To what extent does modern liberalism depart from the ideas of classical liberalism?

Classical liberals have argued that modern liberalism is a betrayal of classical liberal beliefs, such as individuality, because it embraces collectivism. However, whilst modern liberalism clearly diverges from classical liberalism on many areas, such as on the issue of ‘freedom’, it still has a fundamental commitment to the individual.

Classical liberals have argued that modern liberalism is a betrayal of classical liberal beliefs, such as individuality, because it embraces collectivism. However, whilst modern liberalism clearly diverges from classical liberalism on many areas, such as on the issue of ‘freedom’, it still has a fundamental commitment to the individual.

Classical liberalism has a belief in utilitarianism, where individuals act so as to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. This is an egoistical form of individualism that assumes individuals are motivated by self-interest. Consequently, utility is a moral principle as the ‘rightness’ of an action can be established by its tendency to promote happiness. Liberalism disagrees with paternalistic conservatism, as it believes that each individual is able to perceive his or her own best interest. Thus, no one else can judge the quality or degree of the individual’s happiness.

This idea that the individual is sovereign leads classical liberals to a belief in negative freedom, which argues that there should be a removal of external restrictions from the individual. External restrictions take the form of coercion from other individuals or the state. These can be upheld by enforcing the ‘rule of law’, where all individuals are equal before the law, and is thus based upon foundational and formal equality. Thomas Jefferson advocated a rights-based negative freedom, in which everyone is entitled to inalienable rights of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. For John Locke, this meant that only a minimalist state should exist, in the form of a ‘nightwatchman’. Anarchists would disagree with this, arguing that no state at all is needed. The state is seen by anarchists to be inherently evil and oppressive, and operates in the interests of the privileged and powerful. Furthermore because humans are gregarious and cooperative they order can be maintained through collective effort alone.

This belief in a minimalist state can be seen in the way in which classical liberals extol the values of economic liberalism. Economic liberalism follows the works of Adam Smith and David Ricardo who argued that the economy works best when left alone by government. The market is self-regulating and therefore needs no outside guidance because the ‘invisible hand’ is capable of promoting prosperity and well-being. Classical liberals have therefore subscribed to a form of market fundamentalism in which the market can satisfy all needs and wants. As a result, classical liberals have been very much against government intervention in the market. Hayek and Friedman argued that the economy is too complex for central planning, and as a result it is more likely to create problems than solve them. The classical liberal view of the economy has been criticised in particular by orthodox socialists who believe that capitalism, particularly unregulated capitalism, leads to amongst other things economic exploitation and have instead argued for collectivisation and central planning. However, other ideologies have also praised this view, in particular anrcho-capitalism, which also advocates an entirely unregulated market economy.

Classical liberals have also praised the market because it is based upon meritocracy. Those with ability and a willingness to work hard will prosper, whilst the incompetent and lazy will not. As Samuel Smiles said, ‘Heaven helps those who help themselves’. Herbert Spencer developed this belief into a form of social Darwinism. He advocated that natural selection also applied to human life. Those best suited by nature rise to the top, whilst the less fit fall to the bottom. Consequently, inequalities in wealth and social position are natural and inevitable, and therefore no government should attempt to interfere with them. This is reflected in William Sumner’s statement, ‘the drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be’.

Modern liberals have advocated individualism over utilitarianism. J.S Mill argued that negative freedom is a necessary condition for liberty but not a sufficient one. Negative freedom leads to freedom of choice, which for example justifies employing the cheapest labour possible (e.g. children over adults). Thus, because negative freedom can lead to exploitation it is an inadequate conception of individual freedom. For Mill, liberty is a positive and constructive force that gives individuals the ability to take control of their own lives, gain autonomy and achieve self-realisation. He saw the notion of humans as utility maximisers as both shallow and unconvincing. This has led to modern liberals seeing freedom as being ‘positive’. T.H. Green argued that freedom is the ability of the individual to attain and develop individuality. This can only be done through developing skills and knowledge and achieving fulfillment and self-realisation. This laid the foundations for a developmental form of individualism, which places emphasis on human flourishing rather than the crude satisfaction of needs. As Mill said, ‘I would rather be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied’. As a result an enabling state is advocated which can extend freedom by protecting individuals from social evils that have crippled their lives. However, this is not an abandonment of core liberal beliefs. The state is only there to provide conditions in which individuals can make better moral decisions. The preference is for self-reliant individuals who take responsibility for their own lives but this can only occur if social conditions allow it to happen. Thus, modern liberalism helps individuals help themselves.

This belief in an enabling state and positive freedom has lead liberals to a belief in social liberalism and economic management. Modern liberals have defended welfarism on the basis of equality of opportunity. The state has a responsibility to remove or reduce disadvantages in order to create equal, or at least more equal, life chances. Social welfare has attempted to address issues such as ‘ignorance’ and ‘squalor’, as identified by the 1942 Beveridge Report. John Rawls developed a defence of redistribution, in the face of classical liberal and conservative opposition, based on the idea of ‘equality as fairness’. This led to the ‘difference principle, which proclaimed that social and economic inequalities should be arranged so as to benefit the least well off. However, as some measure of inequality is needed to provide an incentive to work, it can be seen that this is still an essentially liberal idea as it is rooted in egoism and self-interest rather than a belief in social solidarity. What may seem illiberal though is a belief in economic management, based upon the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, who argued that governments could ‘manage’ their economies to achieve prosperity. The market is seen as incapable to solely guarantee general prosperity so government intervention, through spending and taxation, is required. Economic management is not opposed to capitalism; instead it is its saviour, as unrestrained private enterprise is unworkable within complex industrial societies.

In conclusion, modern liberalism certainly has some very different ideas to classical liberalism such as on the issue of the economy. However, it does not reject the fundamental liberal belief in the individual, but just aims to eradicate social disadvantage. As J.S Mill, the notable proponent of modern liberalism’s belief in individualism, said, ‘over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign’. Therefore, whilst modern liberals depart significantly from classical liberals on how best the individual’s interests should be protected and enhanced, they strongly agree that the individual is the core basis for ideological thinking.

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