DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S035-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

1. Liberal politics

In politics, the term ’liberalism’ denotes a family of positions centred around constitutional democracy, the rule of law, political and intellectual freedom, toleration in religion, morals and lifestyle, opposition to racial and sexual discrimination, and respect for the rights of the individual.

Often these positions are associated with a suspicion of state authority, with a view that the powers of government should be constrained if not minimized, and with a confidence in the ability of individuals to organize themselves on the basis of the market, the free interplay of ideas and the loose and informal associations of civil society. Liberal support for democracy is therefore sometimes qualified by fear of ’the tyranny of the majority’ and by apprehensions about the extent and intrusiveness of the power that a populist state is capable of exercising.

These attitudes are not, however, characteristic of all forms of liberalism. In Britain, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a group of thinkers known as the New Liberals made a case against laissez-faire and in favour of state intervention in social, economic and cultural life. The New Liberals, who included T.H. Green and L.T. Hobhouse, saw individual liberty as something to be achieved under favourable social circumstances. The poverty, squalor and ignorance in which most people lived made it impossible in their view for freedom and individuality to flourish, and the New Liberals believed that these conditions could only be ameliorated through collective action coordinated by a strong welfare-oriented interventionist state.

In the USA, since the early part of the twentieth century, the term ’liberalism’ has been associated with ‘progressive’ economic reform, a commitment to the modest redistribution of income that takes place in a welfare state, a suspicion of business and an abiding faith in the legal regulation of economic affairs. The more laissez-faire version of liberalism is called ’conservatism’ in the USA, and Europeans are often disconcerted to hear ’liberal’ used there as label for positions that they themselves would describe as left-wing or moderately socialist.

This is not just terminological confusion. Those in the USA who call themselves ’liberals’ do also hold the positions outlined at the beginning of this article, and their disagreement with ’conservative’ opponents is partly a live and unresolved issue about the implications of traditional liberal premises in so far as social and economic policy is concerned. Does individual freedom require private ownership? Is poverty compatible with liberty? Can civil and political rights be equal if economic power is not? Liberalism is a family of positions, and these remain important family disputes.

Citing this article:
Waldron, Jeremy. Liberal politics. Liberalism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S035-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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