What is Liberalism?
Liberalism, as the name implies, is the fundamental belief in a political ideal where individuals
are free to pursue their own goals in their own ways provided they do not infringe on the equal
liberty of others. But what are the basic principles of liberalism and liberal democracy exactly?
Firstly, there is a commitment to fundamental human rights. Human rights are rights that the
individual deserves to enjoy as a human being and member of a society. They protect the indi-
vidual as well as the freedom and dignity of that individual. Respect for human rights is essen-
tial to social stability and peace while human rights abuses breed resentment, hatred and un-
Fundamental human rights, for example, are the right to human dignity, life, freedom from slav-
ery, freedom of religion, freedom of belief, freedom of expression, freedom of association and so
The right to freedom from slavery is an absolute right that cannot be limited. But what about
freedom of expression? A famous example of a limitation here is that one cannot allow people
to shout "fire" in a crowded theatre when there is no fire. Doing so would cause a panic and
people would get hurt trying to get out. However, liberals are usually very much against limiting
freedom of expression, or censorship, because it is often used by governments to suppress peo-
ple and views that differ from what the government wants people to believe or say.
Of particular importance among the fundamental human rights is the right to equality. As with
other fundamental rights, there is debate about what exactly equality means. All liberals will
agree that equality means there can be no discrimination. In a court of law, for example, there
can be no discrimination on the grounds of race (black or white) or gender (male or female) or
religion (Christian or Muslim). There are still places where, for example, what a woman has to
say in a court counts only half as much as what a man has to say. This is clearly unequal treat-
But does equality also mean that everyone must get the same salary or live in the same kind of
house? Liberals will say 'no', but will demand that all people must have the same opportunities
to improve their lives - therefore liberals the emphasize to improving education for all. Liberals,
in short, believe in equality before the law and equality of opportunity.
Rule of Law
Without the rule of law, constitutions and laws are meaningless. The most basic idea underlying
the principle of rule of law is that law is supreme. It is law that rules and nothing else. In a lib-
eral democratic society, law is made through the joint decision of democratically elected repre-
sentatives of the people, not by the arbitrary decision of any single individual or group that
happens to possess power.
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As such rule of law imposes order. You can only be punished if you break the law. Law must
apply equally to all (equality under the law). If it doesn’t, law itself is arbitrary – which would
contradict the principle of rule of law. Rule of law also requires enforcement of the law.
Not just the citizens, but government, officials, lawmakers must abide by the law. A key aspect
of rule of law is the limitation of power so that even a democratically elected official or leader
cannot abuse his/her power without facing a possible prosecution or imprisonment. Rule of law
ensures such limitation of power through a required separation of executive, legislative and
judiciary powers. As a result, judicial independence is possible.
Beyond equal enforcement of the law, rule of law also protects minorities against discrimination
and prevents preferential treatment for certain individuals or groups. When everyone is treated
equally under the law, there cannot be any special favour or discrimination imposed through
Rule of law, also termed “government under law”, cannot exist in tyrannies or in totalitarian
states because they do not allow equality under the law and judicial independence.
The basis for these liberal beliefs is the importance liberals attach to the individual and his/her
rights and responsibilities. Every single person is important. Liberals believe that people must
decide for themselves and not be told what to do all the time. They must be free to lead the life
they want to lead, provided that in doing so they do not limit someone else's freedom. In other
words, your right to swing your arms freely stops where you start hitting someone.
This belief in individual liberty underlies all the other principles listed already. In addition, liber-
alism demands tolerance of various opinions and, most difficult of all, of opinions that are dif-
ferent from our own. A famous writer once said: "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend
to the death your right to say it."
Liberals take the idea of individual freedom and individual rights also into the area of econom-
ics. In fact, historically speaking, the concept of property rights was the very basis of individual
freedom and individual rights.
Firstly, there is the principle that people can own property. At its most basic, this means that
each person owns him or herself and therefore cannot be owned by someone else, that is, no
one can be a slave. Such a free person can own other property: clothes, books, furniture, land,
houses, cars and even ideas, so-called intellectual property.
Secondly, owners of property must also be able to come together peacefully and sell their prop-
erty and buy other people's property freely. This is only possible in an economically free envi-
Economic freedom consists of a number of ingredients, the most important being personal
choice, voluntary exchange, freedom to enter and compete in markets and protection of people
and property from aggression by others.
With economic freedom, consumers can choose what they consider the best for themselves
while individuals are free to set up businesses or engage in lawful international trade and com-
panies are free to compete in a fair manner.
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When people are free and free markets exist, everyone benefits. The overall effect is an increase
in wealth and well-being. Empirical studies show that the wealthiest countries are countries
with high levels of economic freedom while the poorest states are usually those with little or no
economic freedom. They also show a positive correlation in which countries with higher levels of
economic freedom enjoy higher employment rates.
Governments can reduce economic freedom through high taxation and regulation which narrow
the scope for individual choice and voluntary exchange. They can also undermine economic
freedom by limiting entry into certain occupations and business activities.
On the contrary, a state that pursues a liberal market policy that favours economic freedom will
try to keep barriers to local and international trade such as duties and tariffs at the minimum or
even at zero percent where appropriate. It also treats citizens equally when it comes to trade
benefits and economic opportunities.
Eventually, economic freedom and market economy benefit not only traders and corporations
but also consumers. In a free market environment, producers or suppliers have to compete on
quality, price and service to win customers who have the freedom to choose from a wide variety
Governments can improve economic freedom by
Establishing legal structures that provide for the even-handed enforcement of contracts
and the protection of individuals and their property against violence, coercion and fraud.
Allowing citizens access to sound money
Refraining from activities that interfere with personal choice, voluntary exchange and
the freedom of individuals and businesses to compete.
Economies with a high level of economic freedom are called market economies.
Strictly speaking, democracy is not one of liberalism's core values, but adding them up, liberal
democracy becomes the only political system under which these values can really exist. The
term is essentially the combination between liberalism and democracy. At the core of liberalism
is individual freedom and protection of that freedom. Democracy alone simply means majority
rule, which in practice can mean tyranny by a majority. As such, a majority could pass laws that
puts ethic minorities at disadvantage.
In a liberal democracy, there are safeguards to protect minorities through a constitutional pro-
cedure and due democratic process. This means that when it comes to passing a bill, special
provisions that exist for minorities must be considered. The majority cannot pass a law that
benefist them but that will infringe on the rights of minorities. If they do, the latter can, for
instance, appeal to the constitutional court.
A liberal democracy observes the rule of law, which limits the power of the state and ensures
judicial independence. It employs a system of constitutional checks and balances to enable pub-
lic scrutiny of government actions and to ensure that a government does not have absolute
power to do whatever it pleases.
A liberal democracy prizes pluralism and tolerance. It sees dissent and disagreement as being
normal and even as something positive. A majority might be right or wrong. If it is wrong, it is
the process of open discussion and debate between people of different convictions and opinions
that can put things right. Without discussion, there is no way to find out what people want and
what better solutions there might be.
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