Originalmente inicié este blog como vehículo para publicar mi libro crítico de la Cienciología.
Originally I started this blog as a vehicle to debunk Scientology for a Spanish-speaking audience.
Liberalism is a political philosophy or worldview founded on ideas of liberty and equality. The former principle is stressed in classical liberalism while the latter is more evident in social liberalism. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally they support ideas and programs such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free markets, civil rights, democratic societies, secular governments, and international cooperation.
Liberalism first became a distinct political movement during the Age of Enlightenment, when it became popular among philosophers and economists in the Western world. Liberalism rejected the notions, common at the time, of hereditary privilege, state religion, absolute monarchy, and the Divine Right of Kings. The 17th-century philosopher John Locke is often credited with founding liberalism as a distinct philosophical tradition. Locke argued that each man has a natural right to life, liberty and property, while adding that governments must not violate these rights based on the social contract. Liberals opposed traditional conservatism and sought to replace absolutism in government with representative democracy and the rule of law.
Prominent revolutionaries in the Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution, and the French Revolution used liberal philosophy to justify the armed overthrow of what they saw as tyrannical rule. Liberalism started to spread rapidly especially after the French Revolution. The 19th century saw liberal governments established in nations across Europe, South America, and North America. In this period, the dominant ideological opponent of classical liberalism was conservatism, but liberalism later survived major ideological challenges from new opponents, such as fascism and communism. During the 20th century, liberal ideas spread even further as liberal democracies found themselves on the winning side in both world wars.
In Europe and North America, the establishment of social liberalism became a key component in the expansion of the welfare state. Today, liberal parties continue to wield power and influence throughout the world.
Etymology and definition
Words such as liberal, liberty, libertarian, and libertine all trace their history to the Latin liber, which means “free”.
One of the first recorded instances of the word liberal occurs in 1375, when it was used to describe the liberal arts in the context of an education desirable for a free-born man. The word’s early connection with the classical education of a medieval university soon gave way to a proliferation of different denotations and connotations. Liberal could refer to “free in bestowing” as early as 1387, “made without stint” in 1433, “freely permitted” in 1530, and “free from restraint”—often as a pejorative remark—in the 16th and the 17th centuries.
In 16th century England, liberal could have positive or negative attributes in referring to someone’s generosity or indiscretion. In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare wrote of “a liberal villaine” who “hath… confest his vile encounters”. With the rise of the Enlightenment, the word acquired decisively more positive undertones, being defined as “free from narrow prejudice” in 1781 and “free from bigotry” in 1823.
In 1815, the first use of the word liberalism appeared in English. In Spain, the liberales, the first group to use the liberal label in a political context, fought for the implementation of the 1812 Constitution for decades. From 1820 to 1823, during the Trienio Liberal, King Ferdinand VII was compelled by the liberales to swear to uphold the Constitution. By the middle of the 19th century, liberal was used as a politicized term for parties and movements all over the world.
Over time, the meaning of the word “liberalism” began to diverge in different parts of the world. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “In the United States, liberalism is associated with the welfare-state policies of the New Deal program of the Democratic administration of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt, whereas in Europe it is more commonly associated with a commitment to limited government and laissez-faire economic policies.” Consequently, in the U.S., the ideas of individualism and laissez-faire economics previously associated with classical liberalism became the basis for the emerging school of libertarian thought.
History of liberalism
The Agreement of the People (1647) [photograph: here] was a manifesto for political change, proposed by the Levellers during the English Civil War. It called for freedom of religion, frequent convening of Parliament and equality under the law.
Isolated strands of liberal thought that had existed in Western philosophy since the Ancient Greeks began to coalesce at the time of the English Civil War. Disputes between the Parliament and King Charles I over political supremacy sparked a massive civil war in the 1640s, which culminated in Charles’ execution and the establishment of a Republic. In particular, the Levellers, a radical political movement of the period, published their manifesto Agreement of the People which advocated popular sovereignty, an extended voting suffrage, religious tolerance and equality before the law.
Many of the liberal concepts of Locke were foreshadowed in the radical ideas that were freely aired at the time. Algernon Sidney was second only to John Locke in his influence on liberal political thought in eighteenth-century Britain. He believed that absolute monarchy was a great political evil, and his major work, Discourses Concerning Government, argued that the subjects of the monarch were entitled by right to share in the government through advice and counsel.
These ideas were first drawn together and systematized as a distinct ideology, by the English philosopher John Locke, generally regarded as the father of modern liberalism. Locke developed the then radical notion that government acquires consent from the governed which has to be constantly present for a government to remain legitimate. His influential Two Treatises (1690), the foundational text of liberal ideology, outlined his major ideas. His insistence that lawful government did not have a supernatural basis was a sharp break with then-dominant theories of governance. Locke also defined the concept of the separation of church and state. Based on the social contract principle, Locke argued that there was a natural right to the liberty of conscience, which he argued must therefore remain protected from any government authority. He also formulated a general defense for religious toleration in his Letters Concerning Toleration.
Locke was influenced by the liberal ideas of John Milton, who was a staunch advocate of freedom in all its forms. Milton argued for disestablishment as the only effective way of achieving broad toleration. In his Areopagitica, Milton provided one of the first arguments for the importance of freedom of speech: “the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties”.
The Glorious Revolution
The impact of these ideas steadily increased during the 17th century in England, culminating in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which enshrined parliamentary sovereignty and the right of revolution, and led to the establishment of what many consider the first modern, liberal state.
Significant legislative milestones in this period included the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 which strengthened the convention that forbade detention lacking sufficient cause or evidence.
The Bill of Rights (photo left) formally established the supremacy of the law and of parliament over the monarch and laid down basic rights for all Englishmen. The Bill made royal interference with the law and with elections to parliament illegal, made the agreement of parliament necessary for the implementation of any new taxes and outlawed the maintenance of a standing army during peacetime without parliament’s consent. The right to petition the monarch was granted to everyone and “cruel and unusual punishments” were made illegal under all circumstances.
This was followed a year later with the Act of Toleration, which drew its ideological content from John Locke’s four letters advocating religious toleration. The Act allowed freedom of worship to Nonconformists who pledged oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy to the Anglican Church. In 1695, the Commons refused to renew the Licensing of the Press Act 1662, leading to a continuous period of unprecedented freedom of the press.
Era of enlightenment
The development of liberalism continued throughout the 18th century with the burgeoning Enlightenment ideals of the era. This was a period of profound intellectual vitality that questioned old traditions and influenced several European monarchies throughout the 18th century. In contrast to England, the French experience in the 18th century was characterized by the perpetuation of feudal payments and rights and absolutism. Ideas that challenged the status quo were often harshly repressed. Most of the philosophes of the French Enlightenment were progressive in the liberal sense and advocated the reform of the French system of government along more constitutional and liberal lines.
Baron de Montesquieu wrote a series of highly influential works in the early 18th century, including Persian Letters (1717) and The Spirit of the Laws (1748). The latter exerted tremendous influence, both inside and outside of France.
Montesquieu pleaded in favor of a constitutional system of government, the preservation of civil liberties and the law, and the idea that political institutions ought to reflect the social and geographical aspects of each community. In particular, he argued that political liberty required the separation of the powers of government.
Building on John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, he advocated that the executive, legislative, and judicial functions of government should be assigned to different bodies. He also emphasized the importance of a robust due process in law, including the right to a fair trial, the presumption of innocence and proportionality in the severity of punishment.
Another important figure of the French Enlightenment was Voltaire. Initially believing in the constructive role an enlightened monarch could play in improving the welfare of the people, he eventually came to a new conclusion: “It is up to us to cultivate our garden”. His most polemical and ferocious attacks on intolerance and religious persecutions began to appear a few years later. Despite much persecution, Voltaire remained a courageous polemicist who indefatigably fought for civil rights—the right to a fair trial and freedom of religion—and who denounced the hypocrisies and injustices of the Ancien Régime.
The American Revolution
Political tension between England and its American colonies grew after 1765 over the issue of taxation without representation, culminating in the Declaration of Independence of a new republic.
The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, echoed Locke: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.
After the war, the leaders debated about how to move forward. The Articles of Confederation, written in 1776, now appeared inadequate to provide security, or even a functional government. The Confederation Congress called a Constitutional Convention in 1787 to write a new Constitution of the United States.
In the context of the times, the Constitution was a republican and liberal document. It established a strong national government with clear separation of the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. The first ten amendments to the constitution, known as the United States Bill of Rights, guaranteed some of the natural rights liberal thinkers used to justify the Revolution.
The French Revolution
Historians widely regard the French Revolution as one of the most important events in history. The Revolution is often seen as marking the “dawn of the modern era,” and its convulsions are widely associated with “the triumph of liberalism.”
The French Revolution began in 1789 with the convocation of the Estates-General in May. The first year of the Revolution witnessed members of the Third Estate proclaiming the Tennis Court Oath in June, the Storming of the Bastille in July.
The two key events that marked the triumph of liberalism were the Abolition of feudalism in France on the night of 4 August 1789, which marked the collapse of feudal and old traditional rights and privileges and restrictions, and the passage of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in August. The rise of Napoleon as dictator in 1799 heralded a reverse of many of the republican and democratic gains. However, Napoleon did not restore the Ancien Régime. He kept much of the liberalism and imposed a liberal code of law, the Code Napoleon.
Outside France the Revolution had a major impact and its ideas became widespread. Furthermore, the French armies in the 1790s and 1800s directly overthrew feudal remains in much of western Europe. They liberalized property laws, ended seigneurial dues, abolished the guild of merchants and craftsmen to facilitate entrepreneurship, legalized divorce, and closed the Jewish ghettos. The Inquisition ended as did the Holy Roman Empire. The power of church courts and religious authority was sharply reduced, and equality under the law was proclaimed for all men.
The radical liberal movement began in the 1790s in England and concentrated on parliamentary and electoral reform, emphasizing natural rights and popular sovereignty. Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791) was a response to Burke’s conservative essay Reflections on the Revolution in France.
An ensuing revolution controversy featured, among others, Mary Wollstonecraft, who followed with an early feminist tract, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Radicals encouraged mass support for democratic reform along with rejection of the monarchy, aristocracy, and all forms of privilege.
The Reform Act 1832 was put through with the support of public outcry, mass meetings of “political unions” and riots in some cities. This now enfranchised the middle classes, but failed to meet radical demands. Following the Reform Act the mainly aristocratic Whigs in the House of Commons were joined by a small number of parliamentary Radicals, as well as an increased number of middle class Whigs. By 1839 they were informally being called “the Liberal party.”
The Liberals produced one of the most influential British prime ministers, William Gladstone, who was also known as the Grand Old Man: the towering political figure of liberalism in the 19th century. Under Gladstone, the Liberals reformed education, disestablished the Church of Ireland, and introduced the secret ballot for local and parliamentary elections.
The development into maturity of classical liberalism took place before and after the French Revolution in Britain, and was based on the following core concepts: classical economics, free trade, laissez-faire government with minimal intervention and taxation and a balanced budget. Classical liberals were committed to individualism, liberty and equal rights. The primary intellectual influences on 19th century liberal trends were those of Adam Smith and the classical economists, and Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.
Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, was to provide most of the ideas of economics, at least until the publication of J. S. Mill’s Principles in 1848. Smith addressed the motivation for economic activity, the causes of prices and the distribution of wealth, and the policies the state should follow in order to maximize wealth.
Smith wrote that as long as supply, demand, prices, and competition were left free of government regulation, the pursuit of material self-interest, rather than altruism, would maximize the wealth of a society through profit-driven production of goods and services. An “invisible hand” directed individuals and firms to work toward the nation’s good as an unintended consequence of efforts to maximize their own gain. This provided a moral justification for the accumulation of wealth, which had previously been viewed by some as sinful.
His main emphasis was on the benefit of free internal and international trade, which he thought could increase wealth through specialization in production. He also opposed restrictive trade preferences, state grants of monopolies, and employers’ organizations and trade unions. Government should be limited to defense, public works and the administration of justice, financed by taxes based on income. Smith was one of the progenitors of the idea, which was long central to classical liberalism and has resurfaced in the globalization literature of the later 20th and early 21st centuries, that free trade promotes peace.
Utilitarianism provided the political justification for the implementation of economic liberalism by British governments, which was to dominate economic policy from the 1830s. Although utilitarianism prompted legislative and administrative reform and John Stuart Mill’s later writings on the subject foreshadowed the welfare state, it was mainly used as a justification for laissez-faire. The central concept of utilitarianism, which was developed by Jeremy Bentham, was that public policy should seek to provide “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”. While this could be interpreted as a justification for state action to reduce poverty, it was used by classical liberals to justify inaction with the argument that the net benefit to all individuals would be higher. His philosophy proved to be extremely influential on government policy and led to increased Benthamite attempts at government social control, including Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police, prison reforms, the workhouses and asylums for the mentally ill.
The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 was a watershed moment and encapsulated the triumph of free trade and liberal economics. The Anti-Corn Law League brought together a coalition of liberal and radical groups in support of free trade under the leadership of Richard Cobden and John Bright, who opposed militarism and public expenditure. Their policies of low public expenditure and low taxation were later adopted by the liberal chancellor of the exchequer and later prime minister, William Ewart Gladstone. Although British classical liberals aspired to a minimum of state activity, the passage of the Factory Acts in the early 19th century which involved government interference in the economy met with their approval.
Spread of liberalism
Abolitionist and suffrage movements spread, along with representative and democratic ideals. France established an enduring republic in the 1870s, and wars in the United States ensured the formation of a nation and the abolition of slavery in the south. Meanwhile, a mixture of liberal and nationalist sentiment in Italy and Germany brought about the unification of the two countries in the late 19th century. Liberal agitation in Latin America led to independence from the imperial power of Spain and Portugal.
In France, the July Revolution of 1830, orchestrated by liberal politicians and journalists, removed the Bourbon monarchy and inspired similar uprisings elsewhere in Europe. Frustration with the pace of political progress in the early 19th century sparked even more gigantic revolutions in 1848. Revolutions spread throughout the Austrian Empire, the German states, and the Italian states. Governments fell rapidly. Liberal nationalists demanded written constitutions, representative assemblies, greater suffrage rights, and freedom of the press. A second republic was proclaimed in France. Serfdom was abolished in Prussia, Galicia, Bohemia, and Hungary. The indomitable Metternich, the Austrian builder of the reigning conservative order, shocked Europe when he resigned and fled to Britain in panic and disguise.
(The iconic painting Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, a tableau of the July Revolution of 1830.)
Eventually, however, the success of the revolutionaries petered out. Without French help, the Italians were easily defeated by the Austrians. With some luck and skill, Austria also managed to contain the bubbling nationalist sentiments in Germany and Hungary, helped along by the failure of the Frankfurt Assembly to unify the German states into a single nation. Two decades later, however, the Italians and the Germans fulfilled their dreams for unification and independence.
The Sardinian Prime Minister, Camillo di Cavour, was a shrewd liberal who understood that the only effective way for the Italians to gain independence was if the French were on their side. Napoleon III agreed to Cavour’s request for assistance and France defeated Austria in the Franco-Austrian War of 1859, setting the stage for Italian independence.
German unification transpired under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck, who decimated the enemies of Prussia in war after war, finally triumphing against France in 1871 and proclaiming the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, ending another saga in the drive for nationalization. The French proclaimed a third republic after their loss in the war.