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DLT: Social Liberalism

Duncan Brack and Ed Randall, authors of the Dictionary of Liberal Thought, have kindly agreed to let us publish extracts on Lib Dem Voice. This month we conclude our trilogy of postings on liberalism – classical, economic and social. This month, it’s social. You can read other previous extracts on LDV here. The entire book is available on Amazon here and can also be bought at the Westminster Bookshop.

Social Liberalism

Social liberals believe in individual freedom as a central objective – like all liberals. Unlike economic or classical liberals, however, they believe that poverty, unemployment, ill-health, disability and lack of education are serious enough constraints on freedom that state action is justified to redress them. The British Liberal Democrats are generally considered a social liberal party, as are a number of other European liberal parties.

The development of social liberalism can be seen as a response to the problems of industrialisation in the mid- to late nineteenth century. Although free trade, the opening up of global markets and the transformation of European economies from agriculture to manufacturing delivered prosperity for many, they were also accompanied by a rising incidence of poverty amongst the new urban working classes.

In Britain the New Liberalism of T. H. Green, L. T. Hobhouse and J. A. Hobson, among many others, was the response. They argued that laissez-faire economic policies and the unrestrained pursuit of profit had given rise to new forms of poverty and injustice; the economic liberty of the few had blighted the life chances of the many. Negative liberty, the removal of constraints on the individual – the central aim of classical liberalism – would not necessarily lead to freedom of choice for all, as not everyone enjoyed access to the same opportunities; freedom of choice was therefore heavily constrained. Green proposed the idea of positive freedom (not to be confused with Isaiah Berlin’s notion of positive liberty): the ability of the individual to develop and attain individuality through personal self-development and self-realisation. Since much of the population was prevented from such self-realisation by the impediments of poverty, sickness, unemployment and ignorance, government was justified in taking action to tackle all those conditions. This was not a threat to liberty, but the necessary guarantee of it. As David Lloyd George put it in 1908, ‘British Liberalism is not going to repeat the errors of Continental Liberalism … Let Liberalism proceed with its glorious work of building up the temple of liberty in this country, but let it also bear in mind that the worshippers at the shrine have to live.’

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DLT: Classical Liberalism

Duncan Brack and Ed Randall, authors of the Dictionary of Liberal Thought, have kindly agreed to let us publish extracts on Lib Dem Voice. This month we start a trilogy of postings on liberalism – classical, economic and social. This month, it’s classical. You can read previous extract on LDV here. The entire book is available on Amazon here and can also be bought at the Westminster Bookshop.

Classical liberalism

The meaning of the term ‘liberalism’ has become increasingly diffused and has been subject to many changes and interpretations over time. In the Anglo-Saxon world, ‘classical liberalism’ is the term often used by those who want to preserve the original ideas of liberalism, based on individual freedom, the rule of law and free markets; they support a reduction in the role of the state, particularly in economic and welfare policy.

In the course of its history the term ‘liberalism’ has undergone many changes and reinterpretations. Those of today’s liberals (especially in the Anglo-Saxon world) who see themselves as the heirs of the ‘original’ tradition of liberalism often call themselves ‘classical liberals’. Neither this ‘original tradition’ nor the term ‘classical liberalism’ can be defined with absolute precision, but there is a rough consensus. Today’s ‘classical liberals’ agree that individual freedom ranks above material equality, that the state’s sphere has to be more strictly limited than it is today and that freedom is the guarantor of wealth for the people. The following political creed can be extracted from their writings:

Posted in Dictionary of Liberal Thought | Also tagged and | 2 Comments



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