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The Historical Development Of The Liberal Idea

From the discussion of liberalism above, one might assume that the term itself came into use in seventeenth-century northern Europe. In fact the term liberal was first used in connection with politics in Spain in the early nineteenth century to describe a political movement whose object was to establish constitutional constraints on government power. The term rapidly came to be applied to movements and ideas aimed at promoting individual liberty of choice, and it is now generally considered reasonable to use the term retrospectively to describe thinkers such as John Locke (1632–1704), Adam Smith (1723–1790), and many others whose thought exhibited this character.

Natural rights theories.

As claimed earlier, liberalism was nurtured in the natural rights doctrines of the seventeenth century. The Dutch scholar Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) is widely held to be the main innovator of the modern doctrine, and his mode of theorizing, involving the idea of a prepolitical state of nature and a social contract as the ground for political society, was taken up and given major formulations by Hobbes and Locke in England and Benedictus de Spinoza (1632–1677) and Samuel von Pufendorf (1632–1694) on the European continent. The reason for holding these theories to be the ground in which liberalism grew is that they start with a presumption in favor of individual liberty and limit liberty only to protect the equal rights of others or to provide the public order considered necessary to secure everyone's liberty to the greatest extent. These theorists refer to other natural rights besides liberty, as in Locke's classic formulation of rights to life, liberty, health, and possessions. All these rights, however, are to be understood as negative in character. The rights to life and health are rights not to be deprived of one's life or health by the actions of others and are thus rights to go about one's business as one thinks fit without being killed or injured. The right to possessions is again a negative right not to be hindered in the exercise of one's liberty to acquire possessions in order to preserve and enhance one's life. Furthermore, all individuals are held to have the natural right to govern themselves in accordance with their own judgment of their entitlements under natural law.

All these theorists recognize that constraints on individual liberty are necessary if people are to enjoy the maximum of equal liberty in a peaceful society, so it is rational for them to agree to establish a political society on the basis of their natural interests in liberty. This is a new and essentially liberal mode of thinking about a just society, because the aim is to leave people as free as possible to form their own lives as they think fit compatibly with a peaceful and orderly society. The contrast is with conceptions of just order that are based on a substantive conception of the good. In the latter view, one starts with a conception of how human beings should live in order to achieve the good life, such as that of Plato, and then organizes society politically to enable its members to realize this end. Individual liberty, in such a view, is only what is left over after the structure of the good life is in place.

The natural rights theorists explicitly adopted the primacy of liberty conception because they were especially impressed by the quarrelsome nature of human beings and by the devastating consequences of the contemporary disputes over religion involving Protestants and Catholics and the skepticism about the good that could thereby be engendered. These theorists' aim, therefore, was to construct a minimal social ethics that all could agree on while leaving as much room as possible for each to decide for him-or herself what to believe and how to live. Of course, it is always possible to say that the liberal view of just interaction still involves a conception of the good life, namely one of maximum equal liberty. But this is a very thin conception of the good that leaves people as free as possible to make their own choices.

The natural rights theorists developed the central ideas of a liberal society. Their politics, however, was in many cases far from being liberal. Despite the grounding of political society in a social contract and thus apparently basing it on the consent of all, Grotius, Hobbes, and Pufendorf defended absolute monarchy, while Locke and Spinoza restricted political rights to property owners. A crucial argument of the absolutists was that, although the ruler's authority was based on a contract, the contract necessarily involved the surrender by the contractors of their natural right to interpret the natural law for themselves to the sovereign whose judgment could not subsequently be questioned without undermining political society itself and returning everyone to a lawless state of nature. It is for this reason that Hobbes, and later the conservative thinker Burke, can appear to be so illiberal. Although they do not deny that human beings have natural interests in an equal liberty and that sovereigns are well advised to respect that liberty, sovereigns cannot be held to account for not respecting it. Hence, their subjects' enjoyment of their liberties can only be at the discretion of the ruler or the political traditions of the society.

The partial political liberalism of Locke is presented as an attack on the absolutists and consists of making the government responsible to the property owners who are taxed to support it and who are held to be the more rational members of society; and additionally an embryonic version of the idea of the separation of government powers in different hands. Nevertheless, absolute sovereignty still lurks in Locke's theory insofar as citizens who are aggrieved at the actions of a legitimately constituted government have to appeal to the members of political society as a whole whose decision, in principle by majority will, is presented as necessarily binding. Thus, Locke's political theory contains an unelaborated majoritarian democratic principle that could be and was seized on by more radical thinkers and movements concerned to develop the egalitarian implications of liberal rights to promote political democracy.

Rousseau can be understood as one of these radical egalitarian Lockean thinkers in some respects, and his theory was very influential in inspiring the French revolutionaries of the late eighteenth century. But Rousseau is rarely regarded as a liberal. This is largely because his theory of the general will and his belief in direct rather than representative democracy were seen, especially in the light of the actions of the French revolutionaries and through the criticism of the early-nineteenth-century French liberal thinker Benjamin Constant, as wholly antipathetic to individual liberty. He is said to identify liberty with participation in collective decision-making rather than individual choice. However, this is to misunderstand the general will. The general will is supposed to be aimed inherently at securing laws that equally protect the individual liberty of all. Insofar as it is a collective will through participation in which all persons equally impose general laws with a liberal character on themselves and others, its collective nature and positive conception of freedom is merely the necessary political element in a self-governing liberal society.

Rousseau does depart radically from the economic liberalism implicit or explicit in most natural rights theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For Rousseau the equality element in the doctrine of equal rights requires a rough equality of all as property owners and an opposition to capitalist ownership and market society. Because the foundational liberal principle affirms both the equality and liberty of all, Rousseau's interpretation of it would seem to be a possible one while its egalitarian commitments have become more and more influential.

Other notable figures in the democratic development natural rights theory are Thomas Paine (1743–1809) and the Marquis of Condorcet (1743–1794). They played noteworthy parts in the political revolutions that transformed America and France at the end of the eighteenth century and produced important theoretical works justifying a liberal-democratic order.

Utility-based liberalism.

Rights-based liberalism has two apparent weaknesses: It is not clear where the natural rights come from, and no principled account of conflicts involving rights is given or seems to be possible. Utilitarian-based liberalism offers a single solution to both. The principle of utility, which tells moral agents to do those acts that will produce the greatest amount of utility, is interpreted by the great liberal utilitarians to mean that one should act to bring about a society in which individuals enjoy the standard liberal rights enumerated earlier in this entry. At the same time what to do when rights conflict is to be settled by appeal to the principle of utility, which establishes a suitable hierarchy of rights in such cases.

The most important liberal utilitarians are Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and Mill. To get a defense of liberalism from the principle of utility, Bentham adopts a number of secondary principles reflecting the fundamental interests of individuals. One of these is that individuals are the best judges of their own interests. So, there must be a presumption on the part of government that social outcomes will be better if individuals are left as free as possible to decide for themselves what to believe and do. His other secondary principles were those of security (or liberty), subsistence, abundance, and equality. Security of person and property involves the protection of people's liberty while ensuring that both subsistence and the possibility of abundance are best accomplished by leaving people free economically. Equality, arising from the fact that in the utilitarian calculus each is to count for one and no one for more than one, might suggest redistribution from rich to poor were that not to conflict in an unacceptable way with the operation of the other secondary principles and so is outweighed by them.

Unlike most of his contemporary rights-based liberals, Bentham believed that the only way of ensuring that governments followed policies that best promoted the general utility rather than their own interest was to establish a representative democracy. He thought that the great majority would see that their interests lay in the institution of a liberal society and polity, a view repudiated by those partially political liberals who doubted that non–property owners could be trusted to support liberty because they lacked the necessary independence and rationality.

Mill introduced significant modifications to the liberal theory he inherited from Bentham. One of these is his extension of the liberty principle, which requires persons to be allowed to pursue their own good in their own way so long as they do not harm others, to cover the coercive pressure of public opinion mentioned earlier. Furthermore, the area of conduct falling within this principle includes what Mill calls experiments in living. People should be encouraged to experiment (so long as they do not harm others) in order to promote the long-term utility of the human race. Underlying these views is a belief in the fundamental importance of individuality to a person's happiness. This is the capacity to make choices for one's life that express one's own individual nature. A liberal society will be one that promotes the development in its members of this capacity. Adult human beings and whole societies will not necessarily manifest it and can benefit up to a point from the tutelage of others.

Kant and post-Kantian liberal idealism.

Kant, the deeply anti-utilitarian and still very influential German philosopher, identifies human beings' capacity for autonomy as the grounds for claiming the existence of a natural right to an equal liberty. Autonomy is the capacity to govern oneself by freely imposing rational laws on the operation of one's natural inclinations. In following one's inclinations even through rational calculation, one is bound by causal laws operating independently of one's will. One is free and self-determining only insofar as one's end is rational and self-imposed. One achieves this in willing principles that are universal and apply to everyone. In subjecting one's natural self-interested maxims of conduct to the requirement of a universal legislation for its own sake and not for any advantage, one is treating rational being in oneself and others as an end in itself and of absolute worth. The laws one wills from that perspective will be ones that could be willed by every rational human being, who is not only a rational being but also a natural one. One will then be participating as an equal colegislator in willing rational laws to govern the pursuit by each of his or her natural ends.

Among the fundamental laws such beings will legislate is one bestowing the universal right to an equal liberty. Human beings as rational beings embodied in a particular natural being are ends in themselves, and this means that their will insofar as it is rational and thereby conforms to rational universal law must not be coerced but must be left free to pursue its natural ends as it chooses. To the extent that a person's will violates the equal freedom of another, however, that will itself may be coerced, and in order to ensure the precision and effectiveness of this fundamental law, human beings must rationally will their entry into political society and their formation of a public order and sovereign will.

Kant's significance lies not so much in his working out the implications of the principle of equal liberty but in his invention of a new rational ground in autonomy for it. Contemporary liberals who still seek to provide justifications for preferring liberalism to other social and political schemes are largely either Kantians or utilitarians, with Kantians for the moment predominating.

Post-Kantian idealism, most elaborately developed by Hegel in Germany but also influential in Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century through the writings of Thomas Hill Green, Francis Herbert Bradley, and Bernard Bosanquet, historicizes and socializes the Kantian scheme. The general idea is that historical forms of society and the reflective philosophies that arise in them are the result of the struggle of human beings to grasp and actualize the free will inherent in their nature as rational beings. This struggle culminates in the development of a liberal civil society and a partially liberal state. A liberal self-organizing civil society in which all persons are responsible for their own life economically and socially is necessary to develop in all the idea and partial actualization of their autonomy. This society, however, can exist only within the framework of a system of legislation that is the ultimate locus of the self-determining free will of human beings through their participation in and identification with the general will of the state. This theory socializes the individualist character of the liberal philosophy, because although individuals are the beings within which free will is realized, this is achieved only through their development in and membership of liberal social forms.

Twentieth-century liberalism and the influence of Rawls.

A striking characteristic of twentieth-century political theory is its loss of belief in the possibility of finding rational foundations for moral and political prescriptions. Adherence to liberal or antiliberal principles became a matter of espousing an ideology.

Liberal practices were, nevertheless, deeply embedded in English-speaking societies but, as it turned out, less so in the societies of Continental Europe, above all Germany and Russia. In those nations, in the chaos of the aftermath of World War I and the economic misfortunes of the 1920s and 1930s, the powerful antiliberal political movements of fascism and communism seized power, destroyed the forms of liberal society, and threatened the very survival of liberalism in the Western world. The victory of the liberal states (together with the Soviet Union) in World War II led to their strong reaffirmation of the individualist values of liberalism. This was least marked in the economic sphere, where the apparent industrial success of Stalinist Russia encouraged many Western and developing states to adopt extensive policies of economic socialism in the form of the nationalization of major industries. The postwar liberal states also for the most part greatly expanded the provision of state welfare to their subjects. While such policies were contrary to the principles of classical liberalism, they were perfectly justifiable under the revision of liberal theory that took place in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Political and moral theory remained marooned in the swamp of ideological contestation largely between liberalism and communism until the publication of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice in 1971 and the collapse of the other great antiliberal power in the 1980s (that is, the Soviet Union). The former generated an extraordinary revival of political theory based on the belief that Rawls had invented a new rational justification of liberalism. Rawls supposes that persons engaged in social interaction have the need and the desire to justify their actions to those affected by them and that this justification must take the form of everyone agreeing from an initially fair position to a set of cooperative principles that will then be seen to be fair. The initially fair position is one in which the contractors are understood to be free and equal persons—free because they have the capacity to form conceptions of the good and govern themselves by these conceptions, and equal because no one has any more power than another to secure favorable terms for him-or herself. The contractors would choose two principles. The first is a principle of equal liberty by which each is to have as much liberty as is compatible with a like liberty for all. This principle takes priority over the second principle, which is concerned with fair equality of opportunity and the distribution of income and wealth. With regard to the latter Rawls holds that the contractors would choose that distribution that maximizes the long-run position of the worst-off group in society. These principles are commonly taken to justify a liberal welfare state with a leaning toward egalitarian outcomes.

One of Rawls's main claims about liberalism is that it is a method of political cooperation that is neutral between different conceptions of the good. Rawls believes, as did the original natural rights theorists, that human beings differ and tend to quarrel disastrously about the good. Any attempt to establish a coercive state on the basis of a particular conception is bound to generate conflict and be unfair to those holding different conceptions because there is no way of conclusively establishing the truth of any one conception. Liberalism, as Rawls understands it, and as presented in this entry, is a way of achieving peaceful social cooperation on the basis of agreement on principles that leave people as free as is compatible with allowing a like freedom to others.

In A Theory of Justice, however, Rawls claims that the ultimate ground for accepting his liberalism is that it expresses the Kantian idea of free and equal autonomous persons cooperating together in a social order. Rawls later came to accept the criticism that to base the theory on a Kantian conception of autonomy, which some persons could reasonably reject, violated the neutrality of the scheme. So in Political Liberalism (1993) he holds that the burdens of judgment regarding the good are such that it is unreasonable to seek to impose one's own conception on others by making it the basis of the state's order. But this claim raises the question of whether the unreasonableness of imposing one's conception of the good is solely pragmatic or whether it is based on principle, and, if the latter, what that principle is if it is not the Kantian one. Taking the former view would force one to abandon the belief that Rawls has effectively countered the general twentieth-century skepticism regarding foundations.

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