The Evolution of Liberalism

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Liberals of today and yesteryear have held a constant concern for the concept of limited government, balancing the relationship between the individual and the government. Liberals today see the government as a means to an end and are constantly transferring power back to the government from the individual - they want a sustainable, thriving society and have recognized the government as the most efficient route. Liberalism in the time of the French Revolution was influenced by philosophes John Locke, Charles Montesquieu, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. Liberal philosophy then was in an early development stage having evolved out of the widespread Enlightenment.

Philosophe John Locke spoke of the separation of church and state and freedom of religion (excluding Catholics, Jews, Muslims of those granted full citizenship). He promoted experimentation to prove old and new ideas and warned of the dangers of believing knowledge based on superstitions or unproven claims. Though Locke didn’t concern himself with universal rights, deliberately excluded minorities, and believed that men should run the government, his thoughts on the separation of church and state, proven knowledge, and individual rights were highly progressive in his time. Today these ideas make up our political, religious and scientific ideologies and systems.

Locke’s ideology came to fight the government exerting unfair power over the individual whereas liberals of today have now found an interest in transferring power back to the government as they see the individual as an incompetent voice in political, environmental and medical concerns. It seems that Charles Montesquieu, a French political philosopher who admired John Locke but had very different views, was more on point in terms of defining liberalism consistently with liberalism of today. Montesquieu brought attention to the natural ways of society that enable government to be effective or ineffective by drawing attention to the absurdities of the Old Regime of France. It was under the rule of an inefficient government turning democratic that he formed an objective ideal of government: a government influenced by the individual which he holds is influenced by the climate and regional custom. He wasn’t extremely radical for his time and wasn’t looking to undermine the government or the church or exchange radical ideas. Rather, his intent was to entertain society with an objective view of the absurdities that made up the monarchy. He drew attention to the successes of the church and state, each in their own rights and discussed the natural laws that govern society.

When we listen to these natural laws, explained Montesquieu, we can enable government and society as a whole to be effective. In contrast to Locke, Montesquieu wasn’t looking to shift the powers of the government to the individual, rather he recognized that the government is influenced by the individual and should work in tandem, without the incoherent processes that made up the Old Regime. Adam Smith’s capital idealism, though optimistic, was wholly antithetical to the liberal movement’s economic stance today. He portrayed the economy as one governed by Lessaiz-Faire, where economic processes are advanced in regard to human rights - an “independent sphere of human activity”.

Liberalism today is constantly shifting power in the economy to the government, for example, with the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal is a proposed leftist approach to industrial policy to regulate climate change. It is comprised of a set of regulations and laws that will allow the federal government to “guide economic growth without micromanaging it ”. “The core of the Green New Deal, if you just look at the projects, is just like industrial policy, industrial policy, industrial policy,” says Rhiana Gunn-Wright, a policy researcher at the think tank New Consensus who helped draft Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal. “It’s very, very, very central. The Green New Deal is one of the largest interventions in U.S. industrial policy in a long time.” One would be hard pressed to find a 19th century liberal such as Adam Smith creating a new policy to give the government legal control over the economy in favor of a controversial theory such as climate change.

On freedom of speech, a tenant of early 19th century liberalism, John Stuart Mills published a book “On Liberty”. On individual rights, he wrote that they are primarily the right to have one’s own views and express them freely with the caveat that they don’t pose a risk to themselves or those around them. To allow a voice to be heard can be lucrative whether it is right or wrong. “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.” An opportunity to prove another party wrong could only be beneficial to the one fighting for truth. Contrarily, modern political philosopher John Rawls in his book “A Theory of Justice” held that all oppositional moral claims must be labeled “reasonable” rather than “false” or “wrong”. Rawls explains that this is to prevent one claim having more privilege over another – this is consistent with early 19th century liberalism which was founded with a historical background of an imbalanced society based on privileges strictly belonging to monarchy, nobility and privilege.

The prevention of privilege is prevalent in Rawls works, specifically in his definition of justice as fairness rather than truth. In his political writings, he states that his writing takes social contract theories written by Locke to “a higher order of abstraction”. He writes that fairness includes the rights of every person to basic liberties. Inequality is only fair when the opportunities are the same for everyone and any advantages given are to everyone’s benefit.

Advantages given to the individual are permissible when they are for the benefit of society (i.e. an individual can be wealthy to stimulate the economy and give charity). Rawls encourages his readers to rethink our justice system, including the Constitution and our decisions made in Supreme Court. Where John Locke’s intentions lay in influencing others to rethink processes, particularly in the necessity to legitimize any ideas through experimentation, Rawls believes that a justice system is more effective when it’s people see it as a justice system to promote fairness rather than truth.  

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The Evolution Of Liberalism. (2021, Mar 23). Retrieved April 22, 2024 , from
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