Classical Liberalism developed from ideas and events in the late Medieval and Renaissance periods, and generated dramatic results during the Industrial Revolution, but its increasingly visible weaknesses generated many critiques that coalesced into Modern Liberalism from the 1800s onwards. Modern Liberalism thus developed as a reaction to the ideas of Classical Liberalism, although it also built on many discussions that were part of Classical Liberalism’s genesis.
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The origins of Modern Liberalism range from the anti-industrialism of the Luddites, to the Utopian visions of the early Socialists, to the readiness for violent revolutionary action of committed Communists. In all instances, these ideas were intended to mitigate the ill effects of Classical Liberalism, especially in Great Britain.
As these negative impacts became more clearly visible, and their costs rose, there was more room for a critique of the deficiencies of what modern observers would now term laissez-faire capitalism. The ideas of Modern Liberalism have had widespread reverberations down to the present, although there is still active debate about their impact and validity.
Both Classical Liberalism and Modern Liberalism found fertile ground in England, her colonies, and Commonwealth for many reasons. The country had a history of citizen activism, notably the Magna Charta (MonarchUK, 2011).
The nation’s island status forced it to seek offshore fortunes, creating thereby a category of staggering wealthy folk with no hereditary, feudal tradition. The colonies opened windows on flourishing egalitarian aboriginal societies without Greco-Roman heritage. Additionally, scientific innovations drastically changed the way goods were manufactured (Raico, 1992).
The nation, thanks to Henry VIII, was also conveniently detached from Rome’s authority (Hunt, 2003, p. 32). England thus became a pocket-sized generator of individualistic and somewhat democratic ideas and practices (although egalitarianism took longer).
The ideas of Classical Liberalism arose logically from the discoveries and circumstances that existed before. Between the fall of Rome in the 5th century, and the Renaissance, the grip of the Church, the monarchy, and the monarchy’s deputies, the nobility, was largely unshaken. Kings , in an effort to regain re-establish Rome’s regional peace and stability, claimed rule by divine right, (in a supposed direct line of authorization from the Christian disciple, Peter, who was the first Bishop of Rome) (Raico, 1992) .
As such, the monarch could endow a favored subject with both land and the residents thereon. Such serfs, prohibited from moving, occupied a position equivalent to a cow. Their noble master appropriated a portion of their produce, and could sell or trade their labor with neighbors, or use them for halberd fodder in frequent conflicts (Hunt, 2003, p. 5).
The Church, the other great power (Hunt, 2003, p. 7), owned enormous properties with serfs as well (Hunt, 2003, p. 6). This situation of feudal power persisted with few interruptions for centuries. The Church, it must be noted, was the primary safety net for the poor or marginalized until the Elizabethan era in many areas (Hunt, 2003, p. 33).
However, many circumstances upset this equilibrium. The Crusades exposed great numbers of people to at least one different, vibrant, self-assured religion, rising in influence – namely, Islam.
Given that the Crusades took them into North Africa, it also seems reasonable to infer that these Christian knights experienced indigenous religions as well. This increased contact opened up new vistas for trade (such as those pursued by Marco Polo) and brought home new wealth, and new styles in architecture, music, and dress, at the very least (Hunt, 2003, p. 17).
This contact also re-introduced Europeans to ideas in medicine, natural science and other useful topics from ancient pagan texts preserved in Islamic libraries. The human-centered, individualistic, rational perspective of these texts promoted Renaissance ferment (Corrigan, 2011) (Perspectives on Ideology, p. 106). They may have also contributed to the growing critique of the Church’s abuses, culminating in the Reformation (Hunt, 2003, p. 36).
Thinkers such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, following the humanist, individualist trends in Renaissance philosophy, proposed mutually opposing views of humans quite distinct from the Church’s, implying novel roles for government (Perspectives on Ideology, p. 106).
Humans, in Locke’s view, were born good (although selfish (Hunt, 2003, p. 44)), an idea potentially conflicting with Catholicism’s concept of original sin. Locke believed that government’s role was protecting life, private property, and liberty, a concept enshrined in US founding documents.
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Hobbes believed that humans’ intrinsic selfishness must be prevented from allowing mutual damage through a strong ruler’s control, which also conflicted with the previous (Christian) ideal of selflessness, a notion to which Margaret Lavinia Anderson alludes (Anderson). There was also a prevailing irritation with the Elizabethan Poor Laws, which many thoughtful people saw as encouraging idleness and blocking useful workers from moving to where there was demand (Anderson) (Hunt, 2003, p. 45).
As governmental power shifted, not without violence, from monarch to a Parliamentary body (Perspectives on Ideology, p. 108), thinkers examined how even a group (as opposed to a single tyrannical monarch) could act oppressively, and how to avert this.
The ideas of Charles de Montesquieu, namely that government’s power needed limitation through separation of its powers (executive, legislative, judicial), found a welcome in the fledgling US government (Raico, 1992). Jeremy Bentham articulated the view that government ought to be seeking the greatest good for the greatest number of people (Anderson).
John Stuart Mill, who was influenced by Bentham, asserted that the individual and the minority needed protection from the majority. He also asserted that government’s place was not to legislate behavior that caused no harm . While our understanding of ‘harm’ has evolved substantially, e.g., how industrial practices damage health, this idea still exerts powerful appeal.
Adam Smith suggested that a complete absence of regulations or controls on commerce and industry would allow individuals to operate maximally in their own best interests. Smith asserted that the ‘invisible hand’ would combine these individual efforts to ensure national success. This idea appealed to entrepreneurs, to whom the health of workers and the environment were irrelevant. Of course, as it transpired, the beneficiaries of such freedom of action were mill owners, not workers (Perspectives on Ideology, pp. 112-113).
Thus, Classical Liberalism’s early hold on England seemed to demonstrate successes (Raico, 1992). Energetic entrepreneurs amassed fortunes and increased the nation’s apparent wealth. However, horrors resulted from their unregulated activities.
Initially, machines replaced and uprooted many from traditional employment, crafts, residence, subsistence agriculture, and social connections. Child labor, unsafe conditions, and ludicrously long hours abounded, with no means of redress. Although free to leave an abusive situation, they were not necessarily free to find another equivalent job, or to undertake a lucrative craft. Thus, workers were essentially trapped in ghastly circumstances (Anderson).
These abuses drew attention from those directly affected, as well as thinkers and activists in various fields. The Luddite laborers took direct, violent action against the machines themselves. The Chartists attempted to broaden the voting franchise to allow the workers to have a say in regulating industry (Perspectives on Ideology, pp. 132-133) (Chartists.net, 2011).
Others did more than merely offer an articulate critique of the status quo under Classical Liberalism. David Ricardo mathematically quantified the Iron Law that wages fall to subsistence levels, if left without interference (Anderson). The Utopian Socialists proposed that citizen health and welfare was as important a function of government as the assurance of profit. The Fabians, one example of Utopian Socialists, proposed that the economy gradually move towards a more cooperative state.
Robert Owens, an innovative industrialist, attempted to implement his ideas tangibly (Perspectives on Ideology, pp. 134-135) . He tried to establish a community free of private property, free of religion, and free of sexual inequality (marriage), but, as noted by Margaret Lavinia Anderson, his impractical management was impractical forced him to sell out and get out. He did inspire an early union precursor (Anderson).
The Frenchman Charles Fourier proposed equally detailed, and dramatic reform ideas. He recommended establishing small communities of people representing all human personalities, and held together by his notion of ‘passionate attraction’ to the general welfare, living in rational structures called phalanstères. Fourier also wanted to create ways of working that did not enslave, brutalize, and alienate the worker.
This is the sort of appropriation of control represented by the enchanted broom The Sorcerer’s Apprentice portion of the Disney movie Fantasia, as noted by Margaret Lavinia Anderson (Anderson). He inspired people all over, such as Horace Greeley, the New York journalist, who attempted a Fourier utopian community. Some of Fourier’s adherents in Russia were sent to Siberia for their efforts.
Charles Dickens brilliantly satirized the moral bankruptcy of the Classical Liberal industrial system for a wide and popular audience. He lampooned industrialists’ abuse of workers (e.g., Hard Times), miserably inadequate charitable institutions (e.g., Oliver Twist), and public callousness (for example, A Christmas Carol). Given the power of his work to move modern audiences, it is easy to envision his influence on his contemporaries on the issues of industrialization and economic inequality.
There were also efforts by industrialists themselves, at various times and places, to compensate for capitalism’s shortcomings. Factory owners tried to provide homes, schools, recreation, and similar amenities to appease factory workers. Though apparently admirable, this did not prevent trade union activism and violence, and continued resistance to, and criticism of, classical liberalism.
There was also an Irish famine, and widespread population pressure in the early decades of the 1800s. This demographic explosion was initially supported by agriculture and manufacturing innovations. However, the dramatic starvation clearly revealed classic liberalism’s imperfections. Margaret Lavinia Anderson contends that this population and famine issue was an important backdrop and element in all the thinking, writing, and conflict of the period (Anderson).
There was another strain of thinking in the 1800s that sought to uproot the very foundations of economies. Marxism adopted the cloak of science for his brand of socialism.
He was affected in the development of his own ideas by Hegel’s vision of history as a logical, intelligible process, termed the dialectic. Marx’s own perspective, which he called historical materialism, predicted that workers must, eventually, rise up when they accumulate enough numbers and consciousness, as capitalism inevitability broke down.
They must inevitably transform society by revolution, appropriating both ownership of the means of production, and control of government, from the bourgeoisie (Anderson). In his model of communism, the community owned everything of value. This ideology had its own complex narrative, affecting widely varying nations all across the world to this day.
The Great Depression was a dramatic revelation of capitalism’s fallibility (Perspectives on Ideology, p. 145). In the Great Depression, the economist John Maynard Keynes proposed to moderate the inevitable cycles of capitalism by proactive government spending or savings.
Counter-cyclical spending, would, Keynes believed, soften the painful extremes of boom and bust (Perspectives on Ideology, pp. 146-149). This idea is being discussed in detail, at this very moment in the USA.
The actual result, for a number of nations, of the application of Modern Liberalism, has been the creation of the welfare state (Perspectives on Ideology, p. 149). The government fills in when employers do not pay enough to support the necessities of life, or when employment is unavailable.
This has the potential for some of the same negative effects as the Poor Laws that Ricardo noted earlier on. It is accused by modern conservatives – nearly daily, in some media outlets – of creating a class forever trapped in joblessness or under-employment.
Modern Liberalism developed out of the observations and objections made over decades regarding the weaknesses of Classical Liberalism, which, itself, developed as a response to absolute and capricious monarchical greed. It has become embedded in at least one party’s platform in most western nations.
Modern Liberalism affects us even today in Canada, and has shaped the development of many aspects of our society, with our health system as just as one example.
Anderson, M. L. (n.d.). Capitalism and its Critics. Web.
Chartists.net. (2011). Chartism Frequently Asked Questions. Web.
Hunt, E. (2003). PROPERTY AND PROPHETS: THE EVOLUTION OF ECONOMIC INSTITUTIONS AND IDEOLOGY. Armonk, NY, USA: M.E. Sharpe.
MonarchUK. (2011). How the Monarchy Works. Web.
National Public Radio. (2011, September). The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Retrieved from NPR Books.
Perspectives on Ideology. Perspectives on Ideology.
Raico, R. (1992, August). The Rise, Fall, and Renaissance of Classical Liberalism, Parts 1, 2, and 3. Web.