Liberalism image: Girl hanging outside car window

Liberalism is founded on the belief that individual freedom should be the basis of a just society.

Who should decide how you live your life: where you reside; what career you choose; whom you can marry; and which gods you worship? Should it be your parents? Or your religious or community leaders? Should it be determined by the circumstances of your birth? Or perhaps by your government? Or should you ultimately be the one to decide these things for yourself?

If you answered the latter, then you’re endorsing the values of liberalism, at least in the broadest sense. Liberalism is, at its heart, the belief that each individual person has moral priority over their community or society when it comes to determining the course of their life.

This primacy of individual freedom and self-determination might seem self-evident to people living in modern liberal democracies, but it is actually a relatively recent innovation.

The Birth of Liberalism

In most societies throughout history and prehistory, one’s beliefs, values and social role were imposed on them by their community. Indeed, in many societies since agricultural times, people were considered to be the property of their parents or their rulers, with next to no-one having genuine freedom or the power of self-determination.

Brave (or foolhardy) was the medieval serf who took it upon themselves to defy their local church to practice their own religion, or defy their family tradition to seek out their dream job, or defy their clan to marry whomever their heart desired.

The seeds of modern liberalism were planted in England in the 13th century with the signing of the Magna Carta, which weakened the unilateral power of the King over his minions. This started a process that eventually enshrined a number of individual rights in English law, such as a right to trial by jury and equality before the law.

Soon even rulers – whether monarch or government – came to receive their legitimacy not from divine authority, tradition or fiat but from the will of the people. If the rulers didn’t operate in the interests of the people, the people had the right to strip that legitimacy from them. This made democracy a natural fit for nations with liberal sensibilities.

The other motivating force for liberalism was the horrifically destructive religious wars that wracked Europe after the Reformation, culminating in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Given the millions of lives lost due to religious and ideological differences, many people came to see that tolerance of different beliefs and religious practices might be a better alternative to imposing one’s beliefs on others by force.


Modern Liberalism

Liberalism was fleshed out as a comprehensive political philosophy by thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke and John Stuart Mill, and more recently by John Rawls. While they differed in their emphases and recommendations, all liberal thinkers were committed to the core idea that individuals were – and ought to be – fundamentally free to live as they choose.

Philosopher John Locke argued that liberalism stemmed from our very nature, arguing that all people are essentially in “a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man.”

Most liberal thinkers argued that individual freedom should only be limited in very special circumstances.

One of those limitations was not impinging upon the freedom of others to live according to their own beliefs and values, hence the importance of tolerance and preventing harm against others. As they say, your freedom to swing your arm ends where another person’s nose begins.

One common theme of liberalism is the importance of free speech. John Stuart Mill, for example, argued that each individual ought to be able to seek the truth for themselves rather than being obliged to accept the views imposed on them by authorities or tradition.

And in order to seek truth, they need to be able to explore, express and interrogate all beliefs and arguments. And the only way to do that was to allow wide-ranging free speech. “There ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered,” he wrote.

This freedom of speech should be limited only in very particular circumstances, such as when that speech is likely to cause direct harm to others. So shouting “fire” in a packed theatre when no such fire exists is an abuse of free speech.

This “harm principle” is still a topic of considerable debate amongst liberals and their opponents, especially around what ought to be considered sufficient harm to justify suppressing speech.

Other liberal thinkers emphasised the fact that not every person was equally able to exercise their freedom through no fault of their own. Poverty, sexism, racial discrimination and other systemic barriers mean that freedom and power are unequally distributed.

This led to what is often called “social justice” liberalism, which seeks to remove those social barriers and enable all people to exercise their freedom to the fullest extent. Some focused on economic redistribution, such as the liberal socialists, while others focused on social barriers, like feminists and anti-discrimination campaigners.