Liberalism is a social-political philosophy favoring reason and life. The archenemy of reason and life is violence, so liberalism seeks the peaceful coexistence of men. The name “liberalism” is based on “liberty” which means “freedom” (from violence). Violence (also called “force”) includes bodily harm and related issues: theft, fraud, and threats of violence.
Violence overrules men’s minds by preventing them from acting according to their judgments. You should follow your ideas, and I mine, and we won’t have a conflict as long as our ideas aren’t violent. Violence makes people obey orders. Violence is the tool of slavers, thugs, lords and tyrants. I can share suggestions, and if you agree then it becomes your own judgment, and you’ll act on it – that’s called persuasion. If you disagree with a suggestion, my options are improving my suggestion (or how I communicate it), peacefully leaving you alone, or else violence (changing the suggestion into an order, backed by force). Men use violence when their ideas aren’t powerful enough and they’re intolerant of disagreement with those inadequate ideas.
Fundamentally, there are two related freedoms: to think and to live. The freedom to think is a requirement for a rational world. It gives people the opportunity to think rationally. It means that you can think for yourself, and have your own ideas, without violent suppression. The freedom to live means being free to keep yourself alive, e.g. by hunting and eating. Being free to think and live doesn’t mean you will succeed (nature may put obstacles in your way like storms or diseases) or that anyone has to help you (but you and others are free to cooperate), it just means you won’t be stopped by violence.
The freedom to think and to live combine into a big idea: the freedom to live according to your ideas. Liberalism advocates organizing society to grant this freedom to each individual person.
Both freedoms can be argued for by starting with the other. To think, I must be alive. And what’s the point of thinking if it has no bearing on reality? So if we start with thinking, we’ll want a physical life to go with it. What if we begin with life? Thinking is man’s best tool of survival. Being free to think improves man’s life and helps prevent dying.
All other freedoms are implied by being free to think, to live, and to combine them and live according to your ideas. There are three main requirements for success:
When I live according to my ideas, then my ideas determine how I use my body and property, and how I deal with nature. My fate is then in my own hands, and I have the opportunity to rationally plan and live my life. This means I can improve my life if I think of a way to better deal with nature or to better cooperate with other people.
Violence harms or controls my body or property, which interferes with my ability to live as I think best. So liberalism outlaws initiating violence; only defensive violence is acceptable. Note: there is no such thing as self-violence; you may make a mistake, but being able to act on your own bad ideas is part of your freedom to think for yourself.
What is the purpose of society? Why not live alone on an island? Men can cooperate and help each other. Liberalism says men should only interact voluntarily, and that they can benefit greatly from trade and the division of labor. Voluntary interactions are ones that each person freely chooses because he thinks it’s beneficial.
Freedom of trade (including gift giving) follows from property ownership. If I own a physical object, then it’s mine to do with as I think best – which includes giving ownership to you. I can also trade the services of my body since it’s my body. Trade includes buying and selling (money is a type of property which can be traded for goods or services) and includes hiring people for jobs (trading money for services). Trade allows gaining property without creating it yourself.
Trade benefits people who have different values or situations. I may be short on food right now, or you may have extra, or I may like the taste of a type of food more than you do. Meanwhile, you want a sewing needle more than me because you have more time available to use it, or care more about holes in clothes, or you’re more skilled with it. So I can trade something you value more than me (a sewing needle) for something I value more than you (food). Then we can both come out ahead. Trade is beneficial due to diversity; if we were all identical in every way then we wouldn’t trade.
Trade benefits people due to division of labor (letting people specialize): I learn to make shoes well, you learn to grow corn well, and we trade shoes for corn. I get better at making shoes because I can focus on it instead of also learning to grow corn and acquiring the land and tools needed for corn growing. The division of labor is intellectual (I can focus my learning on my specialization) and material (I only need the tools and land for my specialization). Not everyone has to learn to do everything and get the tools for it, which makes society far more productive than individuals alone on islands.
Trade is only voluntary. If either person doesn’t want to trade, then no trade takes place. It takes violence to make someone trade when he doesn’t want to – but that’s theft, not trade. So all trade is beneficial to everyone involved, in their own opinion (or else they wouldn’t trade). Liberalism tells men: either voluntarily cooperate (trading, discussing, or other interactions) or else voluntarily leave each other alone, but never use violence. Liberalism recognizes voluntary action as action controlled by a man’s best judgment, instead of by violence. Thus, voluntary action is necessary for reason to be used – it gives men the opportunity for rational judgement. Liberals pay more attention to what is voluntary than other people do because liberals see how voluntary action relates to reason, in addition to especially hating violence.
Trade works by voluntary agreement. To avoid misunderstandings, complicated or valuable trades are written down. A written agreement is called a contract. Liberalism advocates freedom to make contracts. Contracts have to be binding for much trade to happen. You can’t just back out at a whim, especially not after you’ve already gotten a good or service from me. You’re not a slave who must obey a contract, but if you want to cancel a contract then you’re responsible for limiting the harm from your mistake (you made a mistake by agreeing to the contract, and that harms the other person who made plans relying on the goods or services you agreed to provide). What to do about cancelling a contract can be written in the contract itself, but when it’s not, or there’s a dispute, then the law should decide the outcome (via courts or arbiters). For small issues, it’s usually not a big deal (stores will usually just give you a refund), but for larger issues - e.g. an employer who doesn’t pay you for the last two weeks – enforcement is needed. Contracts (and their enforcement) especially matter for enabling trade involving different times (e.g. I buy fire insurance, and pay now, and the insurance company needs to actually be bound to follow the contract in the future if my home burns down).
Living in society (around many other people) has two main benefits – trade and sharing ideas – and one main risk – violence. Trade (and the division of labor that it enables) is what allows for material prosperity above the hunter gatherer or subsistence farmer. And sharing ideas helps men have better ideas. But what can be done about the risk of violence?
Government is (or at least should be) the institution which defends men from violence (including from breach of contract without proper compensation). Government makes large societies work by addressing the main risk of society (violence). So government helps us get benefits of society (trade and sharing ideas).
The government uses defensive violence. Violence is dangerous, so anything that’s good at using violence needs to be designed carefully. So liberalism advocates limited government, which follows written laws that give equal treatment to all individuals and groups. The goal is to avoid oppression (the government is uniquely positioned to violently oppress people because it controls the police and military). So the powers of government should be limited to the minimum: defensive actions and running the government (like administration, tax collection and elections). The government shouldn’t do anything extra, which doesn’t require government, so that we can reduce the risk of inappropriate government violence. Mistakes by the government are more important to avoid than most mistakes, because the government is powerful and in a position where it could violently oppress people. Being careful about government mistakes is why our legal appeals process is much more robust than talking to customer service to try to get a problem addressed with a business. (Legal appeals aren’t always user friendly, but they’re good at ensuring everyone gets due process.)
Government leaders should be bound by rules, rather than having arbitrary power over others. And there should be checks and balances so that a couple bad government workers can’t do much harm before another part of government vetoes what’s being done. People aren’t perfect, so arbitrary power leads to mistakes and oppression; limited power is a better approach.
The worst thing the government can do is be an intellectual authority and command men about what to think; all men should be free to think for themselves (and to voluntarily take advice). The rules limiting the government should give men the opportunity to do their best to be rational, control their lives (including their thoughts, bodies and property), and live in peace. Because government is an authority in regard to the use of violence, it should stay very far away from being an authority about what to think, in order to best keep violence separate from ideas. (That means government shouldn’t have any involvement with education.)
Specific freedoms advocated by liberalism, which the government should never interfere with, include freedom of conscience, inquiry, speech, press, religion, body (e.g. food, drug and sex choices, and suicide), privacy, association, assembly, petition, travel, defense, contract, production and trade. These are all things people can do which, if everyone involved wants to do it, could only be prevented by violence. These freedoms are sometimes limited by more fundamental principles (like controlling one’s body and property according to one’s ideas). For example, a traveller may be kept out (denied free travel) because he has a contagious disease (which threatens people’s bodies), and my religion is not free to perform a human sacrifice on you nor to burn your property as a gift to my gods.
Liberalism advocates democratic government because it can provide ongoing peace. Voting is a non-violent way to make decisions about society (just the relatively few decisions that are compatible with individual freedom) and to correct the government’s mistakes (elect new people with better policies). And government needs the consent of the governed to prevent a violent revolution. A minority government, which acts against the ideas of its citizens, will not be tolerated unless men fear it (due to violent oppression), because it’s preventing them from controlling their lives according to their own ideas. But unlimited majority rule must be avoided, because the majority could oppress minority groups and create conflict between favored and disfavored groups. Rather than arbitrary power, the majority should only have the limited power of controlling a limited government which treats men equally and only uses violence defensively, and leaves men free to control their own lives (including property).
Liberalism advocates equality (of how men are treated by the laws and by the organizing principles of society) in order to maintain peace. If some groups have special legal privileges, there will be ongoing conflicts over who gets to be privileged and who gets a legally disadvantaged life. In an unequal society, the conflicts will escalate to violence if nothing is done. Liberalism does not advocate that all men somehow be made equally smart, strong, wealthy or successful; liberalism doesn’t reject diversity.
To maintain peace, government and individuals should be tolerant. I’m free to live my life (according to my ideas, and including controlling my property), and you’re free to live your life, even if I disagree with your lifestyle. Men will always judge some things as good and some as bad – that’s part of making decisions in their own lives. The important thing is not to use violence to make your neighbor live according to your ideas. Men must give up controlling other people, and just aim to control themselves and to control nature. If you want someone to act differently, persuade him if you can, or else tolerate him: leave him alone and be satisfied that he leaves you alone. Everyone is individually better off preferring peaceful coexistence over violent struggles, and that’s also better for society as a group.
Ongoing peace (non-violence) is required for the division of labor to create material prosperity. During wartime, I lose access to my trading partners that are on the other side of the war. Therefore, unless I think war (with a particular group) is unlikely, I must remain self-sufficient and not rely on trade (with that group). Liberalism seeks world peace on humanitarian grounds and also so that the division of labor can be global and thereby bring greater material prosperity to all. Liberal governments don’t start wars; they think reason and trade are superior. But they will fight defensive wars if necessary.
In a liberal society, men’s interests are in harmony, not in conflict. That means everyone can win, rather than some people having to lose. It means people can work together instead of working against each other. It means no one has to be sacrificed or victimized. Everyone can succeed without violently oppressing anyone else.
Every individual’s interest is that all men be free to live according to their own ideas. That’s also in the interest of each group of men. That doesn’t allow violent aggression, which would prevent some people from living according to their ideas.
Free men produce more, because they know they can keep it and because they can specialize in a profession. They benefit from trade and the division of labor. Free men also think more, because ideas are more useful when you’re free to use them (including to increase business profits). Sharing and discussing ideas, instead of censorship, makes a free society richer in knowledge as well as in material wealth.
The alternative to freedom is slavery. To reject other men’s freedom means to desire to enslave them, partially or fully. Each action a man takes either follows his own ideas or someone else’s ideas. Being forced to act against your own judgment means being a slave to the man controlling your actions. If only a few actions are controlled, instead of your whole life, that’s partial slavery.
The key issue is whether an action is voluntary or forced. It’s not slavery to choose to do what your boss wants, even though you disagree with him. You have a reason for doing that (to get paid); you aren’t being forced, and violence isn’t involved. Doing your job is an idea you have which you see the advantages of following. Similarly, people often voluntarily go along with the idea of a friend, teacher or family member that they disagree with because they want to get along with them or be helpful. People also voluntarily follow the advice of a doctor even though they don’t really understand or like it, because their own judgement says the doctor is a legitimate expert advising them about a real medical risk, not a charlatan.
Violence is used to force people to do what they wouldn’t do voluntarily, e.g. hand over their wallet. This is partial enslavement. This applies even without violence against a human body, such as with stealing. Thieves harm people’s ability to live according to their own ideas. A thief forcibly substitutes his own idea (“I will take that necklace, you’ll never use it again.”) for the idea of the owner (“I will keep this necklace and wear it at the party next week.”). The result is the same as with the slave master who orders, “Give me that necklace or I’ll whip you and then grab it.”
A free society is better for everyone than a slave society. Partial slavery makes things worse, too. And even the ruler of a slave society or criminal gang would be better off being a productive, cooperative member of a free society. Life is better when it’s not adversarial and one doesn’t have enemies. And being even a partial slaver is dehumanizing and alienates you from the values you should be striving for in life – reason, justice, production, happiness.
If the government doesn’t act as a slave master at all, then men need not fight for control over the government, because it isn’t a threat to them. That means the government doesn’t use force to give special privileges and favors to some groups at the expense of others. Nor does the government meddle in people’s lives and tell them how to live. A liberal government doesn’t harm or threaten foreigners either (e.g. by taxing exports or imports, which reduces the standard of living of foreigners by interfering with their buying or selling), so they have no rational reason to make war on it.
Liberalism is the philosophy of reason, freedom, peace, tolerance, property, cooperation, trade and contract. It advocates limited, defensive, democratic government, equal treatment of all groups, and only voluntary interaction. When men don’t see an opportunity for mutual benefit, they should leave each other alone instead of using violence.
Historically, liberalism has been developed by advocates of reason and economists, and it has advocated reforms to end slavery, serfdom, tyranny, oppression, inequality, special privileges and trade barriers. Liberal ideas are the source of the wealth of modern civilization, which now makes the common worker far better off, materially, than the kings of old.
Liberalism designs society so there are no conflicts between men’s interests where violence would be benefit anyone, so that peace is best for everyone. Peace and freedom (including property) allow for the advance of material civilization, which gives men better lives, including more time to think and to pursue happiness.