Define Liberalism

Political doctrines are explicit perceptions of politics and the Government’s responsibility. Several thinkers defined political thoughts as a concept of State, its nature, structure and role.

However, the distinction of old ideas is not necessary for the new ones to be acceptable in the political realm.

This article comprises every detail to define liberalism that is important for the IAS exam.

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What Is Liberalism?

Liberalism is a political and philosophical ideology to establish individual freedom, consent and equality. Different liberals adopt a vast range of views based on their understanding of this ideology. Individual rights, including civil and human rights, come first among these views.

It also supports freedom and liberty of speech, religious conscience and press, defining secularism and democracy. To define liberalism more precisely, one must understand the role, nature as well as the function of State power, which encompasses the following aspects:

  • Individual Liberty: Liberalism is essentially an ideology of liberty. Its love for individual liberty is unquestionable. It has become libertarianism. For liberals, liberty is the very essence of human personality. It is a means to one’s development.
  • Individual-centred: Liberalism begins and ends with the individual. For liberals, the individual is the centre of all activities, the focal point; the individual is the end while all other associations, including the state, are the means, which exist for the individual. individual is the centre around which all things move.
  • Capitalistic Economy: Liberalism advocates a free-market economy, i.e., the capitalistic mode of economy. It believes in a private property system, regarding property rights as sacrosanct; maximum profit as the only motive; capitalistic mode of production and distribution as the only essence; the market forces as the controlling means of economy.
  • Limited State: Liberalism advocates the concept of a limited state. The liberals view the state as a means for attaining the good of the individual. They oppose every type of totalitarian state. They are of the opinion that a more powerful state means a less free individual. Locke used to say, “because the functions of the state are limited, so are limited its powers.”
  • Opposed to Traditions/Superstitions: As liberalism rose as a reaction against traditions/superstitions, it is, by its nature, opposed to all reactionary measures. Liberalism, emerging from Renaissance and Reformation, stood, and actually stands, for reason and rationalism. As against the feudal model of man as a passive being, liberalism favours a model of a man who is more active and more acquisitive.
  • Democracy: Liberalism is an exponent of democratic government. It seeks to establish a government of the people, by the people and for the people; a government that functions according to the Constitution and constitutionalism; a government that upholds the rule of law; a government that secures the rights and liberties of the people. Liberalism, McGovern says, is a combination of democracy and individualism.
  • Welfareism: Liberalism is closely associated with welfarism. Welfarism, as a state activity, is the idea that the state works for the welfare of the people. The liberal concept of state activity is one where the state serves the people. In other words, the welfare state is a ‘social service’ state.

Background of Liberalism

  • Liberalism appeared in the Age of Enlightenment as a separate political movement and spread among western economists and philosophers.
  • It challenged the existing practice of hereditary privilege, absolute monarchy, state creed, and the Divine Right of Kings.
  • It rejected the classic conservatism and orthodoxy, with the rule of law and representative democracy.
  • In addition, liberals end royal monopolies, mercantilist policies and other trade barriers. Instead, it advocated free trade, globalisation and marketisation.
  • People trace back the origin of liberalism to a 17th-century English political theorist and philosopher, John Locke.
  • According to him, every human possesses a right to life, liberty and property, which governments must protect instead of violating. This means State’s legitimate interference must function with the consent of the governed.
  • Later on, legendary radicals of the Glorious, American and French Revolution espoused liberalist ideology. Its propagation became widespread, mostly after the French Revolution.
  • In the 19th century, liberal governments defeated conservatism across European, South American, and North American countries.
  • Later, liberalist principles confronted Fascism and Marxism cum Leninism as new ideological challenges.
  • Nevertheless, after the victory of liberal democracy in both World Wars, the spread of this ideology accelerated even further.

Also, read ⇒ What is liberalization, privatization and globalisation?

Theory of Classical Liberalism

The beginning of classical liberalism is ingrained in political changes from the 16th to 18th century. But the ideology turned into a political principle mostly after the 1789’s French Revolution. Later, in the 19th century, the ideology came out as retaliation to the Industrial Revolution and progressing urbanisation in European Nations and the United States.

  • The classical theory emphasises minimal power and limited function of the state. It further stressed egotism, self-sufficiency and self-responsibility of own livelihood and condition.
  • Classical liberalism as an economic ideology promotes a self-regulating market. It further denotes that government intervention is inessential and damaging in such market policy.
  • It disables the interference of the State in human rights to protect them from potential political violation.

Theory of Modern Liberalism

Glitches of the open market economy started being visible in North America and England. Leading companies started enjoying the profits in huge margins, leaving lesser benefits for the mass. Consequently, the gap between rich and poor was extending drastically. The economy was likely to fall as there was a huge supply surplus since the poor could not consume. This brought the 19th-century liberals to initiate an ideological reform.

One must understand the significant aspects as follows to define liberalism in the modern-day scenario:

  • Equal opportunity for every individual regardless of race, sex, religion and social stand.
  • Positive freedom of speech, belief, religion and press.
  • Enabling State’s interference to bring social equality and justice.
  • Individualism instead of egotism but developmental.
  • Promoting socio-political welfare.

Liberalism in India

Liberalism in India developed through several phases as follows:

  • It started with an ancient theory that stressed earthly life and materialism.
  • Then, it evolved through social reforms and political independence in the middle and late 19th century.
  • It now emphasises economic and social freedom with minimal Government intervention.

To define liberalism, in conclusion, one can say that it has reformed and evolved through several ages of political activism. But the core idea is to accelerate individualism and curb the State’s uncontrolled power and function.

All these details are essential for aspirants to define liberalism in UPSC and other UPSC topics related to the same.

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Frequently Asked Questions on Liberalism


Who developed the idea of liberalism?

John Locke, a 17th-century English political theorist and philosopher, developed the idea of liberalism.


Does liberalism include the “Welfare State” concept?

Yes, the idea of liberalism includes the “Welfare State” concept.


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