Essay on Liberalism
Liberalism is a dominant political ideology mostly embraced by the westerners as it does not only strives to improve an individual’s liberty but also offers political and economic freedom. The philosophy of liberalism arises from the ideology that humanity is entitled to equality and liberty, hence basing its argument on rights of an individual. For this, the liberals, those who ascribe to liberalism, view this political approach as an empowerment that gives them freedom, equality, independence, authority, and toleration. Hence, liberalism can be summarized as any actions or ideas that favor the theory of freedom of choice.
During the enlightenment era, the western philosophers embraced the philosophy of liberalism and freedom of choice. Essentially, the theory became a political movement that rejected the established norms before its time, such as the hereditary rule, state-accepted religions, monarchy, and divine right of kings (O’Malley, 2016). In such a way, the liberals intended to replace absolutism in government with democracy, a government for the people, by the people. In light of this, the introduction of liberalism into the political realm served as a revolution that sought to foster democracy and enhance the enlightenment to the people.
Evidently, the progress of western nations since the development of liberalism endorses the benefits of espousing liberalism. As a result, the western nations have attained the superpower status economically, and significant success can be attributed to liberal views, for instance, the freedom to own property amongst others. In particular, China had an aspiration to get wealthy and powerful like countries in the west; hence, the country adopted the political doctrine of liberalism. However, the country is still lagging behind as establishing of this ideology was more of an intellectual preoccupation in search of success rather than a principle driver of the country’s political agenda. Though the benefits of liberalism appeal to the Chinese, their country still exhibits failures compared to the success depicted by American liberals.
Liberalism has been in existence in the previous eras; although, it has been adopted in recent centuries. The theories supporting human equality and freedom under liberalism first appeared in history in the 17th century. John Locke, who was an English philosopher and political theorist at that time, is believed to have authored the first exposition on liberalism Two Treaties of Government. He was of the opinion that political authority is given by those who are governed while the government’s obligation was to secure life, liberty, and property of the citizens.
In the 18th century, a moral philosopher Adam Smith argued that division of labor and decentralization of government and economic powers would work best to generate wealth and prosperity; such ideas propelled China, much later in time, to adopt liberalism. The two instances have aspects of liberalism documented, but it is in the early 19th century that the term “liberal” was first used in Spanish politics. In this sense, liberalism seems to have spanned its influence over time.
The term “liberal” was used in the early 19th century to explain a political association whose objective was to establish legal restrictions on the governing power in Spain. Later on, the expression was broadened to encompass movements and ideas that were geared towards instilling individual freedom. Undoubtedly, philosophers such as John Locke (1632 – 1704) and Adam Smith (1723 – 1790) can be described as liberals who existed before the 19th century.
As a fact, several instances in history have been the foundations for developing liberalism in different nations. During the glorious revolution in 1688, the limitation of monarchal power acted as a stepping stone for establishment of the Liberal State of England. Similarly, the declaration of independence for the United States in 1776 saw to it that the USA was founded on liberal principles; the declaration stated the country’s stand on equality and echoed Locke’s phrase of liberty, peace, and property. As a result, the US declaration influenced the French who, during the revolution, overthrew hereditary aristocracy and established a declaration of the citizens’ rights in 1789. Fundamentally, these occurrences are examples of what occurred during the enlightenment era where the old regimes were toppled in favor of the liberal political associations.
In 1911 – 1912, the Chinese established the Republic of China, an action that was viewed as a partial acceptance of the liberalism ideas. However, the liberal values adopted by the Chinese were few, for example, constitutionalism and division of powers. More than that, the writings of Liang Qichao, between 1873 and 1929, helped in the liberal developments; although, he had inclinations towards conservative outcomes.
Development of Liberalism
Liberalism was developed from the theory of rights developed in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the period between 1583 and 1645, the Dutch scholar, Hugo Grotius, was perceived to be the primary creator of set of guidelines that identifies liberalism. His theories involved a proposal of the pre-political position of nature and social agreement as the foundation of a political society. In several cases, these principles favored individual liberties and only limited an individual’s freedom if it infringed the rights of others, mainly, as a way of establishing order.
John Locke and other theorists after him followed Hugo’s theories of liberalism. Locke’s formulation of rights not only encompassed more than liberty but also life and possession acts as examples of further rights noted by the early liberals. For this, the ideas of rights being a human entitlement began long ago and have advanced to the levels of liberalism experienced nowadays.
More so, the rights linked to liberalism between the 16th to 19th centuries were inclined to negative characteristics. For instance, liberty to health and life indicated that people were not to be deprived of either aspect owing to actions of another; in such a way, one is not to be injured or killed while conducting his/her ‘business.’ The right to own property ensured that individuals were not blocked from owning property to improve their well-being; hence, individuals would govern themselves, seeing it as their natural right. In essence, each of these rights pointed to something a person should not have done or be denied.
Notably, instances linked to the 19th century and industrial revolution caused tension amongst the liberals. The industrial revolution was a key contributor to the ensuing state of economic shortage and hardships faced by a section of the people and the wealthy status of others. The disparities sparked liberals into arguments on which between the negative and positive rights should be embraced by the liberals. Most individuals were in favor of negative rights that aimed at preventing the government from having any influence on the rights and freedoms of the people it governed. Conversely, some free-thinkers backed the proposal of equally adopting negative and positive liberties. By contrast, the positive rights would support government actions on promotion of human liberties.
During the 1688 glorious revolution, influential persons utilized liberal values to validate the forces used in the dispelling rule that was riddled with tyranny, as did the leaders of the American and French revolutions. Liberalism began a rapid uptake by individuals after the French revolution. The time frame between early and late 19th century outlines the development of liberalisms on a large scale as governments embraced the liberal approach to politics in nations across Europe and America.
In the U.S, liberalism was adopted alongside the republican political intellect. However, liberalism was faced with challenges from ideals of conservatism, fascism, and communism. In the Ottoman Empire and Middle East, liberalism had control over instances of political restructuring, such as the rise of secularism, constitutionalism, and nationalism. However, despite challenges from competing theories, liberalism managed to influence historical undertakings.
Still, it is during the 20th century that liberal ideas were most adopted. Democracies with liberal undertaking found themselves on the winning end of World War I and II. After the war, the European consolidation was partly as a result of liberalism, and it sparked a rapid adoption of liberal ideas across several nations. Liberalism became an essential attribute in the development of the welfare state. Presently, liberal political affiliations persist in exercising authority and sway all over the globe. Nevertheless, liberalism is yet to overcome the challenges faced in nations within Africa and Asia. Liberalism took time to advance, and it is still in stages of development though adopted in Western countries.
The influence of liberal thoughts and action in the West started early, but in China, it was not until the late 19th century. Monarchical advisors such as Tan Sitong, Kang Youwei, and Liang Qichao devised a lawful modification plan to strengthen the wearying monarchy. In fact, these consultants drew their inspiration from the Chinese philosophers belonging to the late “realist” and “statecraft” schools. Additionally, their strategy design was given a solid shape by German and British liberal doctrines. However, the plan failed in 1898, but Liang Qichao and other individuals that had similar understanding continued to argue through print media; they claimed that freedom of speech, a multi-party government system, and promotions of the local self-government were actions that would reinforce China as a nation. Yan Fu made significant translations of literature by French and British liberals, such as John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, Spirit of the Laws, which was done by Montesquieu, and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. As a fact, liberalism in China had a rocky start, but intellectuals persevered to see that it succeeded.
On 4th May 1919, a protest initiated by students in opposition to the ceding of Chinese region to Japan by the Versailles treaty sparked a reexamination of China concerning upheld traditions in contrast to western supremacy and domination. The reassessment was dubbed May Fourth Movement and was instrumental in the development of liberalism in the 1930s and 40s (Chen, 1971). As the movement was picking up, John Dewey who was on an extended trip to the country asked the citizens to take on a more decisive approach and collectively engaged stand towards Chinese history and culture. One of his students Hu Shi ascended to fame as an extraordinarily well-versed theorist of Western and Chinese theories on liberty. Hu was fundamental in the translation of Dewey’s ideas for a Chinese audience. In this regard, students played a major part in Chinese liberalism.
More than that, the Chinese liberalism was inspired by the western nations, but this was not the only force that led to Chinese considering liberal approach to governance. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, during the 1970s and 80s, several Confucian revivalists gave importance to the compatibility observed between traditional Chinese value systems, for example Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, and the ideals of a liberal democracy (Makeham, 2003). As a result, the new way of thinking gave them the name “New Confucians” and their efforts brought up former tensions that had initially appeared during the May Fourth Movement. The tensions were because of differences between western enlightenment and aspects of traditional Chinese culture.
In the 1970s and 1980s, these trends were also reflected in foreign policy during the Jimmy Carter’s administration. After several months of secret negotiations, the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) announced on December 15, 1978 that they recognized each other and established formal diplomatic relations. Under the agreement, the US recognized the government of the People’s Republic of China as the only legitimate government of China, and said that they would not withdraw Taiwan’s diplomatic recognition. Relations between the US and the PRC have improved and achieved qualitative progress in security and economic matters after Deng Xiaoping’s trip to the US in 1979. January 31, 1979, the United States and China signed treaties on various topics, including consular relations, academic exchanges, and cooperation in the field of space technology and high-energy physics.
During the 19th and early 20th century, the advancement of the philosophy of liberalism in China was heavily challenged. Hence, the difficulties in disguise of postmodernism, globalization, and capitalism destabilized the forecasted steadiness of a liberal evolution. Hong Kong which had been a British colony was taken under Chinese communist rule further threatening the likelihood of lawful restrictions on the existing government that would foster liberal acts. China’s Communist governance reduces control of media; however, liberals aim to foster civic societies and a population of individuals with decisive standpoints regarding governance.
Liberalism, the conviction that individuals are entitled to human rights and freedom, is part of historical development of political views. The development of liberal thinking among nations has spanned the better part for the last four centuries, dating back to the initial thinking associated with philosophers such as John Locke in the 17th century. In fact, China, which is a heavily traditional nation, has seen a rise in liberal thinking, although, at a slower pace than nations in the West. Furthermore, while America has adopted liberalism to function alongside republicanism, the Chinese government is still lingering on communism; though, the control over several facets of freedom such as media has been relaxed. After all, the advancement of liberalism over the centuries has encountered challenges, but it is still in the development process.
Chen, J. T. (1971). The May fourth movement in Shanghai: The making of a social movement in modern China. Leiden: Brill.
Makeham, J. (2003). New Confucianism: A critical examination. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
O’Malley, W. J. (2016). Own yourself: How to form your conscience. New York, NY: Paulist Press.