All liberals desire to promote the liberties of all individuals. This is the common goal that united all the liberals since the establishment of capitalism in the 18th century. However, during the industrial revolution, several issues came to light leaving the liberals divided. It became apparent that a free society without enough intervention by the government led to the oppression of some groups while others benefited. This division gave rise to a new liberal view that cared about the welfare of each member of society. Others remained with the earlier liberal views referred to as the classical liberal view. There are key differences between classical and contemporary liberal views.
Key Differences Between the Classic and Contemporary Liberal Views of the Resources Government Must Provide to Insure the Basic Freedom of Citizens
Differences between the classical and contemporary liberal views partly stem from the definition of the term freedom. Classical liberalists in the 18th and 19th centuries viewed freedom as the lack of restraint. In the wake of the industrial revolution that saw a surge in industrialization, classical liberals demanded economic freedom (Ball et al. 67). This meant that they expected the nobles to abolish restraints against trade by the middle class. A free-market driven by capitalism would benefit the common citizen as well as society. Contemporary liberals, on the other hand, view freedom as both the lack of restraint and the empowerment of individuals (Ball et al. 76). In both cases, the liberals agree that the government has a role to play to ensure these freedoms. However, classical liberals believe that the government has a lesser role to play as compared to contemporary liberals. A group of liberals referred to as neo-classical maintained that the role of government in supporting individual rights should be reduced to a night watchman (Ball et al. 75). Thus classical liberals define freedom differently from contemporary liberals.
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Classical Liberals believe that the government should provide resources that promote economic freedom as a means of ensuring basic individual freedoms. These include infrastructure, lack of economic restrictions, free trade between countries, defense from foreign invasion, and promotion of justice and order through property rights. Infrastructure such as roads, harbors, railway, and waterways are meant to boost trade through easy transport of raw materials and finished goods. Classical liberals also demand that the government should reduce restrictions against free trade. In previous centuries such as the 17th and 18th centuries, only a few privileged benefited from economic growth. This led to classical liberals coming up with capitalism (Ball et al. 67). Thus, in this case, the government is expected to facilitate free competition. National security also promotes freedom by ensuring a safe environment for trading activities. Finally, classical liberals expect the government to provide a justice system that protects people’s property and maintains order (Ball et al. 69). In a classical liberal’s view, these resources are sufficient to guarantee that the citizens’ rights are safeguarded.
Contemporary liberals expect the government to provide resources that empower individuals as a means of promoting their basic freedoms. Such resources include public schools, hospitals, aid to the needy and disadvantaged, regulations regarding working conditions, and affirmative action programs. Furthermore, resources should be allocated to helping the disadvantaged enjoy equal opportunity and regulating economic competition. When it comes to public schools, education is indeed a tool that empowers the people (Ball et al. 77). A contemporary liberal does not believe an uneducated person to be truly free as opposed to a classical liberal. Another related issue is health. An ailing person cannot claim to be truly free and empowered. As such, the government is expected to establish hospitals effective in treating various maladies. This class of liberals also believes that the rights of the needy and disadvantaged cannot be ignored. Such groups should be covered by various effective programs. Working conditions should be regulated by the law to ensure that the workers are not exploited. Unlike the classical liberals’ view that the government should not interfere in free competition, contemporary liberals argue that the government should regulate economic competition to ensure fair trade. Finally, affirmative programs allow the empowerment of previously discriminated groups (Ball et al. 84). These resources ensure that the basic rights of individuals are not infringed upon.
The understanding of human nature and society is different for contemporary and classical liberals. This can be deduced from their respective definition of human rights. Classical liberals view people as being driven by self-interests and passion. This is the mindset that drove Adam Smith (1723-1790) to promote the view of capitalism (Ball et al. 67). Together with other capitalists, Smith argued that if people are left to trade privately, they are capable of improving their wellbeing. Later on, it emerged that such rights only favored the middle class while the working class was exploited. Classical liberals believed that this was simply natural selection as proposed by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Those who followed this line of thought believed that human beings were meant to freely compete with each other. In such a scenario, only the strongest would emerge as successful. Thus, classical liberals such as Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) believed that the government should not interfere in the free market (Ball et al. 75). In contrast, contemporary liberals view human beings as social beings who rely on each other. As such, they work to promote the welfare of all citizens including the minority and disadvantaged. These differing views of human nature are portrayed in the definition of basic human rights.
Classical liberals understand political liberty differently from contemporary liberals. Indeed, both schools of thought believe in political liberties as characterized by great political movements such as the French revolution (Ball et al. 63). However, their views on human nature factored in their views towards political liberty. Classical liberals aim to reduce the powers of the government. This means that the people are left to live their lives freely with the common view that they will choose the best actions for themselves. As such matters such as democracy do not play a huge role in such a society. In contrast, contemporary liberals seek to increase the powers of the government. This philosophy was ushered in by the utilitarians who argued that a government is necessary to enable the creation of utility for the majority as per the principle of utility (Ball et al. 71). Therefore, contemporary liberals believe that the government should have much power to improve the welfare of every citizen. To realize this goal, people must participate in the government, hence a democracy. Political liberty hence plays a bigger role in contemporary than classical liberals.
Response to Affirmative Action
The issue of affirmative action would be opposed by a classical liberal. This is because such liberals do not believe in any interference on people’s rights except to safeguard such rights. Affirmative action favors certain minority groups who have been discriminated against. This is not acceptable to a classical liberal. This issue was at the center of discussion during the 19th century. Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ (1859), fueled this conversation by claiming that nature dictates the survival of the fittest and natural selection (Ball et al. 75). This means that people should be left to struggle among themselves, each driven by their self-interests. If any individuals should be disadvantaged, then that is just nature’s way. Hence, classical liberals believe in equal opportunities whether at schools or work.
Contemporary liberals advocate for affirmative action. The welfare of the majority is at the heart of such freedom. In society, cases arise whereby a certain group is discriminated against. Such groups include women in general, whose rights have been violated. Another common example is the discrimination faced by the black population in the US in the past and even up to date. To compensate for such past injustices that may have left such groups lagging, contemporary liberals maintain that they should be allowed preference in hiring and slots in institutions of learning (Ball et al. 84). Other groups include the special needs people such as handicapped. As it is expected, such groups are disadvantaged and are not in a position to compete fairly with other citizens. To correct this, a contemporary liberal would support affirmative action.
The aim of all liberals, both classical and contemporary is to promote individual freedoms. However, the means of achieving this aim differs for the different groups. This is because the two views define freedoms differently.
Ball, Terence, Richard Dagger, and Daniel I. O’Neill. Political ideologies and the democratic ideal. Taylor & Francis, 2016.
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