What Are Some of the Main Principles of Liberalism?

Liberalism as a worldview subscribes to the belief that humans are essentially good, concern for the welfare of others brings about progress, war is not an inevitable state and violence done to others is the fault of evil institutions rather than a symptom of a flawed human race. Liberalism’s international view considers war a global problem that requires a collective solution in which societies restructure themselves and dismantle the institutions that are likely to cause wars. In its societal outlook, liberalism generally favors civil rights, personal freedoms, free trade, private property and fair elections.

During the Age of Enlightenment, late 17th-century thinkers began to question traditional concepts such as the divine right of kings, state religion, hereditary privilege and absolutism. The belief in a representative democracy, or republican government, held in check by a social contract between the rulers and the governed began to take hold. The philosopher John Locke, who wrote during the late 1600s, is considered to be one of the founding fathers of classical liberalism. Many of Locke’s ideas were used as the basis for the justification of the overthrow of what was seen as tyrannical rule, such as in the case of the American and French revolutions.

Two of liberalism’s major ideological opponents, fascism and communism, proved to be ineffective in usurping the principles of the liberal democracies they challenged in World War II and during the Cold War that followed. As a result, liberal concepts of government and society spread further in the second half of the 20th century. The exact definition of the term “liberalism,” however began to take on different meanings in North America and Europe. In the United States, liberalism is often associated with the welfare state while in Europe, it usually describes laissez-faire economic policies and limited government.