The concept of liberalism is a combination of different ideas of a common nature developed by different thinkers over time. There is no one exact definition of liberalism. It is based on the idea that people have the right to exercise liberty and government has to impose only less restrictions on them. John Stuart M, an English philosopher and political economist, was a proponent of liberalism. His opinion was that the State should exercise minimal control over a citizen. The theory of liberalism was a response to the unjust authority of the State and the Church.
According to proponents of liberalism, State is a necessary evil. It is regarded as evil as power is vested in this institution and can use coercive force. They accept state as a necessary evil regardless of this drawback or evil. State is necessary for the existence of an ordered society. According to David G. Smith, “Liberalism is the belief in, and the commitment to, a set of methods and policies that have, as a common aim, greater freedom for individuals.” According to Sartori, “ Very simply, liberalism is the theory and practice of individual liberty, judicial defence, and the constitutional State”.
There are certain general principles that stand out in different varieties of liberalism. Liberalism is opposed to all artificial pressures and regulations on the liberty of a citizen. This theory believes that traditions and social institutions no longer hold any relevance in the development and progress of an individual. Economically, liberalism favours laissez-faire economics where the market is not restricted and is guided by market factors alone. It advocates for free trade and production without restrictions. It is opposed to restrictions on imports and exports. The proponents believe that the individual must be allowed to use and allocate resources according to their wishes.
Politically, the theory advocated for a complete restriction on the State for imposing restriction on an individual in the initial stages. It believes in the theory of separation of powers to curb arbitrary use of power. It supports for the existence of judicial review to monitor and ensure the executive is acting according to the Constitution. It favours parliamentary democracy and advocates for the Rule of Law(Law is supreme). it is against concentration of power in a few hands and favours decentralisation of power. It strongly believes that the power is with the people and the government must be made accountable through regular elections. It favours equality before law. It strongly supports the freedom of speech and expression. It is for Secularism. The state has to use its authority and power for the welfare of people and protection of their natural rights.
Liberalism of early days differs a lot from today’s liberalism. Liberalism can be classified into two types – Classical and Modern Liberalism.
Classical liberalism is political ideology that advocates civil liberties. It is in the form it was originally conceived. The major proponents of classical liberalism are Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, and David Ricardo who advocated for economic natural liberty and Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill who advocated for political natural liberty. Classical liberalism was seen as fundamentally negative in nature as it advocated individual liberty without any restrictions. According to Prof. Hallowell, the basis of classical liberalism is in the rationality and good faith of man – that man, left to himself without any restrictions or shackles, is inherently good, and demonstrates positive behaviour. As a result, it advocated for minimal interference on the part of the Station in the matters of individual. It supports for inalienable natural rights for man like the right to life, freedom to own property, etc. It believes in the Rule of Law and not men or rulers. It advocates for political, economic, social, cultural, moral, and spiritual freedoms. It also emphasizes equality in matters of faith and personality.
According to Leonard Hobhouse – civil liberty, political liberty, social liberty, personal liberty(personal choices like food, clothin, religion), fiscal liberty(people representation in framing fiscal policies and no taxation), domestic liberty(rights to women and children), administrative(free to administer one’s own territory), geographic(all regions should be treated equally) and racial liberty and international(freedom of state with no external control from other states) liberty are the essential components of classical liberalism.
Modern liberalism is the form as we know it today. Liberalism went through several changes during the 19th century. Modern liberalism departs from the classical form and its ideas. The proponents of modern liberalism understood the importance of the state and developed a concept called welfare state. Welfare state is the concept that the State exists not just to perform police functions, but its ultimate goal is to protect people and ensure development.
Modern liberalism believes that the State is not a necessary evil and regards it as a moral institution. The State should promote the intellectual and moral faculties of the citizens and work to ensure their welfare. For this purpose, it encourages increased participation of the State for welfare of people. It advocates for the formation of welfare state. It advocates the need for collective responsibility of the State and its citizens in ensuring healthcare, education, welfare of children and women, etc. According to this theory, rights are not sacrosanct or natural. They exist by virtue of their sanction by the State. It believes in humanism and secularism as the principal goals to promote harmony and peace. It supports for regulation and control of the economic life of the society. It encourages for some degree of public control in industrial matters. It is for protecting a state from external threat and ensuring autonomy at all level of administration. It advocates for a constitutional, democratic, and parliamentary system of government.