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  Liberalism (from Latin liberalis, ‘of a free man or woman’) is the name given to a diverse set of political doctrines committed to ensuring liberty and equality for individuals, within conditions of limited and representative government. Liberalisms, in principle, are politically secular, and embrace philosophical rationalism and individualism. Historically, liberalism originated in western Europe and North America and expressed the political aspirations of those who argued for freedom from state and church control of thought and expression. Liberalism has always stood for tolerance—although liberals are not thereby obliged to display tolerance towards the illiberal, especially those who would seek to abolish liberal arrangements. Liberalism is grounded in the belief that there is no natural moral order which can be confidently known by states or churches; therefore individuals must be free to pursue their own conceptions of the good—consistent, of course, with enabling others to enjoy the same freedom. It follows that liberals support freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom from governmental ‘intervention’ in the conduct of private life, and that the institutions of church and state should be separated.

These beliefs explain why liberalism and democracy are compatible although historically liberalism has not always been associated with a democratic philosophy. Indeed it was not until the mid-19th century, in the writings of the French analyst Alexis de Tocqueville and the Englishman John Stuart Mill, that liberals came to believe that democracy, individualism, liberty, equality and the rule of law could be reconciled. However, this reconciliation of liberalism and democracy had been anticipated in the constitutional republican writings of French- and English-speaking authors of the Enlightenment—notably in Rousseau\'s The Social Contract and in The Federalist Papers, written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, which helped shape the American Constitution. American liberals, drawing upon the thought of the French philosopher Montesquieu and the English philosopher Harrington, prescribed checks and balances, and a separation of powers, as ways of preventing the potential for governments to become despotic.

It is possible to distinguish several types of liberalism. In the first place there has been a division between utilitarians and rights-based liberals. utilitarians believe that moral and political philosophy must be based on welfare-maximizing principles: government and public policy must be conducted according to ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’, on the supposition that each person is to be treated as equally important. On this conception the aim of liberalism is to ensure the maximum degree of want-satisfaction, or alternatively to minimize the degree of suffering experienced by people. The utilitarian foundations of liberalism can be found in the writings of David Hume, Jeremy Bentham and James Mill. By contrast rights-based liberalism, associated historically with John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill, emphasizes that individuals have (or should have) inalienable rights or personal autonomy which should not be transgressed by any other individuals, groups, or, most importantly, the state even in pursuit of the greatest good for the greatest number. In this perspective, government should be based upon the consent of individuals who contract with one another to protect their rights; and government should be limited to the protections of these fundamental rights and to the provision of basic services which individuals agree cannot be provided by their own actions.

In the second place we can distinguish between classical or economic liberals, enthusiasts for the laissez faire doctrines of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and new or social liberals, like T.H. Green and J.M. Keynes, who were influenced by socialism. Economic liberals emphasize the centrality of private property rights and the free commerce of individuals as the foundations of a free and prosperous society; and reject governmental intervention, except where it is absolutely necessary, on the grounds that governmental monopolies lead to inefficiency and stagnation. Classical liberals believe in maximizing liberty and minimizing government, and in Adam Smith\'s doctrine of the ‘invisible hand’: if agents are left to pursue their economic self-interest they will, unintentionally, produce the best economic consequences. They also embrace methodological individualism. Economic liberals are also likely to see democracy as a threat to the operations of a free market society because democracy permits people to organize against the consequences of market competition and therefore seek to ensure that constitutional provisions can prevent governments from violating property rights.

New liberals or social liberals, by contrast, reject the minimalist role of the state envisaged in classical liberalism. They have a more wide-ranging conception of freedom, positive liberty, which rejects the classical liberal assumption that greater government means correspondingly less freedom. They have historically been influenced by the political theories of the Englishman T.H. Green, which were in turn influenced by the writings of the German philosopher Hegel, by the American educationalist John Dewey, and by the theories of political economy developed by J.M. Keynes. Common to social liberalism is the belief that advanced industrial society requires substantial state intervention in order to offset distortions produced by the free market; and a rejection of the extreme individualism which sees no place for society, community or the state in forging the conditions necessary for individuals to be free and equal. Social or modern liberalism is a friend of benign big government; believing that the welfare state can and should raise the moral and intellectual capacities of citizens, and enable genuine equality of opportunity.

This division within what was liberalism has led classical or economic liberals to be called ‘conservatives’ in English-speaking countries, while the label of liberalism has been claimed by the new or social liberals, who have often allied themselves with social democrats and socialists. On the European continent, by contrast, liberalism generally retains its classical meaning.

In contemporary political theory, liberalism is criticized by ‘communitarians’ for having an impoverished, atomistic conception of human beings, which neglects the profound importance of community in shaping individuals\' capacities and morality—a criticism common to conservatives, socialists and religious critics of liberalism. Robust defenders of liberalism maintain in reply that it is precisely the virtue of liberalism that it does not take for granted whatever prejudices or values may be bestowed by tradition or communities, but rather requires that they be capable of rational justification. This rationalist impulse explains why liberals are so often in the vanguard of movements to reform societies and states. BO\'L

See also conservatism; libertarianism.Further reading G. de Ruggiero, The History of European Liberalism; , L. Hart, The Liberal Tradition in America; , D.J. Mannin, Liberalism; , J.S. Mill, On Liberty; , M.J. Sandel (ed.), Liberalism and its Critics.



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