The origins of liberalism
Posted by Matt Walker on July 3, 2011
Ideologies are an amalgam of concepts and values which have developed over many years. Put another way, no individual sat down one day and thought, “I know: I am going to create something called ‘liberalism’.” What actually happens is that different theorists and thinkers respond to the world around them and write about it. The works and ideas of these people then start to fit together into a collection of concepts labelled ‘liberalism’.
Thus, ideologies are very much shaped by the historic circumstances their main contributors lived through. Liberalism emerged in Britain and Europe at a time when personal, intellectual and economic freedom were not the norm. In 17th Century England, for example, those early thinkers who are now seen to be early liberal thinkers lived through a time of great upheaval, with a civil war fought over who should govern: the monarch (King Charles I) or Parliament. The subsequent English republic, led by Oliver Cromwell, was strictly Puritan and prescriptive about religious belief. Hence thinkers such as John Locke espoused the values of religious freedom and freedom of conscience.
Liberal thinkers such as Adam Smith looked at the world through economic eyes, promoting free market economics during the Industrial Revolution as a counter to economic restrictions which belonged in a pre-industrial world. Hence, liberals became advocates of economic freedom. This in turn developed further because of the social context of a rapidly industrialising Britain, so that by the early 20th Century some people questioned whether economic freedom promoted personal freedom – it perhaps didn’t if you were poor, uneducated, and sick. Hence, these liberals believed freedom was best promoted by a welfare state which helped people avoid such social ills.
Whilst you do not need to know the detailed context in which ideologies develop, it will help you to understand the various concepts and theories by bearing in mind that political thinkers observe the world, identify its problems, and offer solutions to those problems.