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Classical and Modern Liberalism

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Liberalism refers to the belief in the significance of liberty and equal rights (Alterman 2008). Liberals generally advocate for ideas like human rights, constitutionalism, capitalism, free and fair elections etc. The history of liberalism dates back to the commencement of the English Civil War and endures even after the end of the Cold War. Though the reign of liberalism dates back to the Middle Ages, it is worth noting that it started as a main doctrine in the 16th and 17th centuries as a reaction to the religious wars that were gripping Europe (Alterman 2008). Following the French Revolution, classical liberals, who mainly focused on the importance of civil liberties and free markets, dominated liberal history for more than a century. However, at the inception of the First World War, there was a change in trend towards a new liberalism, whose emphasis was on an increased role of the state in improving societal ills (Alterman 2008). This paper gives a description and analysis of the main aspects of classical and modern liberalism (with reference to two authors), including their origin, features or ideas, and examples.

Description and Analysis of the Main Aspects of Classical and Modern Liberalism

Classical Liberalism

Classical liberalism refers to the philosophy of commitment to constitutionalism, individual liberty, limited government, the rule of law, free markets, as well as freedom of speech, religion, and press, etc. (Alterman 2008) Classical liberalism developed in Europe in the 19th century. Since the early 19th century up to the World War I, classical liberalism was the dominating theory in the United Kingdom, with its outstanding victories being witnessed in the Reform Act of 1832, as well as the Corn Laws repeal in 1846 (Alterman 2008). It is worth noting that despite classical liberals wanting limited government participation, they, however, accepted state involvement in the economy at the beginning of the 19th century during the enactment of the Factory Acts (Alterman 2008). Benjamin Disraeli, the then UK Conservative prime minister, totally rejected classical liberalism, and instead, advocated for Tory Democracy. It was apparent in the 1870s that classical liberalism was no longer the reigning ideology (Alterman 2008). Due to the changes in the social and economic conditions in the 19th century, there was a split between social and neo-classical liberals, who agreed on the significance of individual freedom, but sharply differed on the state’s role. While social liberals supported government participation, neo-classical liberals laid emphasis on limited government. The Great Depression led to a change from classical liberalism to modern liberalism (Alterman 2008).

Classical liberals’ ideologies include belief in the fact that individuals create the government to protect them against ills committed by their fellow citizens and foreigners, as well as to maintain public works and institutions (Krugman 2007). In addition, they believed in individual freedom to pursue their interests without societal restraint (Krugman 2007). With regard to free markets, classical liberals believed that capital and labor should be rewarded highly, and there should be efficient organization of production to meet the demands of consumers (Krugman 2007).  

Notable authors, who have greatly contributed to classical liberalism, include John Locke, who dwelled on themes, such as religious toleration, individualism, the importance of property etc (Krugman 2007). According to Locke, it is the people who select a government, and therefore, it derives its authority from its subjects. Locke’s writings include A Letter Concerning Toleration and Second Treatise of Government, among others (Heywood 2007). Another author is Adam Smith, whose book, The Wealth of Nations, provided numerous ideas on classical liberal economics. Some of the issues he discussed are wealth distribution, motivation for economic activity, and policies that help the state to maximize wealth, etc. According to Smith, self-interest is the motivating factor in production of goods and services (Krugman 2007). 

Modern Liberalism

Modern Liberalism is a modified form of classical liberalism that developed in the 1930s in response to the Great Depression (Diamond 2008). It developed as a form of social liberalism rooted in progressive principles that shows support for the welfare of the state via a competitive mixed economy and social justice. Modern liberals value the rule of law, democracy, and civil liberties. In addition, they believe in the existence of liberty when access to basic needs, such as health care, education, etc., is availed equally to everyone (Diamond 2008). Modern liberals see the state as an instrument that helps to promote the general welfare of the society via participation in social, cultural, economic, and political activities that are in the interest of individual people, and supports the regulation of the economic life of the society by the state to alleviate diseases, hunger, etc. They also believe that individual liberties and rights are created by the state, which has the privilege of restraining them if they hinder societal welfare (Diamond 2008).

Among the notable writers who contributed to the philosophy of modern liberalism are Herbert Croly and Keynesian etc (Heywood 2007). Through his book, The Promise of American Life, Croly advocated for economic planning as a means of improving the general living standards, formation of a society based on brotherhood, as well as increased expenditure on education. Keynesian, on the other hand, argued through his Economic Theory book, that national prosperity necessitates the management of economy by the government to maintain high growth and low unemployment rate (Diamond 2008).

There are two types of liberalism, i.e. classical and modern liberalism. Classical liberalism supports commitment to constitutionalism, individual liberty etc. Classical liberalism developed in Europe in the 19th century. John Locke and Adam Smith are among the classical liberalism authors (Scott 2009). Modern liberalism, on the other hand, is a modified form of classical liberalism that developed in the 1930s in response to the Great Depression. Its supports ideologies like the regulation of the economic life of the society by the state to alleviate diseases, hunger etc. Herbert Croly and Keynesian are examples of modern liberalism writers (Scott 2009). In comparing the two types of liberalism, I support modern liberalism because it advocates for government intervention to promote the people’s welfare. 

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