In discussing liberalism, it is important to distinguish between liberal practices and liberal theories. Liberal practices are those institutional and customary arrangements that support individual liberty. Of prime importance are individual legal rights to engage in certain activities such as to practice the religion of one's choice, to use one's property and labor as one pleases, and to enjoy freedom of opinion, expression, association, and movement. Political rights and constitutional procedures designed to put limits on government power, such as the independence of the judiciary, the separation of legislative and executive power, freedom of the press, and electoral accountability, are liberal practices insofar as they are designed to protect or express individual liberty.
Individual nonpolitical rights are necessarily limited by the equal rights of others. A religion or other association, or a use of property, that violates the rights of others, cannot be protected. Individual rights may also be limited by consideration of the public good, such as limits on public meetings that will produce disorder. A liberal account of such public-good constraints must limit them to whatever arrangements are necessary to protect a liberal society.
In talking about individual rights, it is essential to note, in order to understand liberalism, that the liberal individual is a human being not otherwise differentiated by status, class, race, religion, or gender. This formulation describes an ideal—implicit in liberalism and eventually standardly affirmed—rather than the actual practice of liberalism as it originally developed. With respect to the latter, many individual rights were variously restricted in different countries: universally at first to men, in America to white men. Nevertheless, the standard justifications for the exclusions were the incapacity of the excluded class of human beings to make effective use of the liberal freedoms or their existence as a threat to the established liberal order. In this way, it was still possible to say that all human beings capable of freedom and not threatening public order were entitled to rights.
As the practice of particular societies, liberal individual rights, although proclaimed as the rights of human beings, would be restricted to members of that society and to resident aliens only under the developing provisions of international law. The standard justification for such limitations was that the rights could be given practical effectiveness only through the legal and political systems of particular states. Liberal practices emerged in the states of northern Europe and North America in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and contributed substantially to their dynamic international power through the early twenty-first century despite the life-threatening challenges to them in the twentieth century by the fascist and communist powers. The liberal societies of the West, above all the United States, have given liberalism as a practice and a theory a dominant status in the contemporary world.
While the aforementioned legal and institutional arrangements are important for the constitution of a liberal society, they are not enough. A fully liberal society requires a tolerant public opinion as well. This is one of the main points of John Stuart Mill's famous essay On Liberty (1859), in which he seeks to defend individuality and difference from the coercive pressure of public opinion.
Liberalism as a social practice is a matter of degree along three dimensions. First, a society may be more or less liberal according to how many aspects of its life are governed by the principle of individual liberty. A society may be very liberal in matters of belief but illiberal in the economic and/or the political sphere or conversely. It may be liberal in all these areas but illiberal with regard to sexual conduct. Second, a society may be more or less liberal with regard to each of these spheres. It may allow only a limited degree of economic freedom or a limited degree of freedom of belief. Finally, a society may be more or less inclusive of its adult population in the scope of the liberal freedoms.
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