Liberalism as an ideology has a long and complex history in politics as well as philosophy. In essence the liberal tradition refers to a system of thought or ideology which emphasizes the concept of freedom and personal liberty as the purpose of government. This also implies the ability to desist and the right of opposition to established systems and rules and governance which may be seen to infringe on the ethos of freedom that forms the kernel of liberal ideologies.
A simple definition of the idea of the liberal tradition is as follows.
Liberalism is a political current embracing several historical and present-day ideologies that claim defense of individual liberty as the purpose of government. It typically favors the right to dissent from orthodox tenets or established authorities in political or religious matters.
( Wikipedia: Liberalism)
Liberalism is also defined and understood in contradistinction to other political ideologies such as conservatism and particularly to totalitarianism, which represent the antithesis of liberal freedom. The term liberal stems from the Latin "liber" or "free," and this emphasizes the liberal ideal of being free from the rules and tenet of authority
The tradition if liberalism has undergone numerous mutations and developments in political history. The origins of liberalism can be traced to the ideals of the Enlightenment in Europe. This strain of liberal thought can also be seen to emerge in the philosophy and actions of the French revolution and European revolutions in the Nineteenth century.
Two central elements of liberal ideology stand out in history. The first is the desire for freedom of thought and action and the second is the need to oppose what is considered to be reactionary and antiquated traditions that would retard the dimension of freedom.
Liberalism was the intellectual haven of the new commercial class that wanted freedom to change the old social order. It provided guidance in moral, political, and economic spheres. ... The concept of freedom is at the heart of the liberal ideology. Originally, to be free was not to be a slave. It still means that one has legal, guaranteed control over what one does. One is neither prevented from doing what one wants nor forced to do what one does not want.
(Jackson and Jackson 1997, p.155)
The central reason why the liberal ideology has proven to be one of the most successful political ideological traditions in history is that it holds the principle of freedom and individual expression as its central focus. This paper will argue that the reason for the success of this ideology is that throughout the various incarnations of liberalism, the motivating focus has been on freedom and the betterment of the human condition, with the concomitant desire to react against outmoded and authoritarian regimes. The following discussion will present an overview of the development of the liberal ideal as it related to this emphasis on freedom and human advancement.
2. Different concepts of liberalism
The history of liberalism is characterized by striving towards freedom and by a mood of defiance against those elements which would obstruct the natural development of there individual and society. The Enlightenment and the belief in rationalism in European thought in the nineteenth century was one of the precursors of constructivist liberalism.
This was an ideology that was based on the belief in reason and the rational or scientific approach to life and society. It was a mode of thought opposed to ancient traditions of law and political governance, such as the idea of Kingship, which could not be proven or substantiated through rational discourse. These ideals can be found in the works of thinkers like Rene Descartes and Voltaire. They believed that society should be completely restructured in terms of reason and in the belief in the rational proof of all things.
This was also a reaction against an authoritarian and rigid past history of political rule in Europe. This form of liberalism was also espoused by thinkers like Thomas Hobbes in Great Britain. Continental or constructivist liberalism was more than just a political doctrine, but was rather a social mood and ethos which was to dominate liberal movements in later years.
The core of this movement, unlike the British tradition, was not so much a definite political doctrine as a general mental attitude, a demand for an emancipation from all prejudice and all beliefs which could not be rationally justified, and for an escape from the authority of 'priests and kings'. Its best expression is probably B. de Spinoza's statement that 'he is a free man who lives according to the dictates of reason alone'.
(Hayek F.A. 1978)
The above quotation, I feel, delineates some of the essential qualities of political liberalism which have sustained this ideology and made it so successful over time. This refers to the fact that it is an ideology which always has as its central trajectory the movement towards freedom as well as the implicit opposition to redundant and stifling forms of thought and governance.
Early forms of liberalism are known as Classical Liberalism. One of the English political philosophers in this regard was John Locke. The ideas that Locke and others promulgated were to have a profound impact on the Western world. For example,
... they animated the industrial revolution in Britain, became the rationale for the Declaration of Independence in the United States, and were affirmed by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen by the French National Assembly in 1789. In 1948 Locke's ideas were enshrined, once again, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations.
(Jackson and Jackson 1997, p.155)
In his work Two Treatises on Civil Government, (1690) Locke stated that all human beings have the right to" life, liberty, and property and that they create government to protect and preserve these basic rights." ( ibid) Lock linked the idea of freedom with political governance and legislation and the protection of these rights. "Freedom is ... To have a standing rule to live by, common to everyone of that society and made by the legislative power erected in it." (Ashby, 1997, p. 383)
This ideology therefore encompassed the ideals of freedom of expression and speech as well as the freedom to produce and disseminate ideas. These are ideals that have been incorporated into the constitutions of most democratic countries in the world and are evidence of the enduring success of these early liberal ideals. ( ibid)
John Stuart Mill was another early liberal thinker and his work is important in terms of the liberal ideal due to his emphasis on the non-interference of the State in individual freedom. He states in his famous easy entitled On Liberty (1859) that "... The only justification for restricting the freedom of any individual is to prevent harm to others. The state should therefore not restrain individual actions that are not coercive of others." (Baum, Bruce 1998, p.187) It is also important to understand that the original thinking of liberalism was also aware of the necessity for political control and order. The balance between freedom and authority in political systems was an important and sometimes controversial component of the development of liberal ideals.
John Stuart Mill is well-known for his views on the way that social and political power can limit and obstruct individual freedom. At the same time he also opposed the understanding of freedom without any social constraints. His conception of freedom strongly emphasized the concept of the autonomy of the individual and the necessary limitations on the control of the power of the State, and the extent to which the state could intrude on the lives of the individual.
Mill's conception of freedom emphasizes the necessity of autonomy. This includes the widest possible range of choices and opportunities for self? development for the individual "in relation to the full range of forms of power that situate people. In this view, freedom and power are linked in a continuing interplay, not a simply oppositional relationship." (ibid)
Therefore, the central idea of individual autonomy for Mill is dependent of the context that the individual is situated in relation to the various power structures and relationships. These could include categories of power relationships such as educational, political, economic, gender, and family relations. (ibid) However, in the cultivation of individual autonomy and the 'sovereignty' of the individual in ' self -- regarding' matters', ( ibid) Mill also emphasizes that freedom is not constituted solely in terms of the actions of the individual but must be envisaged as a concept that is interlinked with power structure and democratic self-government. In essence Mill's central concern is with the problematics of civil liberty. He states this problem as "the nature and limits of power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual." (John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty" ) He is concerned therefore with the limitations of the power of the state and the way that this power restricts the autonomy and freedom of the individual.