The Evolution Of Liberalism: From Individual Liberties To Modern Welfare State And Contemporary Challenges – Analysis

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The evolution of liberalism has been shaped by changing perceptions and ideas over time, from its emergence in the 17th century as a response to absolute monarchies and religious conflicts, to its association with free-market capitalism in the 18th and 19th centuries, and its development into modern liberalism in the 20th century, which emphasized the welfare state and government intervention in social services. Recent challenges such as authoritarianism, globalization, and inequality have sparked new debates and discussions about the meaning and scope of liberalism in contemporary society.

Rights and freedoms of an individual, such as freedom of speech, religion, and assembly, were one of the early concepts of liberalism. This idea was born out of the 17th century’s authoritarian monarchy and religious turmoil (Hunt, 2007). Liberalism saw substantial growth in the 18th and 19th centuries as a result of its close ties to the ideas of free-market capitalism and the protection of property rights. At this time, a new school of thought called “classical liberalism” emerged, favouring a minimal role for government in the economy and emphasising individual liberties above collective benefit (Bentham, 1789).

One of liberalism’s core tenets from the beginning has been the emphasis on individual rights and liberties, and this tradition still influences liberal philosophy today. A fundamental component of liberal ideology throughout history has been the idea of personal autonomy and the defence of individual rights. To safeguard people against the tyranny of absolute monarchies and religious organizations, an emphasis on individual liberty was considered as important. Liberalism aimed to establish a society that was based on the collective consent of the governed rather than the vanity of a wealthy few by defending individual liberty.

The alliance of liberalism with free-market capitalism in the 18th and 19th centuries was another key milestone in the growth of liberalism. According to Bentham (1789), a fundamental principle of classical liberalism is the idea that people should be allowed to pursue their economic interests free from intervention from the state. A society where people could succeed based on their skills and labour was viewed as needing to be created, and this theory was considered crucial to that goal.

The emphasis on free-market capitalism in traditional liberalism, which first appeared in the 20th century, is criticised by contemporary liberalism for leading to widening economic inequities and failing to effectively protect weaker groups in society (Galston, 2018). Modern liberalism places more emphasis on the state’s role in promoting social welfare and decreasing economic inequality than classical liberalism did. Modern liberalism recognises that while the free market may foster innovation and economic progress, it may perpetuate economic injustice and fail to provide adequate protection for disadvantaged people and communities (Lieberman, 2019). Modern liberalism supports public policies and programmes that can lessen the consequences of the free market and provide a safety net for those in need to solve these problems.

Examples of contemporary liberal policies include progressive taxation, minimum wage laws, and social safety net programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, and unemployment insurance (Galston, 2018). Contemporary liberalism also places importance on public education, universal healthcare, and environmental protection. Overall, contemporary liberalism seeks to balance individual rights and freedoms with the need for a strong and active government that can promote social welfare and reduce economic inequality (Lieberman, 2019).

Modern liberalism’s emergence in the 20th century resulted in major perception and idea changes within liberalism. This particular strain of liberalism strongly emphasised the role of the state in promoting economic equality and providing social services (Galston, 2018). Modern liberalism has become much more dependent on the welfare state, in which governments actively try to eliminate poverty and provide necessities like healthcare and education. The rise of modern liberalism in the 20th century saw a significant shift in how liberalism was seen. Modern liberalism recognised the need for a more active government that could assist solve social and economic injustice, in contrast to classical liberalism, which placed a premium on individual liberty and free-market capitalism. As Galston (2018) notes, “The welfare state, with its many social programs, became an essential element of the modern liberal agenda.”

The idea of the welfare state had its roots in the early 20th century, with the development of progressive movements in the United States and Europe. These movements advocated for greater government involvement in social and economic affairs, as a means of improving the lives of ordinary citizens. The New Deal in the United States, for example, represented a significant expansion of government programs aimed at addressing the economic hardships of the Great Depression (Skocpol, 2013).

In the post-World War II period, modern liberalism continued to evolve, with the emergence of the welfare state in many Western democracies. Governments provided a range of social services, including healthcare, education, and housing, as well as income support programs such as unemployment insurance and social security (Galston, 2018). However, modern liberalism also faced its share of criticism, particularly from those who saw it as leading to excessive government involvement in people’s lives. Some critics argued that the welfare state was creating a culture of dependency, while others criticized its high costs and potential impact on economic growth (Murray, 1984).

Liberalism has experienced significant difficulties in recent decades, which has sparked fresh conversations and arguments regarding its significance and reach in modern society. The emergence of authoritarianism is one of these issues, which has put a strain on liberal democratic principles like the rule of law and freedom of speech (Diamond, 2015). As economic competitiveness has intensified and worries about job security and inequality have grown, globalisation has also presented new difficulties for liberalism (Fukuyama, 2018).

Indeed, in recent years, liberalism has faced a new set of challenges that have prompted ongoing debates and discussions about its role in contemporary society. One of these challenges is the rise of authoritarianism, which has emerged as a threat to liberal democratic values such as individual rights and freedoms, the rule of law, and freedom of expression. As Diamond (2015) notes, “The erosion of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism in many parts of the world are posing grave challenges to the global liberal order.”

Economics has played a significant role in shaping the evolution of liberalism over time. The rise of free-market capitalism and the protection of property rights were central tenets of classical liberalism, which emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries. This was a response to the mercantilist economic policies of the time, which were characterized by state intervention in the economy and the granting of economic privileges to favoured industries.

However, in the 20th century, the role of government in the economy became a key issue in the development of liberalism. Modern liberalism, which emerged in the early 1900s, emphasized the need for government intervention in the economy to promote economic equality and provide social services. This was particularly relevant during the Great Depression when many people believed that capitalism had failed and that government intervention was necessary to prevent future economic crises.

In recent decades, globalization has posed new challenges for liberalism, particularly concerning economic inequality and job security. While free-market capitalism has brought about significant economic growth and innovation, it has also contributed to the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, leading to concerns about income inequality and social mobility. This has prompted some liberals to call for greater government intervention in the economy to address these issues, while others argue that free markets and innovation are the best way to address economic challenges.

In addition to economic challenges, liberalism has faced new social and political challenges in recent years, such as the rise of identity politics and authoritarianism. These challenges have forced liberals to reassess the meaning and scope of their ideas and to consider how liberalism can best address the concerns and needs of all citizens in a rapidly changing world.

Moreover, debates about the scope and meaning of liberalism have intensified in recent years, with some critics arguing that it has become too focused on individual rights and freedoms, to the detriment of the common good. Others have criticized the perceived elitism of liberal politics, arguing that it has failed to adequately address the concerns and needs of working-class citizens (Goodhart, 2017). A contemporary example of the criticism of the perceived focus on individual rights and freedoms is the ongoing debate about gun control in the United States. Advocates of stricter gun control laws argue that they are necessary to protect the common good and prevent gun violence, while opponents argue that they violate individual rights enshrined in the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Another example of the criticism of the perceived elitism of liberal politics is the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in 2016. Trump’s campaign was built on a platform of anti-establishment populism, with a focus on issues such as immigration and job loss in working-class communities. Many supporters saw his victory as a rejection of the elitism of the liberal establishment, which they perceived as out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans (Mair, 2018). This might also help us explain the rise of populism and populist leaders not just in the USA but across the world’s continents, Bolsonaro, Lula, the Swedish Democrats, and so on.

Despite these challenges, liberalism continues to evolve and adapt to changing circumstances. In response to the rise of authoritarianism, liberal democracies have developed new strategies for defending democratic institutions and promoting democratic values, such as strengthening civil society and promoting transparency and accountability (Diamond, 2015). Likewise, efforts are underway to address the challenges of globalization, such as promoting equitable distribution of its benefits and investing in education and job training to help workers adapt to changing economic conditions (Fukuyama, 2018).

Numerous facets of society and politics show how liberalism has evolved, and it continues to be modified throughout time by new observations and ideas. The conventional idea of individual rights and liberties, which had been used to defend segregation and discrimination against African Americans, was challenged by the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Civil rights activists and leaders claimed that for marginalised people to fully engage in society, civil rights were not just individual rights but also communal rights. As a result, laws like the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act were passed, with the intent of addressing systematic discrimination and defending the rights of minority communities.

In many Western democracies, the concept of modern liberalism has emerged, which emphasizes the role of government in providing social services and promoting economic equality. This has led to the establishment of the welfare state, where governments play an active role in reducing poverty and providing necessities such as healthcare and education. For example, in Sweden, the Social Democratic Party has implemented policies that prioritize universal healthcare, education, and social welfare programs, in contrast to the more free-market-oriented policies of classical liberalism.

The concept of liberalism continues to be contested and evolving in contemporary society. As a case study, the dispute over free speech on college campuses has spurred discussions about the boundaries of individual rights and the function of government in preserving free speech while simultaneously fostering inclusion and diversity. Deliberations regarding the proper balance between individual liberty and communal welfare have also resulted from arguments about the role of government in resolving economic injustice.

In conclusion, the evolution of liberalism throughout history serves as an illustration of how political ideas and views may change through time. Liberalism has developed from its roots in defending individual rights and freedoms to meet the shifting needs and issues of society. Authoritarianism gave rise to classical liberalism, which emphasised the value of individual freedom and restrained governmental intrusion. Social liberalism emerged as societies developed, focused on social fairness and communal welfare to address injustices and advance equal opportunities. Debates over the harmony between individual liberty and the common good, the role of government in resolving social problems, and the intersectionality of social issues are examples of how modern liberalism is still evolving to meet modern challenges. Moreover, liberalism has been influenced by global events and new perspectives, incorporating concepts like multiculturalism, feminism, and environmentalism. These examples highlight the ongoing evolution and adaptability of liberalism, demonstrating its ability to respond to fresh issues and incorporate diverse viewpoints. Ultimately, the development of liberalism serves as a testament to its relevance and influence in shaping our modern world, as it continues to uphold core principles such as individual freedom, equality, and social progress.

About the author:

  • Anuraj Singh has his formal training in Political Science and has a specialisation in Foreign Policy and Economics with an interest in climate justice and the north south divide.
  • Rohan Singh is a practicing advocate who regularly appears before the Supreme Court of India.


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Skocpol, T. (2013). The Great Recession and the American Welfare State. Political Science Quarterly, 128(2), 201-228. doi:10.1002/polq.12004

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