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What Americans Believe

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Liberal Group: Ann Speaking
Current speaker Current speaker Current speakerWe are going to try to present a version of 20th-century liberal political thinking. It won't be easy because there have been lots of philosophers and politicians involved in developing liberalism over the last century. There are lots of things that liberals disagree about among themselves. There are important things on which the three of us do not agree.

The first thing to understand is that modern liberalism developed out of the classical liberalism of the 19th century. I think Fred is going to say a lot more about classical liberalism when he and Diego make their presentation on American conservatism. In the United States, as strange as it may sound, conservatism has strong roots in what historians call classical liberalism.

Modern liberalism -- the liberalism typical of the 20th century -- can be thought of as an attempt to synthesize parts of classical liberalism with certain elements of socialism. That may be an inflammatory statement, but historically it is correct. And some of the philosophers of modern liberalism made no bones about it. The idea was to preserve the valuable elements of classical liberalism and add some socialistic elements to the mix.

So let's start with some concepts that are characteristic of modern liberalism. Here's our list.

Social Liberalism: Basic Concepts

  • Individual worth and individual development

  • Effective freedom

  • Regulated property and regulated markets

  • Protection for those with less market power

  • Equal rights, including the right to personal, civil, and religious freedom

  • Welfare rights, including the right to the conditions necessary for individual development

  • Racial and ethnic equality

  • Reparation for past injustice

  • Living law

  • Active government

Each of these concepts is fundamental. They can be embodied in principles that give us the essence of at least one characteristic version of modern liberalism.

Social Liberalism: Principles and Views

  • Individual development is one of the key goals of modern liberalism. The idea is to guarantee each individual the conditions required for him or her to develop his or her capacities.

  • The older belief that the uncontrolled operation of markets works out eventually in the interest of all (or nearly all) is jettisoned. Instead, the modern liberal believes that there are many cases in which markets perform poorly and some sort of regulation is needed to achieve the best results.

  • Modern liberals reject the notion that free contracts between employers and employees are always just and fair. They emphasize the great difference between the market power of employers and individuals seeking employment. They favor labor unions and active government in order to equalize that power.

  • Welfare rights are necessary to guarantee the conditions necessary for the individual to develop his or her capacities.

  • For the idea of freedom as non-interference, modern liberals substitute the concept of effective freedom. Effective freedom requires resources. Hence, welfare rights are needed to maintain freedom of action that is more than formal.

  • Looking back on the history of the last 500 years, modern liberals point out that racial and ethnic minorities have often been unjustly discriminated against. They reject the notion that an unfettered marketplace will stop that discrimination or repair the damage it has done. In some cases, they advocate reparations for past injustice.

  • Modern liberals point out that the conditions under which we live often change rapidly. They conclude that the interpretation of the law and of the Constitution must constantly evolve in order to adjust to new conditions. The have tended to seek court decisions rather than constitutional amendments to achieve the changes they desire.

  • Modern liberals believe that the small government proposed by classical liberals is insufficient to regulate markets, regulate property, and stop racial discrimination. In general, they propose that the proper role of government is not simply to defend the nation and enforce contracts, but to create the conditions required for each individual to develop his or her capacities. This includes, for example, guaranteeing that basic needs are met and creating the opportunity to work.

Links (opening in a new window)

Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy article: Liberalism

Wikipedia article: Social Liberalism

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