• Classical Liberalism
    • 1700s-1800s
    • Locke & Smith
  • Reform Liberalism
    • 1800s-1900s
    • Mill & Green
  • Contemporary Liberalism
    • 1930s-
    • Keynes (1930s) & Rawls (1970s)

Key Ideas

  • Personal freedom – freedom from coercion
  • Limited government – state serves & performs limited functions
  • Equality of right – everyone must abide by laws, which must be applied equally and impartially
  • Consent of the governed – government requires the consent of the people and is responsible to them
  • Two aspects all the forms of liberalism

What is the best relationship between the two?

  • Politics
  • Economics
  • Question: what relationship between the two?

Classical Liberalism

  • John Locke (1632-1704) – England
  • Adam Smith (1723-90) – Scotland
  • David Hume (1711-76) – Scotland
  • Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) – USA
  • James Madison (1751-1836) – USA

Classical Liberalism: John Locke

  • Basis of political ideas of liberalism
  • Radical for his time (now considered conservative)
    • Rejecting absolutist monarchy
    • Replacing it with a recognition of the rights of the individual
    • People’s consent to who rules over them

Historical situation

  • Civil War in England
  • King Charles I going to war with Parliament
  • Key debate: what should be the foundation of political authority:
    • Divine right of kings: God is said to have anointed that monarch to rule
    • Popular sovereignty: people’s consent. He was against the idea of Devine right(kings rule)

Key Books:

  • Concern: to defeat the idea of kings having a divine right to rule over subjects
  • Two Treatises of Government, 1684 ; his idea is no single person is been chosen by god to control everyone
  • First Treatise (On Government) – Nobody has been singled out by God to hold any natural authority over anybody else = no divine right granted to kings
  • Second Treatise (On Government) – Establish the true basis for political authority or government
    • Key document in the development of liberalism


  • People as autonomous “individuals” – individuals are most important
  • State of nature: life before government = free, equal, governed by the law of nature
    • Natural rights: “life, liberty, and estate” — granted by God; everyone has them
    • People are self-interested (hallmark of liberal thought)
    • We are protected by nature
  • State of war: state of enmity and destruction
    • All individuals, being self-interested, agree together to form a political society
    • We need a government that will make, interpret, and enforce laws; a government that will save us from war and make life possible
  • Social contract (compact)
    • Government is founded on the consent of people
    • Can consent only to create and obey a limited (not absolute) government – otherwise they would be enslaving themselves, which violates their natural rights
  • Government: people create for a specific end = to protect their natural rights
  • “Property”:
    • Their lives, their bodies, their liberty, their possessions
    • The government’s authority is limited to protecting this
    • Unequal property is a matter of right
    • “labour theory of property” = mixing of your labour with something makes it your property
  • Right of revolution: a returning to the starting point if government is violating your natural rights
  • Political obligation = individuals who form this contract are obligated to obey the law of a rightly formed government
    • If an individual hasn’t consented, not obligated to obey the laws
    • Equality of law: everyone must be treated equally before the law
  • Tolerance: people should tolerate each others’ religions – state should not be mixed in with religion
    • Beginnings of secularism – there is no state religion

Classical Liberalism: Adam Smith

  • Basis of economic ideas of liberalism
    • Heavily influenced American intellectuals
    • Goal: separate politics from economics
    • Modern torch-bearers: Hayek & Friedman
  • Key Books:
    • Theory of Moral Sentiments
    • Inquiry into the Wealth of Nations
  • Ideas
    • “Propensity to truck and barter” = humans are naturally traders & consumers
    • Capitalism: some people own land or factories, other people work the land and factories=efficiency by each doing what they are good at doing(David Ricardo)
    • “Invisible hand”: individuals pursuing their own self-interest will frequently create benefits for all individuals, that is, society
    • Free-market economy: independent, free competition in the economy and marketplace
      • Anne-Robert Turgot: laissez-faire
      • Free trade: no taxes or barriers to trade
    • Government has no role in the economy & society, except as the “nightwatchman state”:
      • 1. Protect society and provide security
      • 2. Administer justice to prevent individuals from individuals
      • 3. Create & maintain public works, and create public institutions where it is not profitable for the market to provide a good or service
    • Opposed redistribution = inequality is inevitable but acceptable if resulting from free-market economy’s operation

Classical liberalism summed up

  • This is the historical and philosophical basis of modern version
  • Know the key ideas and assumption there important

Reform Liberalism

  • James Mill
  • John Stuart Mill
  • T.H. Green

Reform Liberalism: John Stuart Mill

  • Influenced
    • classical liberals
    • reform or welfare liberals
    • some socialists
    • conservative libertarians
    • some market conservatives
    • liberal feminists (wrote The Subjection of Women [against subjection])
    • Modern torch-bearer: Keynes
  • Political economist = economics & politics are intermixed
  • Historical situation
    • Industrial Revolution in England: 1750s
      • People increasingly working in factories
      • Working class people not living well, awful conditions, death, etc.
    • The rise of mass society
  • Key Books
    • On Liberty
    • Subjection of Women
    • Autobiography
  • Ideas
    • Utilitarian = the greatest happiness of the greatest number
    • Lived with Harriet Taylor in 1830, hastened his recovery
    • Individual’s relationship to society
      • Harm Principle: society cannot legitimately coerce or interfere with individuals except if they are harming others
      • Duties to society
      • 1. Not to injure certain interests of another that legal or tacit conventions understand
      • 2. Bear a share of sacrifices and labours incurred for defending society.
    • “Liberty” (like freedom) = three types:
      • 1. Of thought, conscience, speech
      • 2. Habit, taste, pursuits
      • 3. Of assembly, uniting for any purpose that doesn’t harm others
    • Freedom in speech & though is crucial:
      • 1. Opinions society holds may be false
      • 2. Need free flow of all opinions because although society’s received opinion may be true, it will lapse into dogma if not regularly challenged
      • 3. Unorthodox opinion may supply the remainder of the truth to a prevailing view
    • Liberty is important because:
      • 1. Mill argues protecting individual liberty contributes to the human race’s happiness & progress (utilitarian)
      • 2. For the individual, essential to personal development
    • Democracy = Right to vote & expanding the vote( the right to choose our beliefs)
      • Argued for women’s right to vote (for the good of their families and in accordance to their husbands)

Reform Liberalism: Thomas Hill Green

  • Ideas
    • Negative freedom: freedom from the constraints of smothering laws, customs, social opinions
    • Positive freedom: freedom to live as one chooses to develop oneself & seek happiness
      • The capitalist economy has some ugly consequences
      • State must offset these consequences
      • Society, acting through government, should establish public schools and hospitals, aid the needy
      • Regulate working conditions to promote workers’ health and well-being
      • Only then will the disadvantaged individuals in society become truly free
    • Humans are self-interested, BUT self-interest doesn’t mean short-term, immediate pleasure – the common good is in everyone’s personal best interest
    • Individuals relationship to society individuals should have a private sphere separate from the public sphere
  • Redistribution = necessary(when people have those things people are less likely to get involved in violence etc.)
    • Welfare State: government helps those in need of assistance – shelter, food, clothing, education, etc.
    • Taxes – progressive: make more money/income, pay more taxes
    • Equality of opportunity = everyone should have opportunities available to them regardless of differences

Contemporary Liberalism: State and Economy

  • Also known as Welfare Liberals
  • Ideas:
    • Capitalism is good but has some problems
      • 1. Includes economic activities that harm the broader society
      • 2. Capitalism can’t serve public goods & society must create them collectively
      • 3. Capitalism creates inequalities in power, wealth – not democratic
      • 4. Capitalism is racked with fluctuating business cycles:
    • Need state involvement in the economy: “mixed economy”
    • Need to deal with powerful corporations and their oligopolies & monopolies (interfere in the marketplace, not to restrict competition, but to keep the large corporations from restricting competition(monopolies) and harming society)

Contemporary Liberalism: John Maynard Keynes

  • Basis of economic ideas of contemporary liberalism
    • Heavily influenced Canadian and European economic intellectuals
  • Key Books: General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money
  • Government needs to deal with problems of capitalist economic cycles – booms & bust, etc.
    • Fiscal policy = government spending
    • Monetary policy = controlling interest rates & money supply
    • Counter-cyclical action:
      • Economy up = collect more taxes & raise interest rates & not spend
      • Economy down = lower taxes & lower interest rates & spend
      • “Pump & prime”: government should spend to jump start the economy when it goes down
  • His ideas were instituted in Britain
    • Note for next class: this is also where classical liberalism made its revival as “neo-conservatism” or “neo-classical liberalism”

Contemporary Liberalism: John Rawls

  • Basis of political ideas of contemporary liberalism
  • Key book: Theory of Justice
  • Rawls: a “just society” would distribute wealth, income and other primary social goods equally
    • Exceptions allowed if the unequal distribution benefited the society, especially the least well off
  • His two principles of justice:
    • 1. “Each person has an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all”
      • Include rights, liberties, opportunities, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect – social primary goods
    • 2. “Social and economic inequalities are to meet two conditions: They must be:”
      • (a) To the greatest expected benefit of the least advantaged
      • Meaning: the people the least well off have to be most benefited by any inequalities
      • Who are the least advantaged? Those disadvantaged by family and class origins, natural endowments, or fortune and luck
      • (b) Attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair opportunity
      • Meaning: everyone has to have the same shot at any of the positions that not everyone gets to hold
  • A just society:
    • To meet people’s basic needs, so they can develop themselves as just people
    • However: they are responsible for their preferences, once these basic needs and rights are met

Liberalism & Our Criteria

  • Human Nature
    • Individual = focus
    • Self-interested
    • Naturally free, equal, rational
  • Nature of Society
    • Collection of individuals who have agreed to live together
    • Community is not more important than the individual
  • Conception of Freedom
    • Classical: negative – freedom from interference
    • Reform/Contemporary: positive – freedom to develop, progress & be happy
  • Understanding of Justice
    • Both = protection of individual’s life, liberty & estate
    • Classical: equality before the law
    • Reform/Contemporary: equality of opportunity
  • Conception of the State/Government
    • Classical: limited to very few function
    • Reform/Contemporary: can create and enforce laws that protect our lives, liberty and freedom, but nothing more
  • Other approaches also intersect with liberalism
    • Race liberalism = Martin Luther King, Jr.
    • Feminist liberalism = Susan Moller Okin
author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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