Neither individualism nor the belief that freedom is a primary political good are immutable laws of history. Only in the Western world in the last several centuries have they assumed such importance as social factors that they could be blended into a political creed. Although Christianity had long taught the worth of the individual soul and the Renaissance had placed a value upon individualism in limited circles, it was not until the Reformation that the importance of independent individual thought and action were expressed in the teachings of Protestantism. At the same time, centralizing monarchs were destroying feudalism and alongside the nobility arose the bourgeoisie, a new social class that demanded the right to function in society, especially commercially, without restriction. This process took several centuries, and it may be said that the first philosopher to offer a complete liberal doctrine of individual freedom was the Englishman John Locke (1689). From this period on the doctrines of classical liberalism were evolved.
Classical liberalism stressed not only human rationality but the importance of individual property rights, natural rights, the need for constitutional limitations on government, and, especially, freedom of the individual from any kind of external restraint. Classical liberalism drew upon the ideals of the Enlightenment and the doctrines of liberty supported in the American and French revolutions. The Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, was characterized by a belief in the perfection of the natural order and a belief that natural laws should govern society. Logically it was reasoned that if the natural order produces perfection, then society should operate freely without interference from government. The writings of such men as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill mark the height of such thinking.
In Great Britain and the United States the classic liberal program, including the principles of representative government, the protection of civil liberties, and laissez-faire economics, had been more or less effected by the mid-19th cent. The growth of industrial society, however, soon produced great inequalities in wealth and power, which led many persons, especially workers, to question the liberal creed. It was in reaction to the failure of liberalism to provide a good life for everyone that workers' movements and Marxism arose. Because liberalism is concerned with liberating the individual, however, its doctrines changed with the change in historical realities.
By 1900, L. T. Hobhouse and T. H. Green began to look to the state to prevent oppression and to advance the welfare of all individuals. Liberal thought was soon stating that the government should be responsible for providing the minimum conditions necessary for decent individual existence. In the early 20th cent. in Great Britain and France and later in the United States, the welfare state came into existence, and social reform became an accepted governmental role.
In the United States minimum wage laws, progressive taxation, and social security programs were all instituted, many initially by the New Deal, and today remain an integral part of modern democratic government. While such programs are also advocated by socialism, liberalism does not support the socialist goal of complete equality imposed by state control, and because it is still dedicated to the primacy of the individual, liberalism also strongly opposes communism. Current liberal goals in the United States include integration of the races, sexual equality, and the eradication of poverty.
The classic works of liberalism include J. Locke, Second Treatise on Government (1689); J. S. Mill, On Representative Government (1862); L. T. Hobhouse, Liberalism (1911); J. Dewey, Liberalism and Social Action (1935). See also H. K. Girvetz, From Wealth to Welfare (1950); T. P. Neill, The Rise and Decline of Liberalism (1953); G. L. Cheery, Early English Liberalism (1962); K. R. Minogue, The Liberal Mind (1963); A. Arblaster, The Rise and Decline of Western Liberalism (1986); R. Eccleshall, British Liberalism (1986); N. P. Barry, On Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism (1987).
School of religious thought characterized by concern with inner motivation as opposed to external controls. It was set in motion in the 17th century by René Descartes, who expressed faith in human reason, and it was influenced by such philosophers as Benedict de Spinoza, G. W. Leibniz, and John Locke. Its second stage, which coincided with the Romantic movement of the late 18th and 19th century, was marked by an appreciation of individual creativity, expressed in the writings of philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant as well as of the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher. The third stage, from the mid-19th century through the 1920s, emphasized the idea of progress. Stimulated by the Industrial Revolution and by Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), thinkers such as T. H. Huxley and Herbert Spencer in England and William James and John Dewey in the U.S. focused on the psychological study of religious experience, the sociological study of religious institutions, and philosophical inquiry into religious values.
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Political and economic doctrine that emphasizes the rights and freedoms of the individual and the need to limit the powers of government. Liberalism originated as a defensive reaction to the horrors of the European wars of religion of the 16th century (see Thirty Years' War). Its basic ideas were given formal expression in works by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, both of whom argued that the power of the sovereign is ultimately justified by the consent of the governed, given in a hypothetical social contract rather than by divine right (see divine kingship). In the economic realm, liberals in the 19th century urged the end of state interference in the economic life of society. Following Adam Smith, they argued that economic systems based on free markets are more efficient and generate more prosperity than those that are partly state-controlled. In response to the great inequalities of wealth and other social problems created by the Industrial Revolution in Europe and North America, liberals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries advocated limited state intervention in the market and the creation of state-funded social services, such as free public education and health insurance. In the U.S. the New Deal program undertaken by Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt typified modern liberalism in its vast expansion of the scope of governmental activities and its increased regulation of business. After World War II a further expansion of social welfare programs occurred in Britain, Scandinavia, and the U.S. Economic stagnation beginning in the late 1970s led to a revival of classical liberal positions favouring free markets, especially among political conservatives in Britain and the U.S. Contemporary liberalism remains committed to social reform, including reducing inequality and expanding individual rights. Seealso conservatism; individualism.
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