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

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Social, economic, and cultural transformations

Another kind of transformation that stimulated the rise of liberalism was the growing urbanization of European societies. The gradual consolidation of a middle class, a bourgeoisie, with commercial interests and property assets, strengthened demands to further and protect the production of, and trading in, goods. The freeing of markets from arbitrary control, or from bureaucratic fetters, was added to the fundamental rights that individuals could claim. Those rights were initially wrested from ruling elites, but they grew to become expectations from the state itself. Rather than just assuming its traditional role of maintaining internal order and external defence, and raising taxes for those purposes, the state was re-invented as the guarantor of a set of rights that also included freedom of trade and respect for property. The latter two were incorporated into what eventually became aspects of liberal thinking and practice. The new economic role of the state was defined through phrases such as ‘holding the ring’, ‘honest broker’, or ensuring a ‘level playing field’. Economic activities were thus state enabled, not state directed. Voluntary organizations such as banks, firms, and factories, inspired by leaders of industry and other individual entrepreneurs, all located in civil society—the arena of voluntary economic and social interaction—would be the drivers of economic activity and commerce. The state would ensure they had relatively free rein.

As for property, it is a moot point whether its protection and valuing are themselves liberal features or whether the institution of private property is one of the prerequisites to developing fundamental liberal attributes such as freedom and individuality. If the former, a defence of private property would have acknowledged the personal contribution of individuals to their own good and that of society at large through their labour and inventiveness. It would have recognized the importance of justifiable security, incentives, rewards, and—not least—independence in private life in the form of material assets. All those had implications for an orderly and rule-bound public sphere. But it would also have sown the seeds of competitiveness: a virtue for some liberals and a vice—when found in excess—for others. And it would have endorsed the importance of the division of labour, which for many liberals introduced a justifiable inequality based on diverse talents or industriousness. But while critics of liberalism have indicted the division of labour for fomenting gross and unjust inequality, the left-liberal French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) regarded it as furthering a beneficial social interdependence, thus illustrating the malleability of liberal ideology.

If, however, private property was seen as a means to other liberal attributes, say self-development, that might explain the fluctuating fortunes of the concept of property in liberal thought and practice—namely, its relative centrality or distance from the liberal core, on which, see . Such variations may have been the outcome of identifying other ways of furthering liberal values, with similar effect. For instance, if income were to be redistributed to those more in need, rather than allowing property to accumulate unreservedly, that might achieve a fairer notion of individuality.

The growth of universities and the thirst for knowledge fuelled by human curiosity were another factor in the planting of liberalism’s seeds, harnessing the realms of culture and civilization to a liberal temperament. The search for new boundaries of experience was accompanied by the critical evaluation of knowledge, rather than its passive acceptance. Sensitivity to different forms of human expression, and the cultivation of reflective sensibilities towards what one was studying or arguing, became intertwined with liberal values. In Germany, the 18th and 19th century movement towards culture and education, known as Bildung, encapsulated some of those aims. German philosophers such as Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) believed that freedom was attained through education and that the recognition of cultural pluralism fostered individual development. Wilhelm von Humboldt, another German philosopher, advocated continuous individual growth. He was admired by Mill, who introduced his famous treatise On Liberty with an approving quotation from von Humboldt, citing the latter’s grand, leading principle: ‘the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity’.

Sustaining all that was the enlightenment, a movement of ideas located mainly in the 17th and 18th centuries, which promoted the view that empirical evidence was the basis of rational knowledge and focused on the scientific investigation of human beings in a social context, as well as on its artistic expression. This anthropocentric view of the ‘science of man’ also allowed for the study of the moral and cultural components of human conduct. It encouraged a non-dogmatic, experimental, and critical assessment of the human condition, releasing philosophical and social thought from traditional restraints. Enlightenment thinkers with direct impact on political thought were notable in particular in France—Charles-Louis de Secondat Montesquieu (1689–1755); in Germany—Immanuel Kant (1724–1804); and in Scotland—David Hume (1711–76) and Adam Smith (1723–90). Instead of religious authoritarianism, they practised an open-ended curiosity, and most of them extolled the ideals of freedom and equality. That provided an impetus to the rational, planned construction of social and political institutions and to the furtherance of toleration. All these were accompanied by a swelling demand that the voice of the people be heard. Initially, that voice was restricted to some of the wealthy, the educated, and the articulate segments of society, particularly through a free and often outspoken press and pamphlet culture. But the idea of broad representation became another building block in the consolidation of liberal principles.

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