Was Liberalism in the 19th century the ideology of vested economic interests?

Submitted Assignment, 2011

5 Pages, Grade: 90


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Economic liberalism in the 19th century
2.1. Liberal proposals
2.2. Other influential thoughts
2.3. Government position

3. Consequences of laissez faire
3.1. Economical impact
3.2. Moral influence

4. Conclusion

5. References

1. Introduction

This report sets out to investigate whether 19th century liberalism was the ideology of vested economic interest.

2. Economic liberalism in the 19th century

2.1. Liberal proposals

The proposals of early liberals constituted an attack not only on the claims of the feudal aristocracy but also on the economic basis of society (Connin, 1990, p.297). They advocated an industrialized and market economic order, which would by free from government interference and free trade between countries (Heywood, 2007, p.24). Liberals believed that free trade would:

- promote economic growth and consumption
- improve the values and ideas of society
- ensure peace.

2.2. Other influential thoughts


One of the major foundations for liberalism was provided by the utilitarianism ideas, which suggested using calculations of the amount of pleasure and pain to establish ‘happiness of greatest number’ (Adams, 1993, p.27). However, utilitarianism has been criticised for using this principle as a moral standard as it may violate the rights of the minority or individuals. This principle was nevertheless used by J. Bentham for a justification of the laissez faire economics (Heywood, 2004, p. 359).

Ricardo and Malthus

The ideas from the leading liberals D. Ricardo and T. Malthus had an enormous effect on the developments in the 19th century.

Ricardo’s theory of ‘iron law of wages’ suggested that workers should be only paid enough to bring them back another day, as this was the only way to secure capital for future production. Even further Malthus concluded that it was prudent, in fact more humane in the long-term, to deny masses more than the bare essentials in order to avoid a potentially dangerous population explosion (Baradat, 2009, p.85).

Social Darwinism

The supporters of laissez faire practices widely employed the liberal view that socioeconomic inequalities was a reflection of unequal merit and abilities, hence they were natural.

Consequently, H. Spencer developed a theory of ‘natural selection’ whereby the people who are best suited by nature to survive will rise while the less fit will fall. These ideas were increasingly affecting social and political theory in the 19th century.

Further, R. Cobden advocated that improvements of the conditions of the working class should come through themselves rather than the law (Heywood, 2007, p.34-51).

2.3. Government position

The laissez faire ideas were in conflict with the economic practice of most governments; hence it took time for these ideas to gain influence. However, they were increasingly supported by governments as a way to strengthen national identities, the prosperity and the power of their nation-state (Helleiner, 2001, p.319-20).

Moreover, the liberal ideas reflected very well the needs of the new class of industrialists and at times when economics were controlled by the arbitrary governments, the idea of pursuing self-interest seemed justified (Baradat, 2009, p. 85). In fact, it was the support of this group that gave more radical liberal ideas a certain respectability (Adams, 1993, p.26-7).

3. Consequences of laissez f aire

3.1. Economical impact

As the industrial revolution spread through the west, it became apparent that free market was not producing the advocated harmonious society; instead there were vast inequalities with many suffering poverty and exploitation (Adams, 1993, p. 37). These circumstances were reinforced by the ideas of the leading liberals as they seemed to justify the inequalities and the increased accumulation of wealth.

Spencer’s ideas were particularly influential in America, leading to what became known as the age of the ‘robber barons’ characterised by exploitation and corrupted politics. Men like J.P. Morgan virtually controlled the American economy and thereby the American government (Sargent, 2009, p.112). Moreover, these theories encouraged the rich to increase their efforts even more. In addition, Malthus’s theory was welcomed by the government as it suggested that poverty resulted from natural sources; hence, political leaders had no responsibility to do anything about these problems (Baradat, 2009, p. 86).

3.2. Moral influence

Consequently, liberalism has been criticised for viewing individuals as mere producers and consumers and not as citizens and members of nations (Helleiner, 2001, p.311). As Neal (1985, p.682-3) suggests, the mechanisms of the free market lead to the development of a particular type of individual character. And while it is not self-evidently a nasty and brutish character type, it is also not necessarily the free and autonomous person advocated by liberals. In fact, capitalist structures are said to encourage egoistical individualism, which was, in fact, promoted by liberals. However, they maintained that such individualism will ultimately lead to general prosperity and well-being (Heywood, 2007, p.45-51). Eccleshall (2003, p.28) also argues that there is little evidence that liberalism in the 19th century was a form of possessive individualism. Nonetheless, liberals feared that free individuals may exploit others if it is to their advantage, which resulted in the request for the ‘rule of law’ (Heywood, 2007, p.36).

Moreover, Helleiner (2001, p.313) argues that many liberals actually considered a peaceful cosmopolitan society to be the main motive for free trade. In addition, Mill also emphasized the cultural benefits of trade (Harlen, 1999, 736).

With regards to an individual’s place in the society, liberals proposed that removal of the arbitrary powers and equality of rights would lead to a free, independent and virtuous citizenry (Eccleshall, 2003, p.28-9). It is even argued that Mill placed more emphasis on human flourishing rather than the rough satisfaction of interests (Heywood, 2007, p.55).

4. Conclusion

The laissez faire capitalism arguably was a central doctrine in the 19th century. In many ways it served to promote the interests of the new class of manufacturers. As Richardson (2001, p.50) argues, 19th century liberalism could be hence regarded as the elitist liberalism of the industrial society.

However, liberalist original intentions were to promote the equality and freedom from the arbitrary powers, which were based on a positivist view of human nature and a vision of virtuous citizens unified by common values. This serves to demonstrate that liberal proposals were not explicitly elitist.


Excerpt out of 5 pages


Was Liberalism in the 19th century the ideology of vested economic interests?
Liverpool John Moores University
Political ideology
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Liberalism, liberals, laissez faire, 19th century
Quote paper
Linda Vuskane (Author), 2011, Was Liberalism in the 19th century the ideology of vested economic interests?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/511292


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