. Based on the Latin word liber, meaning “free,” liberalism is a political point of view opposed to any system that threatens the freedom of the individual and prevents him from realizing his full human potential. Liberalism has flourished in Western society since the 18th century, but its history may be divided into two markedly distinct periods the classical and the modern.
Classical liberalism had its roots in the revolt of the growing middle classes against government control of the economy. In the late Middle Ages and the early modern period, governments played a decisive role in expanding and controlling commerce and industry. This practice, commonly called mercantilism, was felt by many to inhibit rather than enhance economic growth. The opposition to mercantilism found its greatest expression in philosopher and economist Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’. This book promoted the ideal of a free-market economy that would operate without government interference. Formulations of liberal theory thus had as their basis Thomas Jefferson’s notion that the government is best that governs least. The goal of liberals was to find ways to control excessive government power and to limit government to its primary purposes of providing for the common defense, preserving domestic tranquility, and guaranteeing the rights of private property and the obligations of contract.
During the late 18th and the 19th centuries, liberals did succeed, through various means, in limiting the powers of government. (The separation of powers, as delineated in the United States Constitution, is a clear example of the operation of classical liberalism.) What liberals did not foresee was that while governments became incapable of controlling economies, they were thereby also unable to prevent great economic power from concentrating in the hands of a few people who could be as despotic in their own way as any authoritarian government. The situation soon became an unhappy reversal: formerly, governments had exercised control over the economy, but by the late 19th century economic power was beginning to exercise control over governments.
Slowly, in the late 19th century and the early decades of the 20th, the liberal theories that had been formulated by Adam Smith and other social theorists, such as John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill, began to yield to the view that government should use its power to intervene in the economy for the general welfare of all citizens.
The goals of modern liberalism have therefore shifted dramatically from those of classical liberalism. They may be summed up in the notion that the powers of government are to be used to achieve a redistribution of political and economic power in society. In the United States, such liberal goals were first spelled out in detail in the Progressive party platform, and many of them were incorporated into the New Deal programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the 1930s. These programs involved a variety of social and labor legislation designed to benefit nearly all segments of the population. Such programs have become a part of most Western countries and Japan; and since World War II many of the nations emerging from colonialism have imitated them. Past regimes of the former Soviet Union and several Eastern European nations adopted a broad range of social welfare programs in the name of socialism.