Liberalism is the most important ideology of modern political theory. It
emerged in the 17th century and continues to be the most widely followed
Idealogy in the contemporary world. The etymology of the word liberalism is
from ‘Liber’ that means liberty. The supporters of the Spanish Constitution in
the 19th century made the word popular by calling themselves as liberals. Now
western countries like United States of America, the United Kingdom, Canada,
and Germany adhere to the tenets of liberalism in politics and economy.
Liberalism chronologically had experienced three major phases. In the
first phase till 1930 it was called as Negative Liberalism. The second phase
termed as Positive Liberalism emerged after the Great Economic Depression and
lasted up to the 1970s. The third phase, known as Libertarianism, is followed
by major countries of the world for the last four decades.
Negative Liberalism is also known by many names like Laissez Faire
Liberalism and Classical Liberalism. John Locke in his book ‘Two Treaties of
Civil Government’ propounded the basic political principles of Negative
Liberalism that came to be implemented vigorously in the USA.
Thomas Paine, Montesquieu, Jeremy Bentham are the other important
proponents of Negative Liberalism. Economically, Adam Smith advocated Negative
Liberalism in his book ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of Wealth of
Negative Liberalism considers man as a rational, capable and master less
individual. All human beings are equal and free. Everyone knows their interests
and is endowed with the capacity to satisfy their interests. Society is a mere
aggregate of freely existing individuals. There is no necessity for State and
society to interfere or regulate the life of individuals.
The State is a necessary evil. It is necessary for the protection of law
and order without which individuals cannot realise their interests.
Nevertheless, the State is an evil as even its mere existence itself endangers
the rights and liberties of the individuals.
The State is a negative State as it is prohibited from carrying out
developmental activities. The State is called as Laissez Faire State. Laissez
Faire has its origin in the French language meaning Leave Alone. The State must
leave the individuals alone to pursue their activities. Maintenance of law and
order and enforcement of legally made contracts are the only functions assigned
to the State by Negative Liberalism.
Economically, Negative Liberalism supports free market economy based on
demand and supply. It prohibits the State from interfering with the economic
activities. The State is akin to a cricket umpire in its powers and functions.
The umpire does not play the game but watches whether the players are playing
the game in accordance with the laws of the game. Similarly the State should not
interfere in the economy as market alone determines its activities.
Negative Liberalism believes in the concept of natural rights. When
Mother Nature created man, it endowed him with basic rights that are called
Natural Rights. The State should not erode or undermine these natural rights.
The Rights to Life, Liberty and Property are indispensable for human existence
and development. Therefore, the State should never abolish or erode them. The
Right to Property is special to the proponents of Negative Liberalism. It is an
unlimited right as all individuals can acquire, enjoy and dispose of property
without interference from the State.
Negative liberalism metamorphosed into Positive liberalism in the 20th
century. Even though Negative Liberalism contributed to the generation of
unprecedented wealth in the western countries it had also inflicted enormous
pain on common people. Glaring inequalities among people, appearance of slums
in the cities and exploitation of the workers exposed the deficiencies of
Negative Liberalism. Humanist thinkers like Ruskin protested against the misery
of the people.
In this backdrop, Negative Liberalism changed into Positive Liberalism
because of two important factors i.e. Democracy and Marxism. Nineteenth century
witnessed the gradual spread of democracy whereby the common people came to be
provided with voting rights. They demanded fundamental changes in politics. The
second factor is the advent and rise of Marxism that appealed to the workers to
overthrow the exploitative inequality-laden Negative Liberalism. Subsequently,
under pressure from democracy and Marxism, Negative Liberalism changed into
The liberal world experienced a devastating Great Economic Depression
from 1928 affecting economies of numerous countries including United States of
America. The newly elected American President Franklin Roosevelt implemented
the New Deal Programme for uplifting American economy from the quagmire of
J.M.Keyne, economic advisor to the American President, played a crucial
role in the formulation of the programme signifying the advent of Positive
Liberalism. A number of thinkers enriched the content of Positive Liberalism of
which T.H.Green, Harold Laski, L.T.Hobhouse are important.
Positive Liberalism brought out the new concept of Social Welfare State.
This concept projects the State as a positive instrument for the promotion of
social welfare. The role of the State is to provide social service to the
people. It should construct and maintain hospitals, educational institutions,
factories and industries, infrastructural facilities like roads, railway tracks
and ports. The State also came to be known as Social Democratic State, a nomenclature
that explains the significance of democracy in the constitution of a positive
The rights of the people can be modified so that the welfare of society
can be promoted. Positive liberalism supports a close relationship between
rights and duties and argues for Social Welfare theory of Rights. Similarly,
freedom is positive in content. While Negative Liberalism expounded freedom
from the State, Positive Liberalism recommends freedom through the State.
Freedom does not mean being free from the interference of the State but
adhering to the social welfare activities of the State. Freedom through the
State and not from the State is their theme.
The economy must be regulated by the State so that alternate, painful
appearance of economic boom and depression can be averted. Progressive taxation
can be adopted by the State to generate resources required for its social
welfare activities. Similarly, the State has power and authority to adhere to
economic strategies like bank nationalisation, minimum wages and reservation of
industries as public sector to bring in the uplift of all sections of society.
Positive Liberalism was followed in the western democracies for many
decades from 1930s. But gradually philosophers and political leaders began to
question the utility of a Social Welfare State propagated by Positive
Liberalism. They argued that State interference in society and economy had
precipitated a plethora of problems like industrial sickness, economic
inefficiency, lessened productivity, corruption, erosion of liberties of people
and economic stagnation, therefore should be curtailed.
The third phase in the history of liberalism is called as contemporary
Liberalism or Libertarianism. It emerged in the western world after the end of
positive liberalism and gradually spread to most parts of the political
universe. The President of the United States Ronald Reagan implemented
libertarian ideology in his country from 1981 to 1989.
The first woman Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Margaret Thatcher
was the political architect of libertarianism. The last president of Soviet
Union Michel Gorbachev introduced the two path-breaking reforms of Perestroika
(Restructuring) and Glasnost (openness) that pushed the Soviet Union into the
direction of libertarianism.
A number of political scientists have advocated libertarianism.
F.A.Hayek, M.Oakeshott, Karl Popper, Milton Friedman, Nozick and Nock are
important among the supporters of libertarianism.
Libertarianism is a re-invention and re-application of Classical
Liberalism in the second half of the 20th century and in the first half of the
21st century. It believes in the worth and importance of individuals. It
advocates individual freedom as indispensable for the life of man. It staunchly
supports the concept of ‘Personal Autonomy’ whereby every human being is
provided with complete freedom of choice to make decisions in their life as
they want. It restricts the domain of the State to maintenance of law and
order. Nozick famously coined the slogan ‘Minimal State is Inspiring as Well as
Right’. He criticised any more functions of the State as unjustified and
unwarranted. Another proponent of Libertarianism, Oakeshort commented that the
government merely pursues peace.
The libertarians argue that the increase in the functions of the State
in the name of development and social welfare leads inevitably to emergence of
collectivism and resultant concentration of power in the hands of the State
leading to the destruction of personal liberties of man.
A few political thinkers and political sociologists in the 1950s had
brought out the new concept of ‘End of Ideology’. Daniel Bell who authored book
‘End of Ideology’ is the strongest proponent of this concept along with the
noted political sociologist Martin Lipset.
They argue that the political and economic search of humankind had
reached its final destination with the emergence of Liberal Democratic State or
Social Welfare State. The ideal system of human life should be planted and
rooted in the soil of welfare State, decentralised power, mixed economy and
competitive party system. The western nations have attained these ideal
socio-political characteristics. They called for an end to the Liberalism
versus Marxism debate and accepted that democracy is not merely a system of
government but the good society in operation. They praised democracy as the
ideal means of conflict resolution and governance.
But a set of thinkers collectively described as “New Left” rejected the
validity of the End of Ideology concept. Though, the thinkers do not advocate
any class conflict like Marxism they sought to improvise the tenets of Marxist
State. The western societies also witnessed rise of the voice of many thinkers
that demanded not the end of ideology but the end of materialism that is
implied in the end of ideology concept.
The American political thinker Francis Fukuyoma wrote the book ‘The End
of History and the Last Man’ in 1992. He argued that history has ended with the
end of the Cold War and the victory of liberalism over communism. The history
of mankind essentially composed of its ceaseless search for the ideal
political, social and economic system. The victory of Liberalism signifies the
end of that human search for right ideology and the advent of post- ideological
world. The Liberal State and the Libertarian economy represent the culmination
of the social economic and political evolution of humanity, therefore human
history has ended was the argument of Fukuyoma.
But many political scientists and ideologies disagree with this. The
post-modernist thinker Derrida argued that liberal democracy is not the ideal
political system that solves the problems of man. He said, “Never have
violence, inequality, exclusion, famine, and thus economic oppression affected
as many human beings in the history of the earth and of humanity as it happened
in the times of liberal democracy."
The American political scientist Samuel Huntington propounded ‘The Clash
of Civilization’ theory as a counter to Fukuyoma’s End of History thesis.
Huntington argued that end of the Cold War has not resulted in the universal
and permanent success of liberal democracy. On the contrary, a new ideological
rivalry has emerged between the two major civilizations of the world, Western
Civilization and Islam that will dominate the politics of humankind in the
20th. He contended that other civilizations of the world will be sucked into
the civilization clash between Western Civilization and Islam, and therefore
history has not ended in the post-Cold War period, rather it has entered a new
phase of confrontation.
New Economic Reforms were introduced in India in 1991 heralding the era
of Liberalization, privatization and globalization. They reflect the ideology
of Libertarianism. The State has withdrawn itself from many economic and social
activities. ‘Minimum Government and Maximum Governance’ is the guiding
principle of the State. The State has consciously shrunk its sphere of
activities encouraging private initiative through measures like disinvestment.
Under the impact of libertarianism the planning process was initially changed
to the strategy of Indicative Planning and recently the planning Commission
itself was replaced by a body called National Commission for Transforming India