Historical Theories: Liberalism

Figure 1.--One of the great historical images of the human quest for liberty illustrating the liberal theory of hitory is this photograph from the Chinese Communist suppression of the democracy movement at Tiananmen Square in Beijing (June 1989). To our knowledge the individual was never identified. We are sure that the state security forces identified him. It is not known what happened to him after his arrest. History has rather forgotten this young man, but we want to make sure his bravery continues to be recognized. One of the huge questions concerning China is if free market reforms will eventually result in politiical liberalization.

Classical liberalism is the political and social philosophy advocating individual freedom and liberty, representational forms of government, free market economies, progress and reform, along with the guarantee of civil liberties, especially freedom of expression. The visual expression of liberalism was the Statue of Liberty donated by the French people to America. It should be noted that it was not the Statue of Equality standing in New York harbor by Ellis Island, but of Liberty. At the time, France and America were the only republics of any importance. Most of the rest of the world was governed by monarchies, including absolutionist monarchies. Some modern historians have proposed a liberal thory of history. There are three basic assumptions that underline this theory. First, democracies tend to conduct peaceful relations, at least in their affairs with other democracies. Here we are speaking of true demicracies, not just countries which hold elections, but countries with constitutional rule and civil liberties. Second, countries around the world have begun to adopt the the key attributes of a successful economy, free markers and social stability. The changes in countries that after a extended period of socialism and state planning attempting market reforms (Brazil, China, and India) have been stunning. Curiously the countries that first adopted free markets (Europe and North America) are today shifting back toward state controls, commonly in the name of promoting equality. Third, countries with market economies over time tend to become political democracies. This is not imutable, but does appear to be a general tendency. [Mandelbaum] This is the hope in the modern world, that free markets, or at least market reforms, in Russia and China will drive both countries toward political democracy. China today is not a democracy, but it is a very different country than it was in the 1980s. The same is true of Russia. The differencde between the two countries is the fact Russia can avoid economic reforms because they can finance gthe state with natural resource (especially oil) exports. Of course, free markets are not without their problems. Some wonder if the economic difficulties that have been encountered in the 2000s have invalidated this theory. Some also sight declining popularity of democratic governments in some countries. One interesting factor, however, is that unlike the 1930s, there are really no competing systems to liberal democracy and free markets. First fascism and now Communism have been throughly descredited. One historian has postulated another complication, the conflict in the shift from nation states to civilizations. [Huntington] One notable shift in liberal thought is that the focus of 19th century liberalism was to end restrictive governmental controls and move toward laissez-faire economics. Modern liberals in the name of equality have sought to expand government to promote equality by fiat. This has been reflected in a shift from a focus on equality of oppotunity to equality of outcome. There seems to be little or no recognition by modern liberals that in by insisting on equality of outcome you are underming the engine of the free market is the central engine for creating prosperous and growing economies.


Huntington. Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations.

Mandelbaum, Michael. The Ideas that Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy, and Free Markets in the 21st Century.


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Created: 6:38 AM 11/29/2013
Last updated: 4:36 PM 11/29/2013