Wednesday, February 05, 2014

History of Liberalism

Ace (via Maggie's) has an idea where liberalism comes from, and riffing of some comments by Jonah Goldberg, who wrote a book on the subject.

I ran across something different this week, which may be more interesting.  From the wiki article on the Liberal Party in the UK.
During the 19th century, the Liberal Party was broadly in favour of what would today be called classical liberalism: supporting laissez-faire economic policies such as free trade and minimal government interference in the economy (this doctrine was usually termed 'Gladstonian Liberalism' after the Victorian era Liberal Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone). The Liberal Party favoured social reform, personal liberty, reducing the powers of the Crown and the Church of England (many of them were Nonconformists) and an extension of the electoral franchise. Sir William Harcourt, a prominent Liberal politician in the Victorian era, said this about liberalism in 1872:

"If there be any party which is more pledged than another to resist a policy of restrictive legislation, having for its object social coercion, that party is the Liberal party. (Cheers.) But liberty does not consist in making others do what you think right, (Hear, hear.) The difference between a free Government and a Government which is not free is principally this—that a Government which is not free interferes with everything it can, and a free Government interferes with nothing except what it must. A despotic Government tries to make everybody do what it wishes; a Liberal Government tries, as far as the safety of society will permit, to allow everybody to do as he wishes. It has been the tradition of the Liberal party consistently to maintain the doctrine of individual liberty. It is because they have done so that England is the place where people can do more what they please than in any other country in the world...It is this practice of allowing one set of people to dictate to another set of people what they shall do, what they shall think, what they shall drink, when they shall go to bed, what they shall buy, and where they shall buy it, what wages they shall get and how they shall spend them, against which the Liberal party have always protested."
Yet as little as fifteen years later, liberalism was increasingly known for increasing the power of the state (Parliament, not the monarchy), until it reached the pass Ace refers to above. In 1872, they were closer to libertarianism than to other current political persuasions.

1 comment:

Christopher B said...

This reminds me of the C.S. Lewis quote about tyranny exercised for the good of it's victims never resting. If anything made modern liberalism it was the idea that Democracy was an inocculant that made the despotism Harcourt is talking about it acceptable.