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Liberalism is a political theory with free market laissez-faire capitalism in its center which means different things in different countries. Historically the word "liberalism" refers to a political theory that embraces several ideas and claims individual liberty to be the most important political goal of the government. Historically the term "liberalism" was applied to people who supported individual liberty during the age of monarchies. Liberalism generally supports a market or mixed economy, and a transparent system of government. All liberals support some variant of the form of government known as liberal democracy, with open and fair elections, where all citizens supposedly have equal rights by law.
Some concepts of liberalism like minimum wage, progressive taxation and social security programs are also advocated by socialism, but liberalism does not support the socialist goal of complete equality imposed by state control. Since liberalism is based on the primacy of the individual, liberalism strongly opposes communism.
- Classical liberalism
- Conservative liberalism
- Cultural liberalism
- Economic liberalism
- National liberalism
- Social liberalism
Today the word "liberalism" is used differently in different countries. One of the greatest contrasts is between the usage in the United States and in Canada and usage in Continental Europe. In the US, liberalism is usually understood to refer to social liberalism, as contrasted with conservatism. American liberals endorse regulation for business, a limited social welfare state, and support broad racial, ethnic, sexual and religious tolerance, and thus more readily embrace Pluralism, and affirmative action. In Europe, on the other hand, liberalism is not only contrasted with conservatism and Christian Democracy, but also with socialism and social democracy. In some countries, European liberals share common positions with Christian Democrats.
Before an explanation of this subject proceeds, it is important to add this disclaimer: There is always a disconnect between philosophical ideals and political realities. Also, opponents of any belief are apt to describe that belief in different terms from those used by adherents. What follows is a record of those goals that overtly appear most consistently across major liberal manifestos (e.g., the Oxford Manifesto of 1947). It is not an attempt to catalogue the idiosyncratic views of particular persons, parties, or countries, nor is it an attempt to investigate any covert goals, since both are beyond the scope of this article.
Most political parties which identify themselves as liberal claim to promote the rights and responsibilities of the individual, free choice within an open competitive process, the free market, and the dual responsibility of the state to protect the individual citizen and guarantee their liberty. Critics of liberal parties state liberal policies in different terms. Economic freedom may lead to gross inequality. Free speech may lead to speech that is obscene, blasphemous, or treasonous. The role of the state as promoter of freedom and as protector of its citizens may come into conflict.
Theory vs. practice
In practice, the concept of "transparent government" has never achieved. In any form of government, corruption, organized crime etc. have been observed. In liberal democracies, political and economic corruption is very common. Generally the wealthy people get several benefits by influencing the law machinery and politics, while the poor people frequently become victims of unfair and corrupt law enforcement and judicial system. Organized crime is typical in all liberal democracies which include drug trafficking, human trafficking, child prostitution, contract killing etc. Moreover all liberals are capitalists, hence the problems of capitalism are observed within a liberal democracy. See Criticism of Capitalism.
Dr. Sabrina P Ramet, professor of Political Science in the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), documented that "crime is the quintessential expression of the principles of free enterprise and laissez faire, the twin pillars of the free market economy", which is the basis of liberal democracies. Increasing close relations between the political parties and the corporations in liberal democracies have challenged the notion that electoral system smoothly expresses 'the will of the people'. The news media is increasing becoming concentrated at the hands of some small number of private and multinational companies, which is a matter of concern regarding liberal democracy, with its central reliance of freedom of expression.
Collectivist opponents of liberalism reject its emphasis on individual rights, and instead emphasize the collective or the community to a degree where the rights of the individual are either diminished or abolished. Collectivism can be found both to the right and to the left of liberalism. On the left, the collective that tends to be enhanced is the state, often in the form of state socialism. On the right, conservative and religious opponents argue that liberalism has removed the traditional mores that informally regulated societies, replacing them with abstract and idealistic principles which are imposed by the liberal-dominated schools, media, courts and bureaucracy. Opponents like Theodore Dalrymple claim that these new principles have actually undermined the concepts of self control and personal responsibility which are vital to any functional society. The liberal answer to this is that it is not the purpose of the law to legislate morality, but to protect the citizen from harm. However, conservatives often see the legislation of morality as an essential aspect of protecting citizens from harm.
Anti-statist criticism of liberalism, such as anarchism, assert the illegitimacy of the state for any purposes.
A criticism of liberalism can be found in communitarianism, which emphasizes a return to communities without necessarily denigrating individual rights.
Beyond these clear theoretical differences, some liberal principles can be disputed in a piecemeal fashion, with some portions kept and others abandoned (see Liberal democracy and Neoliberalism.) This ongoing process – where putatively liberal agents accept some traditionally liberal values and reject others – causes some critics to question whether or not the word "liberal" has any useful meaning at all.
In terms of international politics, the universal claims of human rights which liberalism tends to endorse are disputed by rigid adherents of non-interventionism, since intervention in the interests of human rights can conflict with the sovereignty of nations. By contrast, World federalists criticize liberalism for its adherence to the doctrine of sovereign nation-states, which the World federalists believe is not helpful in the face of genocide and other mass human rights abuses.
Liberalism has also been accused of being non-political in the works of some critics, for instance in "Imperium: The Philosophy of History and Politics" by Francis Parker Yockey:
Liberalism, however, with its compromising, vague attitude, incapable of precise formulation, incapable also of rousing precise feelings, either affirmative or negative, is not an idea of political force. Its numerous devotees, in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries have taken part in practical politics only as the ally of other groups.
- A: "'Liberalism' is defined as a social ethic that advocates liberty, and equality in general." – C. A. J. (Tony) Coady Distributive Justice, A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy, editors Goodin, Robert E. and Pettit, Philip. Blackwell Publishing, 1995, p.440. B: "Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end." – Lord Acton
- Compare for the latter aspect the Oxford Manifesto of 1947 of the Liberal International (Respect for the language, faith, laws and customs of national minorities), Oxford Manifesto of 1997 (We believe that close cooperation among democratic societies through global and regional organizations, within the framework of international law, of respect for human rights, the rights of national and ethnic minorities, and of a shared commitment to economic development worldwide, is the necessary foundation for world peace and for economic and environmental sustainability), the ELDR Electoral programme 1994 (Protecting the rights of minorities flows naturally from liberal policy, which seeks to ensure equal opportunities for everyone) and e.g. I have a dream of Martin Luther King
- Compare the Oxford Manifesto of the Liberal International (These rights and conditions can be secured only by true democracy. True democracy is inseparable from political liberty and is based on the conscious, free and enlightened consent of the majority, expressed through a free and secret ballot, with due respect for the liberties and opinions of minorities)
- See for example Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in 1962: Liberalism in the American usage has little in common with the word as used in the politics of any European country, save possibly Britain in Liberalism in America: A Note for Europeans from The Politics of Hope, Riverside Press, Boston. See for a similar view Jamie F. Metzl: In the same "Liberalism" as the term is used in America today is not used in the "older, European sense, but has come to mean something quite different, namely policies upholding the modern welfare state in The Rise of Illiberal Democracy by Fareed Zakaria, Foreign Affairs, November/December, 1997, Vol 76, No. 6
- Sabrina P. Ramet (1997). Whose Democracy?, p. 56, Rowman & Littlefield.
- Ray Hudson, Allan M. Williams (1999). Divided Europe: Society and Territory, p. 108, SAGE.
- Francis Parker Yockey, "Imperium: The Philosophy of History and Politics", 1948, p. 207