Like every ideology, liberalism is not a single, static thing but an evolving tradition. Some of the values below will have more importance in a particular time period or within certain countries than others. Nevertheless, there is wide agreement that liberty is at the core of this ideology. Liberalism comes from the Latin word liber, meaning ‘free.’ Individual liberty is for liberals a supreme political value and, most would argue, the unifying principle of the ideology.
Many early liberals saw individual liberty as a ‘natural’ or God-given right, an essential requirement for leading a truly human existence (Patterson, 1997) It also gave individuals the opportunity to pursue their own interests by exercising choice.
Liberals tend to see two main threats to the liberty of the individual: other individuals and arbitrary and oppressive governments. Other people can encroach on our liberty by stealing our property, threatening or damaging our person, enslaving us, etc. Individuals therefore do not have an unlimited entitlement to freedom. As John Stuart Mill argues in 1859’s On Liberty, although the individual may be sovereign over their body and mind, each person must respect the liberty of others (Mill, 2015).
This is a major reason why liberals believe we must have governments: to protect our liberty against such threats. On the other hand, those same governments can become an even greater threat to liberty! Governments can grow tyrannical, using their massive power to arbitrarily control, detain, punish, terrorize, or even kill us. For this reason, liberals place great importance upon limited government. As the very influential 17th-century British thinker John Locke argued, ‘Guards and Fences’ need to be placed around governments, ensuring that they do not expand their power too far and thereby corrode our liberty (Locke, 2003). Liberals therefore support the rule of law – the idea that laws must be publicly known and apply to all equally so that no one, including governments, can be exempt from them.
Liberty has been depicted in two principal ways within the liberal tradition (Berlin, 2002). First, there is negative freedom. This is called ‘negative’ because it is defined by the absence of something, i.e., the absence of interference in the individual’s affairs by external actors. While all liberals value negative liberty, it is, as we will see below, of particular importance to classical liberalism and neoliberalism.
There is also ‘positive’ freedom. Often defined in terms of the capacity for self-mastery or self-realization, we will use it here to denote the idea that for an individual to be truly free, they must have an actual capacity to pursue their ends in life. It is all fine and good to say that you are ‘free’ to get a university education as long as no one is physically barring your access to campus; but if you lack the funds to pay for expensive tuition, this freedom is meaningless. Positive freedom usually needs some form of external intervention, which is often performed by the state. For example, this will mean making school or education accessible (via free education or student loans) so that all can potentially attend regardless of their level of income. Positive freedom is usually associated with reform liberalism (see the next section).
You may have noticed that, in discussing liberty, we have been consistently speaking about individual liberty. This reflects another key value of liberalism: individualism. This is the idea that human beings are first and foremost individuals and that the individual has supreme moral value. This is a bold change from the more group-centered dynamics of traditional societies, as we saw above.
With this emphasis on individual liberty, it may come as no surprise that liberalism moves its faith away from religion and toward reason. The ideology has deep roots in the Enlightenment project, which aimed to release humankind from its bondage to superstition and ignorance, and to build an age of reason. The idea here is that, to the extent that human beings are rational, thinking creatures, they are capable of defining and pursuing their own best interests. Related to this faith in human reason, many liberals have also been inclined to view human history – or at least, modern history – in terms of progress (e.g., Gray, 2002; Fawcett, 2018). In the liberal view, the expansion of knowledge, through the scientific revolution in particular, enables people not only to understand and explain their world but also to shape it for the better. In short, the power of reason gives human beings the capacity to take charge of their own lives and fashion their own destinies. Reason emancipates humankind from the grip of past superstitions and traditions. Each generation is thus able, at least in theory, to advance beyond the last; a strong emphasis is put on education, discussion, debate and the free exchange of ideas.
So far, we have seen that liberals view people as individuals imbued with reason who should be free to pursue their own ends in life. Two more values are worth noting: justice and toleration.
Justice denotes a particular kind of moral judgment, one focused on the distribution of rewards and punishments (or what each person is ‘due’). Liberal views of justice are based on a belief in equality of various kinds (see: Pennock and Chapman, 2017). First, individualism implies a commitment to what might be called a ‘foundational’ equality. Human beings are seen as born equal in the sense that each individual is of equal moral worth. It is from this logic that the concept of natural rights or human rights emerge, along with the idea that each person’s happiness should be given equal consideration in moral and political calculations. Secondly, foundational equality implies a belief in formal/legal equality or equal citizenship. This is the idea that individuals should enjoy the same legal status within society, particularly in terms of the distribution of rights and entitlements. Consequently, liberals fiercely disapprove of any social privileges or advantages that are enjoyed by some but denied to others on the basis of what they consider irrational factors such as caste, colour, gender, race, religion or socio-economic background. Everyone should be equal under the law; arbitrary discrimination is unacceptable.
Relatedly, this means that every individual should have the same freedom to rise (or fall!) in society. This does not mean equality of outcome or reward, or of living conditions, since liberals accept that people possess different talents and skills, and some are prepared to work much harder than others. It does mean that social rewards, such as wealth and power, should be available to everyone regardless of arbitrary factors of birth – and they should go to those who earn them through hard work and ability. Society should reward merit, not inherited privilege. This concept is called meritocracy.
The word ‘meritocracy’ has origins in both Latin and Ancient Greek. The word ‘merit’ has a Latin origin meaning ‘to earn’, whereas ‘cracy’ stems from the Greek word ‘kratos’ meaning ‘strength’ or ‘power’. Therefore, meritocracy is the term given to a system by individuals characterized by their ability, skill and education (or, in short, merit) to hold power positions. Meritocracy ensures that individuals employed in the system are merited for their position and that these employments are not used as political favors. Merit is often decided by an examination, although in the economy it is often thought to be determined by open competition for jobs and market share.
Note that the emphasis on legal equality, meritocracy, and individual freedom all tend to steer liberals toward a belief in equal rights of political participation. Consequently, liberals tend to support democratic forms of political organization in which competition for public office is open to all. However, they insist that democratic decision making should always conform to liberal principles. For example, it is, according to liberals, fundamentally illegitimate for a democratically elected government to persecute a minority group or otherwise compromise basic liberties or liberal justice, even if doing so is extremely popular with a majority of citizens (e.g., Mounk, 2018).
Continuing on the theme of justice: one form of liberalism, known as reform liberalism, argues that in order to achieve a meritocracy, legal equality and the absence of formal discrimination is not enough. We must also have equality of opportunity. That is, we must all have real-life access to a wide range of opportunities and the capacity to meaningfully pursue them. Everyone should have an equal shot at succeeding in life, and the absence of discrimination under law does little to empower us to pursue our aims if, for example, we are trapped in a life of grinding poverty. As we will see, reform liberals conclude that achieving equality of opportunity requires assistance from the state.
The last value we will discuss is toleration. The liberal social ethic, or the will to live together, is ideally characterized by a willingness to accept moral, cultural, and political diversity. The idea of toleration originates in religious wars between Catholics and Protestants following the Reformation and spanning from the 16th to the 18th centuries. John Locke argued that persons of good conscience would never agree on which form of Christianity was correct, and that, therefore, the state should not try to force one model on everyone; rather, it should tolerate such differences (Locke, 2003). As the famous quote (often wrongly attributed to Voltaire, as it appeared in Friends of Voltaire) goes: “I detest what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it”.
Toleration is both an ethical ideal and a social principle. As an ethical ideal, it is a corollary of individual liberty, calling upon us to respect that other people are autonomous, in control their own destinies, and entitled to live as they please. As a social principle, it establishes a set of rules about how human beings should behave towards one another when it comes to disagreement and differences of opinion: through rational discussion. Some liberals, such as Harvard philosopher John Rawls, have built on the idea of toleration to argue that the fundamental structures and symbolism of the state should be neutral regarding the ‘comprehensive doctrines’ – that is, the life philosophies – of the citizens who comprise it (Rawls, 2005).