Liberalism is a way of thinking about politics and government. It emphasises the idea of freedom, and believes that the best countries are the ones that are freest. liberals all believe that everyone equally deserves to be free. However, liberals have disagreed about what gives people freedom and what takes it away.
Liberals can be broadly divided into two groups. Classical liberals believe that the main threat to freedom is the government. They believe that politicians are often keen to increase their own power, and that they can easily become tyrants. Classical liberals point to examples such as Nazi Germany, Taliban Afghanistan and North Korea as examples of countries led by tyrants. In these countries, human rights are ignored, lots of people are put in prison and worked to death, and there is no way to vote out the government at an election.
Classical liberals therefore emphasise the importance of democracy and human rights. They believe that countries need clear and strict laws that stop the government from removing the rights of individuals. Often, these rights are protected by a constitution. In some countries, such as the United States, the right to own a gun is protected so that people are always able to overthrow their government if it becomes a tyranny.
Classical liberals often also tend to believe that the government should make few rules about the economy. They often blame economic problems on bad decisions made by the government. They also believe that people have a right to own things, and that overly high taxes ignore this human right.
In contrast, modern liberals believe that the main threat to freedom comes from poverty. They suggest that poverty takes away choices from people, and that this stop them from being able to enjoy being a human. They believe that the Industrial Revolution and economic crises such as the Great Depression significantly reduced freedom. Therefore, they believe that the government should tax rich people to allow it to pay for things for poorer people (such as schools, hospitals and welfare payments). Their goal is to create equality of opportunity, where everyone is able to have an equal chance to be happy. This disagrees with the classical liberal view that the government should not tax people too highly or be closely involved in the economy.
Classical liberals are often members of conservative organisations and so are sometimes considered right-wing. Modern liberals share many similar views with social democrats and are seen as left-wing.
In the old days, kings or queens told people what to do (a form of government called a Monarchy), and there was very little freedom. A few hundred years ago, philosophers such as John Locke, Simón Bolívar, John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham began to write about freedom. Earlier writers, such as Marcus Aurelius, had written about freedom, but this time the idea caught on. The United States of America was the first country to have a constitution which was based on the ideas of John Locke which were similar to those of Mill and Bentham, and which guaranteed certain rights to all citizens, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the right to assemble (get together in groups), the right to bear arms (weapons), and the right to ask their government to take action (right of petition) or to remove from office rulers they did not like (right of referendum).
Liberalism today change
Most of the wealthy countries in the world today are liberal democracies with more or less free trade. An exception to this rule are the oil-rich countries, not all of which are liberal or democratic. Most of the poor countries in the world are dictatorships, with heavy restrictions on trade. China is a poor country which is rapidly becoming rich, and is trying the experiment of combining dictatorship with free trade. Whether it is possible to have the advantages of free trade without other freedoms remains to be seen.
Liberalism around the world change
All liberal governments support free elections, and this idea is defended in the legal systems of many countries. However, many countries have elections, but they are not free. This is because opposition candidates cannot use the mass media to publicize their ideas. This situation leads to long-term stability, and to rule by elite groups or dictators. That situation exists in Russia and almost all the former states of the Soviet Union to the east.
United States change
The government of the United States was created based on a belief in democracy and personal freedom. However the word "liberalism" has taken on a different meaning in modern times. Liberals in the United States still believe in supporting democracy and freedom, but many liberals also support other ideas. While not all liberals agree on everything, most liberals in the United States agree:
- That equal opportunity for all people is a good goal
- That government should provide some level of education and healthcare to all people, even if some taxes have to be increased to achieve this goal
- That richer people should pay more of their income in taxes than poor people
- That liberties and freedoms are very important and should be protected
- Most liberals in the United States believe that peace is at least somewhat important, and that government should work together with other countries and not start as many wars on their own
Liberals in the United States are also sometimes called "Progressives". The biggest liberal political party in the modern United States is the Democratic Party. However, the Green Party is seen to be more 'left', or liberal than the Democrats.
Liberals in Australia have many different ideas about government than liberals in the United States. Most liberals in Australia believe that government should not increase taxes, and would like a government that has lower taxes and less power over the economy. The main liberal political party in Australia is the Liberal Party of Australia. The Liberal Party also believes that government should support traditional values and morals, something which many conservatives believe as well.