Book: Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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The prehistory of liberalism

Where does the liberal story begin? The history of the word ‘liberalism’ and its usages is more recent than the ancestry of many of the ideas from which liberalism has drawn and subsequently embraced. The use of the word ‘liberal’ in a political sense dates from Spain in the second decade of the 19th century. In Britain that political sense can be found a few years later in the 1820s, as the word began to mean more than ‘generous’ or ‘ample’ and assumed the connotations of ‘radical’, ‘progressive’, or ‘reformist’. But the antecedents of liberalism are much older. We can find proto-liberalisms, or segments of what was to mature into a full liberal credo, from the end of the Middle Ages onwards.

Liberalism began, broadly speaking, as a movement to release people from the social and political shackles that constrained and frequently exploited them. Tyrannical monarchs, feudal hierarchies and privileges, and heavy-handed religious practices combined to create a sense of oppressiveness that became increasingly difficult to bear, and that steadily fell out of step with the advent of the modern world. The rise of liberal ideas is therefore linked to great social changes that were occurring across Europe. One of them was the challenge to religious monopolies, as secular powers sought to escape the control of the Church. It was followed by objections to the uniformity of religious belief and practice from within the domain of religion itself, typically during the Protestant Reformation. More generally, the right to resist tyranny was becoming an increasingly vocal demand, and it culminated in the celebrated insistence of John Locke on the right of the people to dismiss those rulers who heaped on their subjects ‘a train of abuses’. But the implied consent was still embryonic. It was not broadly democratic in nature except in the setting up of a political society—a fairly rare event. It centred on the voicing of dissent, not consent. The right of the people to say ‘no’ to bad government preceded by a considerable margin their right to say ‘yes’: to fashion desired political practice by mandating governments to act. And Locke recognized tacit ‘consent’ as a sufficient indication of the legitimacy of a government: silence was over-optimistically interpreted as political consent merely through a person using public goods such as a highway, or renting property in a government’s domain.

No less significant was the assertion of Locke and other 17th century thinkers that human beings were born with natural rights. Both of those concepts—‘natural’ and ‘rights’—were decisive to the future path of liberalism. For human beings now began to be valued as separate individuals, seen to possess innate attributes—in particular the capacity for life, liberty, and the creation and ownership of property—whose removal would profoundly dehumanize them. Enshrining those capacities through rights carried a vital message. It signalled the priority of those three attributes over other human features, for they were deemed to precede the formation of societies. It entitled people, once societies came into being, to special protection in the form of a contract between government and governed. Finally, attaching the qualifier ‘natural’ to that of rights implied that they were not a gift at the behest of rulers, or a precarious agreement between privileged individuals, or a convention that was kept up simply for tradition’s sake and was stuck in a rut. Rather, natural rights were simply there as an absolutely essential element of the human condition: people were born with rights in the same way that they were born with noses. The theory of natural rights eventually underwent some modification—the American Declaration of Independence notably substitutes the pursuit of happiness for the right to property—but it lasted as an anchoring point of liberal discourse until well into the 19th century, as a powerful statement that established limits to interference in individual lives. By the end of that century, although rights discourse remained central to liberal languages, most liberals no longer thought of rights as independent of their social origins and of social recognition. If the term ‘natural’ continued to be used, it was mainly by philosophers who employed it as synonymous with ‘self-evident’ or ‘intuitive’—concepts that in their turn possess the rhetorical power to remove something from dispute, as had previously been the case with the term ‘natural’.

From another perspective, consider the advice given to Italian princes by Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) on how to pursue political success ruthlessly and efficiently, advice that was judged to be subversive of the ethical tenets preached by the Church. No liberal himself, Machiavelli has been seen by the liberal political philosopher Isaiah Berlin (see ) as promoting a world in which different value-systems could live side by side, through his postulation of a rival political code of conduct alongside a religious one. That, argued Berlin, paved one of many paths towards the value-pluralism that liberalism embraces and encouraged the practice of challenging belief systems that claim a monopoly over their hold on the truth. That said, we now regard Machiavelli as a major disseminator and developer of an earlier Roman republicanism. Republicanism offered a popular basis of political power. Its notions of group liberty and of citizenship signalled an affinity with later liberal ideas concerning the self-rule of a people and an end to arbitrary dominance.

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