Although liberalism is usually seen as the dominant ideology of the Western democracies, with its roots in Enlightenment thought, there are many variations and hybrids of its doctrines. Nevertheless it is clear what liberalism is opposed to: namely, political absolutism in all its forms, be they monarchist, feudal, military, clerical, or communitarian. In this opposition it attempts to ensure that individuals and groups can resist any authoritarian demands. In practice, this has most commonly meant a split between (on the one hand) a public world and a private world where rights are defined, the most common of which are to private property, and (on the other) the free exercise of religion, speech, and association.
Classical liberalism is usually identified with the philosophies of John Locke, David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill (all of whom have separate entries in this dictionary). These writers emphasize social contract theory, a world where human beings are guided by enlightened self-interest, rationality, and free choice, and argue for the minimum intervention of the state in the lives of individuals. It is strongly associated both with economic doctrines of laissez-faire (as in the writings of Adam Smith ), and with constitutional guarantees and representative democracies, in which all citizens are held to hold inalienable rights to certain freedoms-such as the right to life, to property, to free speech, association, and religion, along with the right to have some say in the running of the country (usually the right to vote).
The philosophy of liberalism has been attacked for creating a world of ‘possessive individualism’ (, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, 1962). Among sociologists, the key objection has centred upon its (presumed) beliefs in the individual autonomous self, and in the possibility of neutral rules. Both arguments are asocial-assuming the existence of individuals and abstract rules without a society that shapes them. However these sorts of criticisms are often directed at a mere caricature of a particular liberalism. In fact, many liberals recognize the profoundly social nature of its claims, as can be seen, for example, in Susan Moller Okin's Justice, Gender and the Family (1989).
There are many debates and strands of divergent thought from the above simple outlines. Some liberals place much more emphasis on economic freedoms but wish for wider government intervention in the moral life (the political philosophies of Prime Minister Thatcher and President Reagan are often described in these terms). Others stress minimum state intervention in all spheres-a position often identified as libertarianism . Probably the most celebrated contemporary liberal is the philosopher John Rawls, whose book A Theory of Justice (1972) provides an original, formal theory of social contract, in which he aims to provide a moral basis for the just society by conceiving of a contract in which the rights and obligations of citizens would be laid down before they knew of their own social position and lacked knowledge of others'. It is a theory used to good effect in some sociological writings (such as W. G. Runciman's Social Justice and Relative Deprivation, 1966). Others who are critical of classical liberalism actually help refine it. Benjamin Barber criticizes ‘thin liberalism’-which aims only at representation-in favour of ‘strong democracy’ in which participation is much more central (see Strong Democracy, 1984). Michael Walzer advocates a democracy that can be balanced out over different spheres of social life (see Spheres of Justice, 1983). Still others have advocated a feminist liberalism which places the injustices of the family at the centre of the analysis (for example Susan Moller Okin).
It seemed at the end of the 1980s, with many of the other political ‘isms’ of the twentieth century in apparently dire health, that new versions of liberalism were likely once again to dominate the agenda of Western political thinking (see, Liberalism and the Moral Life, 1989). See also justice, social ; Mont Pelerin Society, The.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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