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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:

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DLT: John Maynard Keynes 1883-1946

Duncan Brack and Ed Randall, authors of the Dictionary of Liberal Thought, have kindly agreed to let us publish extracts on Lib Dem Voice. Last month’s instalment was Mary Wollstonecraft

This month’s entry on Keynes has been selected as it is particularly topical in the current financial climate – and the next two entries to appear, Keynesianism in Februrary, and the Keynes Forum in March, complete the series.  If you can’t wait until March, the entire Dictionary of Liberal Thought is available on Amazon here and can also be bought at the Westminster Bookshop.

John Maynard Keynes 1883–1946

The most influential and important economic thinker of the twentieth century, Keynes’s most important academic works were concerned not only with challenging accepted economic theory but also with finding solutions to real economic problems; his ideas came to underpin the post-war economic strategy of Western governments. He was an active Liberal and contributed to Lloyd George’s reshaping of Liberal Party policy in the 1920s; he also helped to found the Liberal Summer School.

Key ideas

• Human decision-making under uncertainty is necessarily based on subjective expectations of utility (this reflects the fact that human beings lack a sound basis for calculating probabilities).

• Economic recovery from war requires great magnanimity in order to fashion a programme of economic assistance and cooperation that serves the best interests of victors and vanquished alike.

• A stable world requires the strong to help the weak, and intelligent international cooperation is essential in order to build the foundations for general prosperity and diminish the risks of future conflict.

• It is possible that where an economy’s aggregate output is below its potential, it will suffer an extended period of high unemployment and depressed output; public policy should therefore be designed so that government is equipped to raise effective demand in such circumstances.

• The need for an international reserve currency, managed by an international clearing union.

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Recent Comments

  • User AvatarSally Burnell 27th Feb - 10:30pm
    William Wallace - completely agree. Your 'left behind' paper was discussed by FPC, including at our away day, and it directly influenced our paper on...
  • User AvatarKatharine Pindar 27th Feb - 10:26pm
    "Even the most committed party member should be asking themselves what the party is for or if it still serves any purpose at all.' I...
  • User AvatarDavid Raw 27th Feb - 10:15pm
    "0nly with the advent of the Alliance". What breathtaking nonsense. The Liberal Party punched well above its weight before the Alliance, starting with the Leadership...
  • User AvatarDavid Becket 27th Feb - 10:12pm
    I canot see FPC thinking radically.
  • User Avatarjohn littler 27th Feb - 9:45pm
    David Raw, things were done differently in the 20's and Lloyd George did head a coalition with Tories, who mounted a massive military offence against...
  • User AvatarIan 27th Feb - 9:39pm
    Anyone with their wits about them can see that liberalism is in retreat across the western world. Read the excellent ‘the light that failed’ to...