I think a lot of the debaters in this debate forum are overly harsh towards liberalism or liberalism. In a lot of ways liberalism is the predecessor of Socialism, and a worthy predecessor in my opinion. Encarta 95 defines liberalism as follows:
'Liberalism, attitude, philosophy, or movement that has as its basic concern the development of personal freedom and social progress. Liberalism and democracy are now usually thought to have common aims, but in the past many liberals considered democracy unhealthy because it encouraged mass participation in politics. Nevertheless, liberalism eventually became identified with movements to change the social order through the further extension of democracy.'
Personal freedom and social progress? At first spectacle about mass participation in politics and then enthusiastic about expanding democracy? Surely this is Socialism?
What a lot of people who are vehemently hostile toward liberalism miss is that it was a movement conceived in genuine humanism, hostile to the control of the privileged and powerful of their day and, as Socialists would later, envisaged a Classless Society.
In post-medieval European culture liberalism was the first expressed in humanism, which redirected thinking in the 15th century from the consideration of the divine order of the world and its reflections in the temporal social order to the conditions and potentialities of people on earth. The feudal class structure with it's views of status, prestige and elitism was no longer secure, the notion that 'the rich man in his castle, the poor man at the gate, the lord God made them all and ordered their estate' was no longer considered rational. Humanism was furthered by the invention of printing, which increased access of individuals to the classics of antiquity and while the majority of the population was semi or totally illiterate people like Tom Paine successfully carried over the new popular rationalism into society.
As social transformation continued, the objectives and concerns of liberalism changed. It retained, however, a humanist social philosophy that sought to enlarge personal, social, political, and economic opportunities for self-expression by removing obstacles to individual choice, a tendency that Socialism developed and adopted.
There can be no question as to whether or not liberalism was initially a revolutionary as opposed to pragmatic social movement, all we have to consider is the record of French Revolution or the American War of Independence and while in both instances the leaders of the revolution faltered in order to defend their interests, in France allowing the rise of bonapartism and in America failing to establish a federal republic, the rank and file where very definite about what they thought their revolutionary movements would achieve. In some instances the leaders where so enthused by the efforts of the people at large that they invented theories that incorporated such actions as the foundations of freedom, such as, Jean Jacques Rousseau's 'General Will' or the legislation of the Jacobins.
Now it may cause some dissension to assert that the liberals, even in their marketer original incarnation, where in favour of a classless society but consider the views of the architect of the market Adam Smith:
'No society can surely be flourishing and happy of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable' (Wealth of Nations, 1, 8)
So how can the architect of market Capitalism, without much effort, at once be interpreted as the architect, even unintentionally, of a theory of Class War? The fact is that for the early liberals confronted with the feudal order and it's defining characteristics of inequality and the tyranny of privileged elites and the church constructed an economic theory that was supposed to put paid to such divisions etc. they where pre-capitalist dissidents and I am convinced individual freedom (and freedom can be understood in no other way because no matter how great mankind's capacity for 'sympathetic' suffering or sacrifice and natural sociability these wax and wane and eventually perish when confronted long enough buy the dungeon deep or scaffold high) and humanism meant enough to these people that they would not have vehemently defended political economy to the expense of either.
Modern Liberals took this into account and reconciled their views with that of moderate socialists and workers organisations, Encarta states:
'Thomas Hill Green and Bernard Bosanquet, known as the "Oxford Idealists," devised a so-called organic liberalism designed to "hinder hindrances to the good life." Green and Bosanquet advocated positive state action to promote self-fulfillment, that is, to prevent economic monopoly, abolish poverty, and secure people against the disabilities of sickness, unemployment, and old age. They came also to identify liberalism with the extension of democracy.'
Keynes was a liberal and the liberal Hobson, though he later became a moderate socialist because his humanist conviction was so strong so he may not qualify as a liberal, wrote an insightful work 'imperialism' which influenced Lenin, when he was in one of his more intellectual and less self-important moods. However the tendency towards Socialist Liberalism or Libertarian Socialism began as early as J.S. Mill when he stated in considering political economy and socialism that he considered the social problem of the future to be how to combine the greatest individual freedom with common ownership of natural resources and the collective benefits of labour. In Mill's case being married to a Socialist may have had an influence upon him. Although this shift of positions represents in my view an honourable adherence to principle and conviction for a lot of people it represents an unprecedented pragmatism, that is why some people see fit to use the term liberal as an insult regardless of the gross injustice to liberalism it involves.
So let us consider the neo-liberals and their ancestry, Herbert Spencer, these people consider individualism as a purely hedonistic affair, economic efficiency is more important than individual freedom because this efficiency will provide an avenue for at least some individuals to satisfy their hedonistic impulses, political economy is faultless and the most important thing in the world. It is a very sorrowful state of affairs indeed that the once great and decent legacy of individual freedom, and consequently social freedom because society is an aggregate of individuals, and humanism has been so treacherously betrayed.
The liberals of the past who wrote in a horrified and angry fashion against the capacity of the state, church and authoritarian individuals to immiserate individuals and the incapacity of the state to provide happiness for all would be surprised or, I hope, angered that their legacy has been exploited by people who selfishly have compared the modern day taxman to the later day executioners and tormentors.