Liberalism-An Umbrella Ideology

Liberalism is a term much misinterpreted. Political parties and philosophers have wobbled the base notion of a ‘liberal’ by flaring its avenues, accumulating new hues and interpretations to its novel soul. Liberalism, concisely stating, is a political allegiance and an economic doctrine that encompasses individual autonomy, dignity, equality of opportunity, the doctrine of laisses-faire and the protection of three natural rights i.e. Right to life, liberty, and property. It is a ‘virtue’, more than an ideology. The term liberal originated from the Latin word ‘liber’, which referred to the class of free men, who were neither slaves nor serfs. The word was thus used ‘to characterize a program seeking to end feudal privileges and to establish a more modern government’.

Liberalism, as a political tradition, is committed to the fundamental principles of freedom, tolerance, and diversity. It is an epitome of an ‘open system of thought’. In the Economic realm, liberalism signifies the presence of free market regime, transcending discriminatory trade barriers and incorporating a meritocratic approach, and a capitalistic model by an overarching consonance with privatisation and globalization. Perhaps, it stands for ‘liberation’ or independence, aiming to paralyse the forces of imperialism and colonialism. It also espouses a representative and responsive system of government. Thus, Liberalism goes hand in hand with capitalism and democracy. In fact, liberalism is not only a requisite for democracy, but also a consequence of it.

Brief Historical Background:

Though there are different estimations about its origination, its roots are grounded in religion, philosophy and science. Commonly accepted as the ideology of the industrialized West, the British socialist Harold Laski elucidated that ‘liberalism has been, in the last four centuries, the outstanding doctrine of Western Civilization’. Evidently, it echoed in Monarchical European constitutions, holding on the liberal menu (being associated with the middle-classes in the wake of the English, the American and French revolutions): sovereignty of the people; the sanctity of individual property rights; curtailment of aristocratic and church power; uniform laws; centralized government’. Although it failed against the venom of fascism in Europe in the 20th century, it certainly proved a better alternative to the cards of Conservatism and orthodox Communism to the seekers of social peace, being durable, reasonable, balanced and beneficial. Moreover, gradually, a State with liberalism was sought to be more accountable, and transparent with an intricate system of checks and balances. Others calibrated its advent with the Renaissance, Humanism and the Catholic Reformations and yet some others resonated it with the ancient teachings of the Greek philosophers. Although, the English philosopher John Locke is credited as the father of modern liberalism, it has been retrospectively related with Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Paine, Bentham, Herbert Spencer, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Adam Smith and various others with their various versions.

Nature of Liberalism

Initially, the ideology of liberalism was anti-state and radical, eliminating State intervention in the realization of individualism. However, gradually the indispensable role of the State in fashioning conducive conditions for the development of an individual’s personality and efficiency couldn’t be undermined. Its conquest, flexibility and wide acceptability has led to its permeation into diverse political, economic and cultural diasporas including its imprints on Conservatism, Democratic Socialism, Secularism, Capitalism and Internationalism. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the ages of enlightenment and civilization gave liberalism a universalist appeal. As a result, all the progresses came to be accredited and rooted in the institutions of liberalism. In fact, a distinctive set of values came to be associated with it, which rested in support of the ‘right’ over the ‘good’.

Liberalism is a ‘rainbow’ or a colourful ideology. This is because people of all colours can be assimilated into its aura- diverse ethnic and racial groups like the Hispanics, Blacks, Mexicans, Aborigines etc.; believers of different religions- Judaism, Islam, Confucianism etc., and even atheists; Classes and castes like the poor and the rich; all Genders including ‘LGBTQIP’, and all Sexes-Male and female; all find their political, social, professional and artistic expression and connection within a liberal set-up.

The Nation-States of today, unlike the ancient Polis of Rome and Greece, aren’t culturally homogeneous. Instead, they are composed of a colourful combination of elements, encouraging a free flow of ideas, people and commodities through borders for a better quality of life. In fact, it is the very manifestation of the vision that interdependence and not intra-dependence in the World Order is sufficient to unite the humankind.

Tenets that make Liberalism Universalist

Liberalism is a ‘universal’ ideology. It embraces a range of shades and hues of the left as well as the right, and contests with conflicting ideologies. It stands for and seeks the emancipation of the ‘individual’, while considering ‘dynamic competition’ in the fora of politics and economy as healthy and desirable. Thus, there is a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing among the ideologies of ‘socialism’, ‘conservatism’, and ‘liberalism’. In a way, it acts as a truce uniting diverse spectrum of thoughts by committing to its fundamental and central tenets.


The first tenet is ethical Individualism. Based on the maxim, “All individuals are of equal and ultimate moral value”, it is the conviction in the supreme importance of the individual over any social group i.e., the individual is an ‘end’ and not a means of the grander goal of the society. It emphasizes the uniqueness and distinctive qualities of every individual. In fact, the human individual forms the nucleus of the ideologies of not only liberalism, but also Anarchism (a far-left ideology), Existentialism and libertarianism (a ‘right-wing’ doctrine on economic issues and ‘left-wing’ philosophy on social issues). Individualist Anarchists value individual freedom principally and regard society as a loose grouping of distinct autonomous individuals. Likewise, Existentialists also stress on the primacy and obligations of the individual, the importance of autonomy and choice to living a meaningful, fulfilling life.


The second tenet is Freedom. It can be described as “a state of absence of constraints”. Freedom and liberty are oft used interchangeably to denote conditions that are vital for the realization of the individual potential. It also refers to the attainment of personal self-sufficiency, while encouraging rationality. ‘Constraints’ to freedom can be identified as political authorities, the society, community or the legal, physical, and ecological restraints. The idea of freedom itself has two dimensions- “Positive liberty or the proclamation that ‘I am my own master’ and Negative liberty or the assertion that ‘I am slave to no man’. For the new Right, it is a negative notion of liberty that stresses on economic freedom or a capitalist model operating on the principle of laisses faire (that insists on free market, healthy competition and wider choices). Conservatives narrowly regard it as the recognition of duties and responsibilities. Socialists generally relate freedom to self-fulfilment through creative labour and cooperative interaction. Feminists reflect it as an emancipation from oppressive patriarchal set-up and gender roles; Black civil rights activists advocate freedom to mean the unleashing of the chains of racist ordeals. Social democrats and Modern liberals treat it as the realization of individual potential. Anarchists regard freedom as an absolute value, believing it to be incompatible with any form of political authority. Ecologists treat freedom as the attainment of oneness, self-realization through the absorption of the personal ego into the ecosphere or universe. Religious fundamentalists see freedom as essentially a divine quality or conformity to the revealed will of God.


The third tenet is Rationality. Rationalism is the belief that the world has a rational edifice, and that this can be revealed through the exercise of reason and critical enquiry. It fosters the quest for enlightenment to free humankind from superstition and ignorance, in order to unleash an ‘age of reason’ by shunning perverse traditions and customs. As such, Liberals deplore violence or aggression and favour resolution of disputes through peaceful discussions and negotiations.


The fourth tenet is justice. The idea of justice comprises giving each person his ‘due’. According to Utilitarians such as John Stuart Mill, ‘Justice is based on the best outcomes for the greatest number of people.’ It thus denotes a particular kind of moral judgment, in particular, about the distribution of rewards and punishment. The liberal theory of justice is based upon a belief in equality of various kinds, i.e., foundational, formal, legal and political equality and equality of opportunity. The Liberals subscribe to the belief that individuals ought to be rewarded in accordance with their merit, aptitude and inclination to work while being enriched with equal opportunities to hone their unequal skills and capabilities. This enforces a belief in ‘Meritocracy’, that underscores rule by the talented and worthy, and challenges the moral limitations posed by coercion or political power. Ambition and legacy therefore, take a back seat.

Toleration and Diversity

The fifth tenet is Toleration and Diversity. The liberal social ethic is characterized by a disposition to embrace and celebrate moral, cultural and political diversity. So, liberalism upholds the idea of pluralism and respect for the multiplicity arising as a result of it. It reinforces the ideal of toleration, which means forbearance or a willingness to let people to think, speak and act in freely irrespective of disapproval. This was expressed by the French writer Voltaire in his declaration that, ‘I detest what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it’. It thus helps retain personal autonomy while socially restraining offensive behaviour of an individual towards fellow human beings. Liberals also believe that though there are competing interests in a society, these inherently balance and complement one another.


Thus, it can be securely ascertained that liberalism is an umbrella ideology, shadowing within its shade various spectrums of philosophies and doctrines- Meritocracy, Rationalism, Individualism, Egalitarianism, Libertarianism, Existentialism, Feminism, Utilitarianism, Secularism, Anarchism, Corporatism, Pluralism, Capitalism, Socialism, Constitutionalism, Xenophilia and Ecologism. The list is never-ending and this is the reason why it is dominantly in prevalence among the more affluent nations. To sum up, “liberalism has made room for right and left, radicals and traditionalists, free-marketers and social democrats: for Hayek and Keynes, Hoover and Roosevelt, Reagan and Kohl, but also for Johnson and Brandt. It is not uniquely American or peculiarly European.”


  1. Andrew Heywood, Political Ideologies: An Introduction (Palgrave Macmillan, U.K., 3rd edition/ 2003).
  2. Alan Wolfe, The Future of Liberalism pp. 18-19 (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2009).
  3. Bova, Russell. “Democracy and Liberty: The Cultural Connection.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 8 no. 1, 1997, p. 112-126. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jod.1997.0016.
  4. Richard Allsop, Liberalism: A Short History 1 ( Ligare, Australia, 2014).
  5. Mark R. Williams, The Story of Spain pp. 160-161 (Santana Books, Malaga, 1990, 2000).
  6. Free market existentialism?, available at:  (last visited on March 16, 2021).
  7. Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958)
  8. Reclaiming liberalism: Liberalism is not dead- its ideals are more important than ever- but it must change radically to survive in the future, available at: (last visited on March 19, 2021).

Tazeen Ahmed is a freshman Law Student at Jamia Millia Islamia from Gurugram, Haryana. She likes to play with words and delve into the reflections of who she truly is. Her appetite is music, poetry, politics and law.

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