There is no universally acceptable definition of Liberalism and scholars have assigned different meanings to it at different times. In fact, sometimes even during the same period scholars have assigned different meaning to liberalism.
This difference has arisen because some view liberalism as ‘a faith’, while the others consider it as the attitude of mind. Similarly, some equate it with ‘individualism’ while the others associate it with democracy of socialism. As a result different definitions of Liberalism have been offered by scholars. Let us examine some of these definitions.
According to Laski, “Liberalism is the expression less of a trend rather than of a temperament. It implies a passion for liberty; find that passion may be compelling. It requires a power to be tolerant; yen skeptical about opinions and tendencies you hold to be dangerous, which is one of the rarest human qualities.”
David G. Smith has defined Liberalism as “belief in and commitment to a set of methods and policies that have as their common aim greater freedom for individual men.”
Though the term ‘liberalism’ was for the first time used in 1791 by a Spanish Party known as Liberals, which favoured for Spain a Constitution on the pattern of the French Constitution of 1791, but Liberalism as a coherent system of ideals first of all developed in England in the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. From England it spread to other countries of Europe and various British colonies.
Liberalism rose as a reaction against the absolute authority of the state, church and the feudal lords. It was largely the product of the changed thinking which followed the Reformation. It laid emphasis on the removal of obstacles in the path of human progress by removing the obstacles which had been imposed on man by the society and the government.
In short it mainly rested on two basic principles-dislike of arbitrary authority and free expression of individual’s personality. As regards the dislike of the arbitrary authority it favoured the replacement of the arbitrary authority by some other form of social practice. The early Liberalism naturally laid emphasis on free conscience and religious tolerance. No wonder, the early Liberals were non-conformists in religion and secularists.
These early liberals also emphasized the desirability of impersonal, social and political controls in the nature of rule of law. As regards the principle of free expression of individual’s personality, the Liberals held that the individual must be provided active freedom to enable his capacities to find free expression.
Logically, the Liberals favoured more equal distribution of liberty, abolition of monopolies destruction of aristocratic privileges and a law based on rational principles. They favoured provision of greater opportunities for the individual’s development and did not mind state intervention to increase these opportunities or to bring about equality.
Liberalism rests on two principles-non-interference and enfranchisement-which seem to be contradictory. While the principle of non-interference leaves the individual completely at the mercy of nature, society and groups, the principle of enfranchisement leads to statism and technocracy.
However, Liberalism does not want to carry these principles to the extreme and makes a bid to reconcile these principles according to the needs of the society and the means available to it.