most celebrated contemporary liberal is the philosopher John Rawls, whose book A Theory of Justice (1972) provides an original, formal theory of social contract, in which he aims to provide a moral basis for the just society by conceiving of a contract in which the rights and obligations of citizens would be laid down before they knew of their own social position and lacked knowledge of others'. It is a theory used to good effect in some sociological writings (such as W. G. Runciman's Social Justice and Relative Deprivation, 1966). Others who are critical of classical liberalism actually help refine it. Benjamin Barber criticizes ‘thin liberalism’–which aims only at representation–in favour of ‘strong democracy’ in which participation is much more central (see Strong Democracy, 1984
). Michael Walzer advocates a democracy that can be balanced out over different spheres of social life (see Spheres of Justice, 1983
). Still others have advocated a feminist liberalism which places the injustices of the family at the centre of the analysis (for example Susan Moller Okin).

It seemed at the end of the 1980s, with many of the other political ‘isms’ of the twentieth century in apparently dire health, that new versions of liberalism were likely once again to dominate the agenda of Western political thinking (see N. Rosenblum , Liberalism and the Moral Life, 1989

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"liberalism." A Dictionary of Sociology. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"liberalism." A Dictionary of Sociology. . (January 18, 2018).

"liberalism." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from



The term "liberalism" has meant different things at different points in the history of the United States. The different meanings of liberalism turn on the changing relationship between the government and the economy. In the nineteenth century liberalism was a critique of the doctrine of mercantilism which had been the reigning theory of economic activity in the eighteenth century. Mercantilism focused on the commercial life of the nation. It asserted that there was only a fixed amount of wealth in the world and viewed economic life as a kind of commercial warfare between nations in which the goal was to accumulate as much as possible of silver and gold. The government played an active role in this commercial competition between the nations. It encouraged specific manufacturing industries, regulated the quality of manufactures, established trading routes and oversaw the relations with the colonies. This doctrine had begun to crumble in the eighteenth century as a result of excessive regulation and poor administration. Also the economies of some European nations, like Spain, had been undermined by the price inflation that accompanied their governments' accumulation of gold and silver. The mercantilist economies also sometimes created obstructions to international trade by erecting high tariff barriers to protect domestic industry from foreign competition.

When Adam Smith wrote his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776, mercantilism had seen its better days. Smith's was a most elegant critique against the decrepit system, because it was so simple. He argued that all the functions that mercantilism invested in the state could be more efficiently performed by the individual entrepreneur. For instance, rather than have the government dictate prices and quantities of goods for sale, the "law of supply and demand" would automatically find the price and the quantity which best accommodated both the buyer and the seller. Secondly, rather than have the government decide what industry to invest in, the individual entrepreneur, spurred by the profit motive, would make that decision. And, rather than have the government organize production, the entrepreneur, again in the effort to maximize his profit, would find the optimum "division of labor" that would improve productivity and maximize profits.

It was an age of manifestos and Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations became (and remains) the most persuasive manifesto of free market capitalism. The nineteenth century economic liberals believed that property rights were the cornerstone of both political and economic freedom. Underlying Smith's system was an assumption (shared by another Scottish philosopher, John Locke) of the promise of harmonious relations among the members of society. Each individual, endowed with certain natural rights, in seeking personal happiness also enhanced the happiness of all. The economic liberals believed that there was no essential contradiction between the "public good" of all individuals. The economy was not, as the mercantilists held, a "zero sum game." The public good could be most effectively furthered by economic liberalism (or the freedom to invest). Democracy could rid itself of the dead hand of government and increase the benign scope of laissez-faire's "invisible hand."

But the emergence over the next two centuries of industrialization, urbanization, big business, over-production crises, instability, the excesses of competition, and the conspiracy to set prices, and in particular the misfortune of the Great Depression (19291939) plus two world wars gradually converted modern liberalism from a crusade against governmental interference in the economy into a movement to protect the weak against the strong and the national economy against the unregulated tendency towards instability. Today, at the beginning of the twentieth century and the dawn of a new millennium, liberalism stands for almost the complete opposite than its nineteenth century meaning.

But did nineteenth century liberalism ever actually exits? Many economic historians argue that during the first three centuries of U.S. history, colonial, state, and federal governments continued to intervene in the economy, in varying degrees, under the more modern definition of liberalism. They argue that during the colonial period government at all levels acted in the public interest and that it could set the "just price" for milling and the price of bread, regulate the purity of beer, establish reasonable ferry charges, and grant monopoly franchises. Colonial governments could set wages and even require work. In the process, many colonial regulations were embedded in common law. To enforce this web of complex rules and regulations, colonial governments used constables and wardens. While many of the colonial regulations had disappeared by the time of the American Revolution (17751783), the Revolution itself did little to interrupt institutional continuity.

While some economists assert that the U.S. economy in the nineteenth century followed Smith's vision of laissez faire liberalism, others argue that the government, although undoubtedly supportive of profit-driven economic development, was also beginning to take on the mandate of "twentieth century liberalism" i.e., the roles of regulator and safety-net. This was the view, clearly present in the Populists and the Progressives, that the profit motive of the individual investor, unless restrained by government, may do damage to the public good.

In addition, the government remained a potent force in the economy, although often in spite of the popular sentiment to limit the role of the federal government in favor of states rights. The federal banking policy illustrates both the resistance to a larger role for the federal governmentvented in Andrew Jackson's "bank war" of 1832 and the gradual realization that banks simply needed regulation. Eventually, the national consensus supported President Woodrow Wilson's Federal Reserve Bank which in 1913 created the modern national banking structure.

As the Progressive period unfolded, reforms at the federal level included the lowering of tariffs, the introduction of the income tax, passage of antitrust laws, the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, the direct election of Senators, federal child-labor laws, constitutional amendments prohibiting the consumption of alcoholic beverages, and extending the vote to women. Reforms at the state level brought workmen's compensation laws and pensions for Union Civil War veterans, their widows, and orphans (the nation's first government funded welfare plans). Seeking to break the power of entrenched political interests, reformers also advocated open primaries, initiative, referendum and recall, and promoted governmental regulation of gas, water, and electrical utilities. Urban reformers also sought to weaken political bosses and their machines by implementing commission government and home rule. As the emergence of the modern bureaucratic state continued, various political factions battled for control in a society being transformed by the forces of industrialization, immigration, and urbanization.

Faced with mounting pressure, the federal government also began to regulate the railroad industry as well as break up monopolies. In response to the accumulated demands of the National Grange, Farmers' Alliances, Greenback Party, and eventually the Populist Party, Congress finally passed in 1887 the Interstate Commerce Act, which assigned the federal government the role of market arbiter. On October 15, 1914, Congress passed and President Woodrow Wilson (19131921) signed the Clayton Antitrust Act, which was designed to strengthen the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 by fully codifying specific illegal antitrust activities. To carry out and enforce the Clayton Act and the Sherman Act, Congress created the Federal Trade Commission in a related measure.

As the country expanded and the population grew, and as the economy became more complex and powerful, some of the underlying structural weaknesses were not apparent to most U.S. citizens. But the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression changed their views. In 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt (19331945) formally introduced a new twentieth century liberalism to the United States political and economic landscape. Roosevelt was greatly influenced by the British economist John Maynard Keynes, who proposed the prevention of financial crisis and unemployment by adjusting demand through government control of credit and currency. Roosevelt shifted purchasing power in favor of the poor, the spenders; he provided employment through public works and insurance where it was feasible, and, in other cases, he offered assistance to those injured by economic forces. Essentially through ad hoc measures (measures taken for a specific case or instance), the New Deal unfolded. The objective was to help those in distress, deflate the large interests that had overreached themselves, and improve the functioning of the system.

In the late 1990s, under a more global economy, liberalism was faced with the question of whether the United States and other capitalist countries were prepared to accept a mixed economyone in which the government, not the market, was responsible for major decisions concerning total savings, investment and spending, which would result, it was hoped, in stable or high levels of employment and output.

See also: Nicholas Biddle, Federal Reserve Act of 1913, Andrew Jackson, Mercantilism, Adam Smith


Gottfried, Paul. "In Search of a Liberal Essence." Society, 39-51, September/October 1995.

Link, Arthur S. Wilson: The New Freedom. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1956.

Mandle, Jay. "The Lefts' Wrong Turn: Why Economic Nationalism Won't Work." Dissent, 45, 1998.

Nuechterlein, James. "The Lure of Social Democracy." First Things, May 1998.

Smith, Roger M. "Unfinished Liberalism." Social Research, Fall 1994.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Liberalism." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Liberalism." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . (January 18, 2018).

"Liberalism." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from