Liberalism in the United States and in Europe: what's the difference?

In essence, liberalism is a way of understanding human nature; designed to enable everyone to freely reach prosperity (according to their own potential) in a society that minimizes social conflicts. At the same time, liberalism relies on two key aspects: tolerance and trust in reason.

The beginning of Liberalism

The beginning of Liberalism involved a group of thinkers who lived the peculiarities of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries – a time when the entrepreneurial and autonomous spirit of the bourgeoisie sought alternatives for the relationship between men and society. Then, the bourgeois figure (someone who had his own initiative to achieve goals and launched himself into the world for commerce) was very different from that of an earlier period where men were guided by religious thought.

In this context, many thinkers mobilized to make sense of the changing world, defending the idea that man had all his individuality formed before realizing his existence in society. In this way, the individual established a relationship between his own values and society.

The principles of Liberalism

According to liberalism, the most sensible way for a man to find a balance between self and the social world would be the use reason. In other words, the ability to experience the world around him and thus ponder the most effective and intelligible ways of pursuing his interests – a feature that would be highlighted in those who had a ‘thirst for knowledge’. In society, the use of reason would also assist in building the best institutions and practices.

Apart from constructing a positive image of the individual, this universal trait given to all men conceives an idea of ‘equality’ between everyone. As a liberal principle, only freedom could guarantee the right that man has to act for the use of his own reason. Here lies the central axis of liberalism, which criticizes any acts that promote inequality or deprivation of liberty.

From a political point of view, liberalism demonstrates that a monarchical regime, commanded by the individual wills of a king, cannot effectively guarantee freedom since when the will of the king subjugates the interest of a social group, the Monarchical State impedes the principles of freedom and equality. In contrast, the government should represent the collective interest – which could only function through the democratic path. A liberal standpoint means that laws are a kind of contract, where the social collective negotiates how to establish a government with the aim of maintaining freedom and equality between individuals.

As for economic issues, liberalism defended the right to property and free trade; work as a means to pursue survival and afford the individual the right to possession over anything obtained by his efforts. In this way, private property is seen in liberal thought as a natural right of the man who acts. Also, liberalism proposes that the state shouldn’t in interfere in the economy since this would be both a deprivation of freedom of action as well as a risk to the material prosperity of the nation. Thus, the economy would have the means to balance itself.

The U.S. and European Liberalism Differences

In the face of the economic, political and social crises that hit the world in the first half of the 20th century, the United States and the UK – whose political and economic system is part of the most characteristic model of liberalism, promoted rigorous adjustments in the economy, developing what was called a welfare state.

In the United States, for example, to deal with the economic depression following the collapse of the New York Stock Exchange (1929), President Franklin D. Roosevelt deployed a program known as the New Deal, which made the state economic reactivation of the country.

Therefore, it can be said that from an economic point of view, European liberalism is very different from American liberalism. That is, the American liberal usually takes responsibility from individuals and pass it on to the state – hence the concept of welfare state, which redistributes through fiscal pressures the wealth generated by society.

On the other hand, for European liberals, this is not a primary function of the State, for what is achieved in this way is not a greater degree of social justice, but only generally unbearable levels of corruption, inefficiency, and misuse of public funds, which ultimately impoverishes the population as a whole.

In any case, the thinking of European liberals coincides with that of American liberals in legal matters and in certain social issues. For both European and US liberals, respect for individual guarantees and the defence of constitutionalism are the inalienable achievements of humanity.