Liberalism is the leading ideology of the modern era. During the nineteenth century it came to signify adherence to the principles of individualism, liberty, limited government, progress and equality. It has been espoused by thinkers as diverse as Mill, Constant, Bentham, Tocqueville, Hobhouse, and Hayek. At its core is a particular conception of human nature, based on beliefs in the moral primacy of the individual as the starting point for thinking about politics and society; the equal moral worth of every individual, regardless of class, nation, gender or race; and the possibility of improving social conditions and reforming political institutions. Individuals are conceived as the bearers of rights which exist independently of government and which it is the task of government to protect. The legitimacy of any system of government depends on how well it protects the liberty of its citizens.

Liberalism was shaped by the American and French Revolutions, which marked a decisive break with the old order and set out new principles of government – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the American version, and liberty, equality and fraternity in the French. Both these revolutions proclaimed in different ways that sovereignty should be popular sovereignty, that government should be based on the will of the people, and that for this purpose all members of a political community should be regarded as equal, and able to participate in their self-government. These revolutions were part of much broader social changes which shaped different conceptions of modernity, with liberalism coming to stand for progress, rationalism, science, secularism and capitalism, and opposition to obscurantism, tradition, privilege and prejudice. Liberals have tended to be optimistic about the prospects for human progress because of their faith in reason, their universalism, and their confidence in rational, scientific methods to discover the causes of things and to propose improvements.



Bellamy, R. (1992) Liberalism and Modern Society. Polity, Cambridge.


Andrew Gamble