Why Do Liberals Place Such Importance On The Concept Of Liberty?

Liberalism is a political viewpoint of which the key concept is that of liberty, as indicted by its title. Liberty is the birthright of an individual to have freedom of choice without coercion from others. It gives individuals the entitlement to do as they wish which, in turn, has the implication of a plural society in which tolerance is a vital component in order for social harmony to remain. Within liberalism, however, there are two further perspectives, that which we call 'classical' and another called 'social' (Heywood, A. 1998. p. 30).

Classical liberalism advocates that people should be completely free from intervention, particularly from the state, so that everyone is treated equally. Social liberalists state that, although people should be free to dictate their own lives, some state intervention is required in order to maintain that everyone is given an equal chance to succeed. They support initiatives such as free healthcare and education for all as well as welfare for the underprivileged. The ideas of liberty promoted by classical liberalists and social liberalists are therefore somewhat different.

In his book, 'Two Concepts of Liberty', Berlin highlighted this and called the concept of liberty favoured by classical liberalists 'negative' liberty and that preferred by the social liberalists 'positive' liberty (Heywood, A. 1998. p. 30). This was because social liberalists appeared to believe in a kind of liberty which seemed to have a far more 'positive' effect, as some rules were still present. Classical liberalism was the first of the two and began with Locke in seventeenth century England after the English Civil Wars, during which there was a battle between the parliament and the monarchy.

Both were fighting for power as before this, the monarchy had supreme rights and in 1688 the Glorious Revolution took place, which resulted in James II stepping down as King after trying to force Catholicism on the nation. This is said to have been the groundings for Locke's work. In 'Two Treatise of Government' Locke claimed that the 'natural' rights of all individuals were 'life, liberty and property' and could be best maintained in a community with minimal state intervention (Heywood, A. 1998. p. 48). He argued that humans once lived in a 'state of nature' without anything guiding them but reason (Adams, I  2001. p. 12).

He thought that the monarchy was a repressive institution and people would be best in control of their lives in a democratic society. This could be done by frequent elections taking place so that, if the present government was not performing well, a new one could be brought in. He called this entering into a 'social contract' (Adams, I. 2001. p. 12). Although Locke planted the seed of liberalism, he did not endorse the complete equality advocated by later liberalists, for example, he did not believe in gender equality.

As well as the political revolution taking place in England, there was also the Industrial Revolution. Smith was one of the first liberalists to recognise this in his work, 'The Wealth of Nations' when he fused the ideas of political and economic liberalism, called 'laissez-faire' (Adams, I. 2001. p. 20). He said that, if people were left to their own devices with regard to economics, things would take care of themselves as the allocation and 'movement of goods, capital and labour' would level each other out (Adams, I. 2001. p. 20).

That is, industry would only make what the consumer wanted to buy, so the consumer would pay for it and industry could continue to provide more useful goods. Industry would then require more labour, which would be offered by those wishing to acquire more capital in order to purchase more goods. As Smith was an Enlightened thinker, he, along with Kant and Rousseau, believed that humans were capable of rational thought and reason and therefore they could decide well, or at least learn from mistakes. In addition to the natural rights and economic liberal theories, Bentham and James Mill devised 'utilitarianism' (Heywood, A. 1998. p. 50).

This was based on the idea that the utility value of an action was evaluated before it took place. They thought that before any person did anything, they weighed up whether it would it would give them pleasure or pain, implying all actions resulted in one of these, he termed this the 'felicific calculus', or the calculation of happiness (Adams, I. 2001. p. 21). This idea could also be applied to larger businesses and organisations, rather than simply the individual, by doing what inspires happiness in 'the greatest number' (Heywood, A. 1998. p. 51).

However, many argue that this bases what is right and acceptable on the majority, whereas liberalists see the individuals view as just as important as the preponderance. Later, J. S. Mill, the son of James Mill, fused the ideas of his father, who said people only act when they will gain happiness out of it, with that of the romantic liberalists that had contradicted him, saying that each individual is both 'precious' and 'unique' (Adams, I. 2001. p. 24). His work is often seen as the 'heart of liberalism', as it creates a 'bridge' between the two differing perspectives (Heywood, A. 1998. p. 56).

J. S. Mill believed that all actions could be classed as 'self-regarding' or 'other-regarding' (Adams, I. 2001. p. 26). In 'On Liberty' he suggested that only those actions which were other-regarding should be affected by any external force and those that only affected the actor should be left up to them as they would not be posing a threat to anyone else and would prevent anarchy. He did not, however, fully support democracy or wish to extend it to the working masses, as it posed a threat to him. J. S. Mill's contemporary was Spencer who believed in an idea known as 'social Darwinism' (Heywood, A. 1998. p. 54).

He applied the evolutionary ideas of Charles Darwin, as he believed in the natural progress of society, like J. S. Mill. He supported the idea of the 'survival of the fittest' and that people would adapt and evolve for personal gain. In 'Man Versus the State', he highlights how this should prohibit the government from interfering with social problems such as poverty or unemployment, as people will look after themselves. He does not claim that this means the 'superior' will prosper, but simply that all will try harder and things will eventually improve, even if this does mean getting rid of the weak.

If the English Civil Wars were the trigger for classical liberalism, then the two World Wars inspired social liberalism as it uncovered what liberalists feared most: totalitarianism. The idea of giving individuals the right to do as they pleased had not worked out as expected, so some rethinking took place. An increasing number of liberalists, including J. S. Mill, T. H. Green and Hobhouse, began to argue for more state intervention to improve the current capitalist system. Keynes came to realise that this also extended to the economy.

Whereas before the free market had been thought this was a self-maintaining mechanism, it was evident after the recession following World War I that it did in fact need help. He said that the government could gain control through things such as taxation; these ideas would cut down the high levels of unemployment and poverty, known as the 'multiplier effect' (Heywood, A. 1998. p. 61). Beveridge expanded on Keynes' ideas in 'Social Insurance and Allied Services' and came up with an idea for the welfare state, which would look after all 'from the cradle to the grave' (Adams, I. 2001. p. 30).

This provided the basic needs of education, healthcare and housing for those who needed it. People would then be able to have an equal start in life and whether they wished to use it to their advantage or not would be up to them. This is largely as the modern welfare state remains sixty years on. It is due to things like this that liberalism has been described as the 'ideology of the industrialised West' which can often not be distinguished from 'western civilisation' itself (Heywood, A. 1998. p. 27). It is perhaps due to this that it has come to be the 'most successful ideology of the modern world' (Adams, I. 2001. p. 10).

This does not, however, mean that liberalism will continue to grow and become the dominant ideology; it seems, in fact, that ideological pluralism is what we should expect. In evaluating, it becomes apparent that, in fact, there are two separate questions to consider. Firstly, 'why do classical liberalists place such importance on negative liberty? ' This is due to the fact that they believe each individual is best in control of their own choices, although they may make bad ones, they will learn from these. All people are rational and therefore should be able to continue single-mindedly in the pursuit of self-gain.

The other question is 'why do social liberalists place such importance on positive liberty? ' Social liberalists believe that those who follow the classical perspective are highly elitist. In order to have equality, rules are required so that the basic needs of all are met and equality of opportunity is achieved. J. S. Mill's work is perhaps the most reliable of all as it is a combination of the two.


Heywood, A. (1998) 'Political Ideologies (2nd Edition)' (Palgrave) Adams, I. (2001) 'Political Ideology Today (2nd Edition)' (Manchester University Press)