Originally (during the late 18th early 19th centuries) it designated the ideas of the "bourgeoisie" or business class in favour of various freedoms (of trade, employment, religion, expression, etc.) in contrast to the "conservatism" and historic privilieges of the establishment (landed gentry, established Church, etc.). Today in Europe liberalism means minimizing government participation and regulation in the economic sphere.
In the United States the term both retained its libertarian nuance (liberals are opposed to censorship, for example) and, denoting progress and opposition to the establishment, came to be associated with ideas that in Europe have been called "social democratic" or even "socialist": American "liberalism" favours intervention of the state -- through social welfare and affirmative action programmes, for instance -- to redress some of the inequalities arising out of capitalism and the historic role of certain groups such as blacks and women.
Since such ideas are now largely out-of-favcur, liberalism is is sometimes referred to pejoratively as the "L-word". Liberalism in this American sense recognizes not only civil liberties but also collective rights, and even collective privileges, as in affirmative action. It can be considered the ideology of that sector of the American entrepreneurial class which believes that social harmony and consensus are necessary conditions for the smooth functioning of the capitalist economy.
The theoretical underpinning of this freedom was the concept of the social contract. No longer was society envisaged as an association of social groups (land-owning nobility, peasant farmers, artisans and merchants, and the Church, with the crown acting as the divinely sanctioned arbiter among these). Society was now conceived of as a commercial contract in which individuals who are "born free", who are thereby endowed with certain "natural rights", and who allow social authority (the state or the sovereign) to restrict their freedom only to the extent that this is necessary for individuals to live together in society. (The major differences separating Hobbes from Locke or Rousseau from Voltaire concern only marking these boundaries.)
Hence liberalism, in this classical sense, came to denote an ideology that clustered a variety of freedoms for individuals: freedom of trade and commerce, freedom of movement, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of religion. One of the most important of these freedoms, especially for Locke, was the freedom to possess, bequeath and inherit property. The creation of a mobile, salaried workforce, the efficient exchange of goods among nations and continents, and the domination of the economy and society by competitive entrepreneurs with responsibility to no one but themselves as individuals: all these features of capitalism are ideologically buttressed by the liberal philosophy of individual freedom. Conversely, classical liberalism has represented an attack against control of individuals by the state, whether in the form of tariffs, taxes, regulations, censorship or an established religion. Liberalism as an ideology is thus contrasted with other ideologies or forms of social organization that are based on the relationships between different social groups (feudalism, Marxism, fascism, and to a lesser degree social democracy and the welfare state).
For more than two centuries the capitalist state has taken these classical liberal ideas as its founding principles, tempered occasionally with small doses of intreventionism (social democracy, Keynesianism, French "dirigisme", American miltary industrialism) which are "anti-liberal" in the European sense and may or may not be "liberal" in the American sense. When, in the course of the nineteenth century, the capitalist class became the dominant or ruling social class, its liberal ideology became the establishment ideology. In this way "liberalism" (in the classical sense) became "conservative".
In Britain and Europe "liberal" and "conservative" political parties fused, disappeared or became indistinguishable, and in politics the traditional conservative-liberal dichotomy was replaced by a conservative-socialist (Marxist, or social-democratic/labour) dichotomy. In the United States classical liberalism became political orthodxoy for both parties, and any "right-left" opposition was based on such questions as race relations and military policy. In Canada the Liberal Party was until well into the twentieth century "liberal" in the traditional sense, being, for example, the party of continental free trade, whereas the Conservative Party represented old "Tory" values: allegiance to the British Empire and protectionism. In the Pearson-Trudeau era the Liberal Party became Keynesian, as did the Conservative Party; in the late 1980's both parties reverted to a classical liberal conception of the minimalist, laissez-faire state.
Because of the conflicting meanings of "liberal", in Europe and Latin American political opponents of state intervention through social welfare the majority of contemporary politicians, have been labelled "neo-liberal", while in the United States the opponents of state participation in the economy, at least apart from the war industry, are called "conservative". In the United States political "conservatives" often combine neo-liberal economic views with "social conservatism", i.e., opposition to homosexual marriage, legalized abortion, immigration, and so-on. Extreme neo-liberals label themselves "libertarian".
Historical "Liberalism" is frequently portrayed as the driving force behind material and social progress. It is true that classical liberalism and neo-liberalism, being as they are the ideology of the entrepreneurial bourgeoisie, and having reduced spiritual values to the private domain of the individual, go hand-in-hand with unrestricted domination and control over the natural world, as well as with a certain concomitant notion of technical "progress". But I have two questions relating to the defining of "liberalism" in terms of these ideas of mastery and progress. First, are such ideas peculiar to (classical) liberalism? Are they not found equally, perhaps even more strongly, in Marxism and even in certain forms of fascism? Secondly, are these ideas the characteristic concepts of liberalism? Are they dominant in the writings of the major representatives of the classical liberal tradition? Would it not be more true to say that the principal concept of classical liberalism is that of the social contract of free individuals?
Other essays by James MacLean
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