As the economist Ha-Joon Chang has said, “Few words have generated more confusion than the word ‘liberal’.” This is because it has so many meanings depending on the context. In the Oxford English dictionary, someone who is liberal is someone who is “respectful and accepting of behaviour or opinions different from one’s own”. But the received understanding of what being liberal is in political terms, though it does overlap, is far more extensive than this definition – which is more a description of one’s character, rather than of political outlook. But even the political understanding of being liberal has been complicated by the different ways in which the term is understood in Europe and America.
To start with the American definition, as Ha-Joon Change states, “the term ‘liberal’ is used to describe a view that is left-of-centre. American liberals, such as Ted Kennedy or Paul Krugman, would be called social democrats in Europe.” Liberals in America tend to be partial to state intervention in the economy when it looks like the economy is failing to provide and a healthily-sized welfare state. This is very different to the European understanding of what a liberal is.
Back in 19th century Europe, when the term came into popular usage to describe oneself politically, being a liberal meant being laissez-faire – in other words, advocating a hands-off approach to the economy, with a small state and minimal state intervention in the market. A liberal believed that the freer the market, the better off society would be, as an unfettered market allowed individuals to fairly compete and innovate. The belief was that the market was self-regulating – competition meant that the companies which were the best at what they did would stay afloat and contribute to the growth of the economy, whilst those which did not perform well would not – leading to an economy which could grow in an efficient manner and not waste valuable labour on businesses which weren’t generating much profit.
Liberals believed in the free market because at the heart of their thinking was the freedom of the individual. The economic freedom of the individual should not be disrupted by state meddling.
This prioritising of the freedom of the individual didn’t just inform liberals’ understanding of economics. It also informed their politics. Liberals such as John Stuart Mill passionately advocated the notion of freedom of speech; that everyone has a right to speak their mind without being censored or arrested for what they say, even if what they have to say is considered abhorrent by mainstream society. Back in nineteenth century Europe, this was a radical idea. Along with this, liberals also argued for freedom of the press and freedom of religion, on the similar basis that people had the right to print what they wanted and believe in what they wanted without facing persecution.
It is these ideas which now underpin much of western society – ideas which are accepted and upheld by people on both sides of the political spectrum for the most part.
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