What is liberalism and what are its characteristics ?

Liberalism is too dynamic and flexible a concept to be contained in a precise definition. Right from its inception, it has been continuously changing, adding something and discarding the other. As Alblaster writes, ‘liberalism should be seen not as a fixed and absolute term, as a collection of unchanging moral and political values but as a specific historical movement of ideas in the modern era that began with Renaissance and Reformation. It has undergone many changes and requires a historical rather than a static type of analysis. ’Similarly, Laski writes, ’it (Liberalism) is not easy to describe, much less to define, for it is hardly less a habit of mind than a body of doctrine’.

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To quote Hacker, ‘Liberalism has become so common a term in the vocabulary of politics that it is a brave man who will try to give it a precise definition. It is a view of the individual, of the state, and of the relations between them’. Almost the same view is expressed by Grimes, ‘liberalism is not a static creed or dogma, for dogmatism provides its own restraints. It is rather a tentative attitude towards social problems which stresses the role of reason and human ingenuity…liberalism looks ahead with a flexible approach, seeking to make future better for more people, as conservatism looks back, aiming mainly to preserve the attainment of the past. ’

Although the liberal ideas are about 300 years old, the word ‘liberalism’ did not come into use till the beginning of the nineteenth century. According to Richard Wellheim, ‘liberalism is the belief in the value of liberty of the individual’. According to Sartori,’ very simply, liberalism is the theory and practice of individual liberty, juridical, defense and the constitutional state’. Bullock and Shock emphasize the belief in freedom and conscience as the twin foundations of liberalism.


Grime writes, ‘it represents a system of ideas that aim at the realization of the pluralist society, favoring diversity of politics, economics, religion and other cultural life. It seeks in its simplest sense to advance the freedom of man…it seeks to increase individuality of man by increasing his area of choice and decision.’ Similarly, Laski writes, ‘Liberalism implies a passion for liberty; and that the passion may be compelling. It requires a power to be tolerant; even skeptical about opinion and tendencies you hold to be dangerous which one of the rarest human qualities’ is.

Hallowell defines liberalism as ‘the embodiment of the demand for freedom in every sphere of life-intellectual, social, religious, political and economic’. Schapiro talks of liberalism as an attitude of life-skeptical, experimental, relational and free. According to Koerner, ‘liberalism begins and ends with the ideals of individual freedom, individual human rights and individual human happiness. These remain central to the creed whatever may be the economic and political arrangements of liberal democracy society’, According to Heater, ’liberty is the quintessence of liberalism. For the liberal, it is the individual who counts, not society at large or segment of it, for only by placing priority on the rights of the individual can freedom be ensured’.

Andrew Hacker in his book Political Theory has distinguished four types of liberalism: namely, utopian liberalism, free market liberalism, democratic liberalism, and reformist liberalism. On the whole, according to him, liberalism stands for i) free life as prime pursuit of politics, ii) state’s task is to eschew coercion and to encourage the conditions for this free life. Similarly, Barbara Goodwin in her book Using Political Ideas, lists the following ingredients of liberalism: i) man is free, rational, self-improving and autonomous, ii) government is based on consent and contract, iii) constitutionalism and the rule of law, iv) freedom as choice which includes the right to choose government from among different representatives, v) equality of opportunity, vi) social justice based upon merit, and vii) tolerance.

In short, liberalism has a narrow and broad perspective. At a narrow level, it is seen from political and economic points of view, whereas at the broader level, it is like a mental attitude that attempts in the light of its presuppositions to analyze and integrate the varied intellectual, moral, religious, social, economic and political relationships of human beings. At the social level, it stands for secularism, freedom in relation to religion and morality. It lays stress on the value of free individual conscious of his capacity for self-expression and unfettered development of his personality. At the economic level, it implies the ideal of free trade coupled with internal freedom of production. At the political level, it stands for political liberty and the right to property, constitutional limited government, protection of the rights of the individual and anti-authoritarianism.

Characteristics of Liberalism

From the above discussion, it is now clear that liberalism is not merely a political concept, but also a socio-economic, cultural and ethical concept. It can be understood through certain characteristics evolved during its long history. John Hallowell has pinpointed the following characteristics of classical liberalism:


I) A belief in the absolute value of human personality and spiritual equality of the individual;

II) A belief in the autonomy of the individual will;

III) A belief in the essential rationality and goodness of man;


IV) A belief in certain inalienable rights of the individual, particularly, the rights of life, liberty and property;

V) That state comes into existence by mutual consent for the purpose of protection of rights;

VI) That the relationship between the state and the individual is a contractual one;

VII) That social control can best be secured by law rather than command;

VIII) Individual freedom in all spheres of life-political, economic, social,Intellectual and religious;

IX) The government that governs the least is the best;

X) A belief that truth is accessible to man’s natural reason.

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