What is liberalism?
Liberalism is an ideology developed by political thinkers in the 18th century and associated with the American and French Revolutions. It developed in opposition to control of government and society by aristocracy, absolute monarchy and the church. Its fundamentals are:-
- People are rational individuals and able to make decisions for themselves in normal circumstances.
- People should have freedom to take their own decisions without control by government.
- As well as freedoms such as free speech or freedom to decide whether to follow a religion people should be free to have property and use it as they wish.
- There is a general belief that a free market without government control is the most effective in creating wealth.
- Government may have a limited role in areas such as national defence that the individual cannot do or in preventing people doing severe harm to others by criminal activity.
- There is a general belief that society is capable of continuous progress if liberalism is held to.
These are the aspects of the classic liberal system and influenced ideas of a free press, equality in voting, free trade and so on but by the late 19th century some liberal writers began to question whether people were really free to further their lives as they wished if they were poor or had bad health or had not received education. In Britain, writers, in what has been called the New Liberalism tradition, began to see a role for government in ensuring greater economic equality and in developing a welfare system that ensured better health, housing and education. This required taxation of people on higher incomes and so a restriction on property but not interference by government in the market as such. The British Liberal Party absorbed this tradition and the first elements of a welfare state were carried out by the Liberal Government of 1906-14. In the 1930s the economist Keynes showed that government had to intervene in the economy to prevent either a depression or a short term economic boom. All these ideas became an important part of what has been seen as a consensus between Labour and Conservative governments between 1945 and the 1970s about the key government policies.
Liberal Democracy is the political system that matches liberalism:-
- A constitution should guarantee freedoms such as freedom of speech, thought and religion. Minorities should be protected from discrimination.
- All individuals should have equal political rights through the voting system to choose the government that they prefer. This government then has the authority to take decisions on behalf of the people.
- Parliament, the Executive and the Judges should be independent of each other so that none is too powerful and there is a balance between them.
- Every individual can go to the legal system and be treated equally through the rule of law which will allow judges to take decisions under established principles. The government can also go to the legal system but should not get favoured treatment but be judged by the same rules.
These are the key principles underlying western democracies.