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For utilitarianism and Hegelianism, and their combination in various forms of liberal thought, the… This article discusses the political foundations and history of liberalism from the 17th century to the present.
For coverage of classical and contemporary philosophical liberalism, see political philosophy. General characteristics Liberalism is derived from two related features of Western culture. Throughout much of history, the individual has been submerged in and subordinate to his clantribeethnic groupor kingdom.
Liberalism is the culmination of developments in Western society that produced a sense of the importance of human individuality, a liberation of the individual from complete subservience to the group, and a relaxation of the tight hold of custom, lawand authority.
In this respect, liberalism stands for the emancipation of the individual. Liberalism also derives from the practice of adversariality in European political and economic life, a process in which institutionalized competition—such as the competition between different political parties in electoral contestsbetween prosecution and defense in adversary procedureor between different producers in a market economy see monopoly and competition —generates a dynamic social order.
Adversarial systems have always been precarious, however, and it took a long time for the belief in adversariality to emerge from the more traditional view, traceable at least to Platothat the state should be an organic structure, like a beehive, in which the different social classes cooperate by performing distinct yet complementary roles.
The belief that competition is an essential part of a political system and that good government requires a vigorous opposition was still considered strange in most European countries in the early 19th century.
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Underlying the liberal belief in adversariality is the conviction that human beings are essentially rational creatures capable of settling their political disputes through dialogue and compromise. This aspect of liberalism became particularly prominent in 20th-century projects aimed at eliminating war and resolving disagreements between states through organizations such as the League of Nationsthe United Nationsand the International Court of Justice World Court.
Liberalism has a close but sometimes uneasy relationship with democracy. At the centre of democratic doctrine is the belief that governments derive their authority from popular election; liberalism, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with the scope of governmental activity.
Liberals often have been wary of democracythen, because of fears that it might generate a tyranny by the majority. One might briskly say, therefore, that democracy looks after majorities and liberalism after unpopular minorities.
Like other political doctrines, liberalism is highly sensitive to time and circumstance. The expansion of governmental power and responsibility sought by liberals in the 20th century was clearly opposed to the contraction of government advocated by liberals a century earlier. In the 19th century liberals generally formed the party of business and the entrepreneurial middle class; for much of the 20th century they were more likely to work to restrict and regulate business in order to provide greater opportunities for labourers and consumers.
This willingness is tempered by an aversion to sudden, cataclysmic change, which is what sets off the liberal from the radical. It is this very eagerness to welcome and encourage useful change, however, that distinguishes the liberal from the conservativewho believes that change is at least as likely to result in loss as in gain.
In the Middle Ages the rights and responsibilities of the individual were determined by his place in a hierarchical social system that placed great stress upon acquiescence and conformity. Under the impact of the slow commercialization and urbanization of Europe in the later Middle Ages, the intellectual ferment of the Renaissanceand the spread of Protestantism in the 16th century, the old feudal stratification of society gradually began to dissolve, leading to a fear of instability so powerful that monarchical absolutism was viewed as the only remedy to civil dissension.
However, as such intervention increasingly served established interests and inhibited enterprise, it was challenged by members of the newly emerging middle class. This challenge was a significant factor in the great revolutions that rocked England and France in the 17th and 18th centuries—most notably the English Civil Wars —51the Glorious Revolutionthe American Revolution —83and the French Revolution Classical liberalism as an articulated creed is a result of those great collisions.
In the English Civil Wars, the absolutist king Charles I was defeated by the forces of Parliament and eventually executed. The Glorious Revolution resulted in the abdication and exile of James II and the establishment of a complex form of balanced government in which power was divided between the king, his ministers, and Parliament.
In time this system would become a model for liberal political movements in other countries. The political ideas that helped to inspire these revolts were given formal expression in the work of the English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.
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