Individual Rights

(see also liberalism)

Although it is the predominant political ideology in the west, liberalism is a protean doctrine whose meaning can perhaps be conveyed only by the use of adjectives that describe its particular nuances. The two most familiar are social liberalism and economic liberalism.

The various liberalisms, nevertheless, derive from various interpretations of the morally appropriate relationship between the individual and the state, or organized community. Liberalism has traditionally presupposed that the individual is logically prior to society and that political forms should respect this by allocating a protected sphere within which the person should be free to pursue self-determined goals. It rests upon a belief in a pluralism of purposes such that none is entitled to special pivilege, and claims that law and state should preserve an institutional framework of equal justice. It is therefore indissolubly connected to a form of constitutionalism which limits political authority.

Liberals vary in the extent to which they acknowledge the role of reason in human affairs. However, liberalism has always rejected conservative claims that traditional institutional arrangements are entitled to allegiance in advance of a consideration of the value they might have in the protection of individual self-fulfilment. There is also an implicit universalism in liberalism in that it proclaims a moral validity independently of particular historical and social circumstances. This purported validity is derived normally from either a utilitarian calculation of the advantages that accrue from individual self-determination or from a purely moral perspective that rests on the inviolability of the person.

John Locke (1690) was perhaps the originator of modern liberalism with his argument that government was bound by natural law and that its function was limited to the protection of individual rights, especially the entitlement to property which derived from individual appropriation, subject to moral law. Furthermore, his liberalism included a right to disobedience if government transgressed the boundaries of individualism specified by morality. Despite this, Lockean liberalism could be said to be embedded in the English common law tradition, which was maturing in the seventeenth century.

However, the modern development of liberalism owes a significant amount to the influence of the Enlightenment on European thought. This produced a much more rationalistic version of liberalism which explicity subjected all received social arrangements to the test of an abstract reason, uncontaminated by traditional practices. From Voltaire onwards French liberalism in particular was inherently distrustful of experience and supposed that liberty-enhancing institutions were to be designed from first principles. It was a form of liberalism that came to be significantly different from the cautious empiricism of David Hume and Adam Smith, who were distinctive in identifying liberty with the spontaneous growth of market institutions and their associated legal framework. This leaves a small role for government since the 'invisible hand' of the exchange system was thought to generate the public good out of the self-regarding actions of private agents (Smith, 1776).

From the early nineteenth century, liberalism began to be associated explicitly with laissez-faire economics and utilitarianism, and its moral dimensions were limited to the promotion of happiness. However, Jeremy Bentham (1789), while still claiming that individuals were the units of social evaluation (for him collective entities such as the state and society were 'fictions' which were constructed out of the motivations of discrete, pleasure-seeking agents), maintained that there was a role for political direction in the creation of an artificial harmony of interests. This, theoretically, allowed an expanded role for the state. But throughout the century the natural processes of the market in the allocation of resources and in the determination of income became the key features of liberalism. The growth of free trade and the limiting of government to the provision of defence, law and order and other essential public goods, were practices associated exclusively with liberalism. The doctrine was also understood as the means for achieving universal peace, as well as prosperity. John Stuart Mill, although he thought of himself as a liberal utilitarian, was exceptional in stressing the moral value of individuality and in his On Liberty (1859) was as concerned to argue for freedom as a contribution to the development of the personality as well as for its role in wealth creation. The latter was, in fact, understated.

Smith, 1776
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