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An Brief History of 20th-century Liberalism

20th-century liberalism, often called social liberalism, welfare state liberalism or modern liberalism, grew out of a critique of classical liberalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was formulated by philosophers and politicians who hoped to combine elements of classical liberalism with elements of socialism in a coherent social philosophy.

19th-century classical liberalism combined ideas from John Locke, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, James and John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, Frederick Bastiat, Richard Cobden, William Gladstone, and many others. Some of these men were philosophers. Others were politicians. The foundations of their views varied. Some based their liberalism on utilitarian principles. Others believed in natural law. Some were Christians. Others were agnostics. In other words, there were many varieties of classical liberalism which had a family resemblance to each other. Nevertheless, there were certain ideas that were typical of the many varieties: freedom defined as the absence of external constraint, a stress on individual rights (not group rights), individual freedom of belief (including religious belief), association, expression, and movement, opposition to slavery, support for a broad political franchise (sometimes with property qualifications, seldom including women), opposition to arbitrary government (i.e., government by known law), government based on the consent of the governed, equality before the law (including equal legal rights), a preference for smaller government in general, less government control of economic exchange, freedom of contract, and free trade between nations. Not all classic liberals accepted all of these views, but they were typical.

The thinkers who developed 20th-century liberalism respected many of these classical liberal values and policies, but also hoped to expand governmental regulation in many areas (especially in the economic sphere) in order to reduce inequality, poverty, low wages, unsafe working conditions, inadequate housing, and many other conditions that they identified as serious social problems. In very general terms, modern liberals have emphasized "effective freedom" as opposed to freedom understood as non-interference.

The philosophical turn toward modern liberalism began with the later work of John Stuart Mill. In his Principles of Economics he listed numerous situations in which government intervention in the free market was justified. In his essay On Liberty, he seemed to value individuality as much as non-interference. This shift suggested that the development of individual capacities, the flowering of individuality, was among the main goals of life. But an even greater change occurred in the works of the Oxford philosopher Thomas Hill Green (1836-1882).

Green was a metaphysician in the idealist tradition. He strongly criticized the empiricist tradition that extended from Locke to J. S. Mill. He argued that empiricism could not explain the possibility of knowledge. Instead, he believed that only the existence of an eternal consciousness realizing itself through human consciousness could explain the existence of nature and our knowledge of nature. On the basis of his metaphysics, Green constructed a theory of ethics and political philosophy.

In a famous lecture on "Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract," delivered in 1881, Green argued for a new liberalism. To do so, redefined freedom and the proper role of government. Freedom was not merely "freedom from restraint or compulsion." It was not "merely freedom to do as we
like irrespectively of what it is that we like." Instead, freedom was  "a positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying something worth
doing or enjoying, and that, too, something that we do or enjoy in common with others." Thus, Green abandoned the classic liberal concept of freedom as non-interference. Freedom was the power of individuals to "make the best of themselves." The proper function of government, on the other hand, was to "maintain the conditions without which a free exercise of the human faculties is impossible."

Green died in 1882. Two decades later, at the turn of the 20th century, the most influential philosopher in the development of a new liberalism in the United Kingdom was L. T. Hobhouse. His book Liberalism, published in 1911, attempted to distill the essence of classic liberalism and argue on behalf of a revised social liberalism. Hobhouse hoped to bring together elements of classic liberalism and socialism into a form of liberal socialism. He distinguished "nominal" freedom from "real" freedom or "effective liberty." In his view, the good to be achieved in society was the development of the individual personality. The individual had a right to the conditions that foster that development, and the role of the state is to maintain those conditions. It follows that the state is not limited to its classic liberal functions.

In the United States, a new liberalism was advocated by members of the progressive movement in the very late 19th century and early 20th century. One of the best known writers among the progressives was Herbert Croly.