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  • Writer's pictureChuka Nwanazia

The Origins of Liberalism and its Influence on the Netherlands

Liberalism in the Netherlands

Recently, there's this habit people have of calling everyone on the "left" a liberal. It's something a lot of conservatives and right-wing politicians (and their followers) do and some have even coined the word 'libtard' as a way of degradingly referring to liberals. The problem here is that most of these people have no idea what liberalism is all about.

Political ideas do not arise in a vacuum, but are the result of reflection on social circumstances. There are several thinkers who have played a decisive and important role in the development of liberalism. Their insights are still studied and respected today, centuries after their deaths. The main reason why people still listen to their voice of reason is because many of the problems they spoke out against, still plague the citizens of many countries today. While a lot of these social problems can no longer be found in the Netherlands, Dutch liberals are still playing a vital role in solving the issues that affect the country today. The Netherlands has a reputation for being a liberal country and her liberals lead in the fight against gender inequality, racism and discrimination, the fight against climate change, closing the gap between the rich and the poor and holding corporations responsible for unsustainable methods of production.

So what is liberalism? And how did it come to the Netherlands?

Liberalism is a moral and political philosophy based on equality and liberty.

The name 'liberals' was first used by a political group in Spain (liberales), which in 1814 wanted to restore the constitution of 1812 (the constitution of Cadiz). In every country in the world, liberalism has had its own development, with different forms of state design, which, however, all have the main characteristics or the main ideas of liberalism: parliamentary democracy, the equality of all citizens before the law, the guarantee of fundamental rights (freedom of religion, press, association, assembly, the right of the individual etc.) and the rule of law.

The Rise of Liberalism

John Locke

Liberalism arose in the early 17th century in response to the English King's oppression of his subjects. John Lilburne was one of the first and most persistent writers of pamphlets in which the value of individual rights was clearly emphasised. Along with his ardent supporters, known as 'Levellers', he influenced John Locke who would go on to become one of the most widely read and most respected fathers of modern day liberalism. His most important insight, and in that time quite radical, was that a government is morally obliged to take care of its subjects, through the protection of their lives, freedom and properties. Locke felt that the power of the government should be limited, among other things by introducing a set of laws that everyone, including the government must adhere to. These ideas were so radical that his books could not even be published in Holland (which was one of the most liberal countries with freedom of press back then)!

Other topics Locke also wrote on included; the 'separation of legislative and executive power', the 'right to demonstration' and the right to 'private property'. He strongly felt that these three concepts were important for liberalism. His line of thought was greatly influenced by men like David Hume, Adam Smith and other writers of the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment. During the Scottish Enlightenment enormous progress was made in many fields, such as science, culture, literature and (moral) philosophy. Under the influence of Adam Smith, the economy flourished. The influence of the Scottish Enlightenment extended to the founders of the United States of America, the French Revolution and many other liberal thinkers in Europe.

John Locke insisted that in a monarchy, the King would always abuse his power and as a result, the monarchy was not a system that could work for the benefit of the common people. He suggested dividing power into legislative and executive branches and that the populace must always have a say in the legislative arm of government. Montesquieu would later extend this principle even further by introducing a judicial power in addition to the legislative and executive powers. Locke also formed a second theory about the organisation of the state. He stated that the government's main task is to protect the rights of its citizens and if the legislature acts contrary to the interests of the people, the people must always have the right to replace it. When Locke speaks of people he simply meant the populace. He was of the opinion that if the people are allowed to elect the legislative arm of government, there will be no anarchy in the country. After all, anarchy is something that is already there because the state abuses its power. It is precisely by replacing that power that the problem of anarchy is solved.

Liberalism after the French Revolution

Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite - French Revolution

In 1984 Anthony Arblaster published his book 'The rise and decline of Western Liberalism'. In it, he states that the French revolution was 'the climax of liberalism'. Of course, classical liberal freedom rights are the result of ideas conceived by philosophers like Locke but many liberals were not happy with the course of the revolution. Some French philosophers were shocked with how far the people went when the revolution broke out. The internal contradictions in the slogan 'freedom, equality and fraternity' were also received with suspicion. At the beginning of the 19th century more liberal-minded thinkers fuelled the liberal line of thought with thought-provoking speeches and writings. An important point was the further elaboration of economic policy, such as the introduction of free trade. Some of these prominent English thinkers were writers such as David Ricardo, Richard Cobden and John Bright. In France, this included Benjamin Constant, Jean-Baptiste Say and Frederique Bastiat.

In the mid-19th century true liberalism came under threat. Social conditions started to deteriorate, especially due to the Industrial Revolution, which went hand in hand with the growth of many popular cities in the world. In response to this, competing ideologies such as Socialism and Marxism arose. However, liberal ideas were strong enough to solve a lot of issues, as can be seen in the books by Alexis de Tocqueville and parts of the work of John Stuart Mill and Lord Acton. At the same time, we see liberalism not just play an important role in changing the social conditions of the common people but also undergo some changes of its own. At the beginning of the 19th century, liberals (who were mostly men) never cared for the rights of women and did next to nothing to help fight for those rights, especially the right to vote and be voted for. It was clear, that liberalism needed to undergo some changes. After all, freedom to a dignified life shouldn't be something that only men and the wealthy should get to enjoy.

From the end of the 19th century we see the rise of the Austrian School of thought in the liberal movement. This can be seen in the work of Carl Menger and Ludwig von Mises. Nobel laureate Friedrich von Hayek (1899 - 1992) also belonged to this School, even though he taught for most of his life in London and Chicago. Hayek is considered one of the most important 20th century liberals and his influence can still be seen today. In the United States, writers such as Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard and James Buchanan are also popular classic liberals. After World War II, classical liberal thought was spread all over the world, making its way to Asia and Latin America.

In Belgium, where liberalism was already popular among the followers of Jan-Frans Vonck, the movement had a full break through during the reign of William I. The revolution of 1830 led to the constitution of 1831, which throughout the 19th century served as a model for the formation of a liberal government. In the Netherlands, it was Johan Rudolf Thorbecke, who played a key role in adding a liberal touch to the organisation of the Dutch government during the constitutional amendment of 1848. Due to the new constitution, the King had less power as more of it went to the parliament. In Great Britain, stemming from the ideas of the Whigs, liberalism achieved spectacular victories in British politics, which included, the emancipation of the slaves etc. The Whigs were later succeeded by the Liberal Party.

Liberalism in the Netherlands

Johan Rudolph Thorbecke

Although the Netherlands has long had a reputation for being a liberal country, liberalism made a full appearance after the French Revolution. This is evident, among other things, from the separation of church and state and the abolition of a number of privileges for the royal/upper class. Fearing a French-like revolution in the Netherlands, William I asked liberal and well-respected statesman, Johan Rudolph Thorbecke to draft a constitution that would allow the King share power with the parliament. This led to a revision of the constitution in 1848. Thorbecke's introduction of the 'Trias Politica' also cemented Montesquieu's influence in the new constitution and because of this, the flourishing of Dutch liberalism is closely linked to Johan Rudolph Thorbecke. In the years after the revision of the constitution, the liberal movement also won battles on the 'suffrage movement' field, which in 1917 resulted in the introduction of universal adult suffrage. The conservatives of that time were fiercely opposed to universal suffrage, even though they have come to enjoy all its benefits today.

Political Developments in Liberalism

If there's one thing that's clear as day, it's that liberalism arose out of dissatisfaction with a radical system, absolutism. The liberal movement advocated economic freedom and the right of the individual and years later, economic liberalism gave birth to capitalism. Capitalism is where economic freedom became a means. A means to market a commercially brilliant idea and use it to obtain as much property and wealth as possible. In the United States, this came to be known as the 'American Dream'. It also came to be seen as the key out of poverty for the common man. Unfortunately, the freedom a lot of companies and business people were given by 'economic liberalism' led to unequal distribution of wealth, corporations that have grew too rich and powerful and unsustainable methods of production which have polluted the earth and contributed to global warming. While many argue that capitalism is the problem, true liberals reiterate that capitalism has never been the problem, it just has to become more sustainable.

The fact that so few people know the difference between political liberalism (freedom of speech, belief, profession, in short free development of the individual) and economic liberalism 'capitalism', is because capitalists (who are usually very wealthy) are always happy to be liberals. Although, in the United States, most of them are usually Republicans and tend to lean right. Here in the Netherlands, a political party that strives for the freedom of Dutch citizens to be entrepreneurs with less rules and regulations from the government is the VVD. In a politically liberal country like the Netherlands, where the individual has been more 'important' than the state for about a hundred years, political parties aren't needed to stand up for liberal interests anymore. This is simply because these 'interests' are already in the constitution and are generally accepted and regulated by the government. So if a political party in the Netherlands claims to be liberal, they mean 'economically liberal'.

Mark Rutte - Prime Minister of the Netherlands

As one economist once said, "politics is practically only about the economy of any nation". In some nations, political parties implement policies with elements of economic liberalism (capitalism) with hopes that it will improve their economies. Sadly, some of these political parties approve monopolies and even allow companies and businesses to exploit consumers and workers, all in the name of economic freedom. This can be seen in countries where companies are given tax breaks by the government who hope that the increase in profit would lead to the benefiting companies investing those profits in their employees. The downside to this type of policy, popularly referred to as 'trickle down economics' is that it never works due to greed! Most companies can not be trusted to do the right thing because to them, profit is more important than doing the right thing! Donald Trump, the current President of the United States has sadly come to realise this. Nowadays, capitalism has nothing to do with personal freedom. It has more to do with economic freedom with the aim of making as much profit as possible. It is very important to realise that workers in a capitalist system are not really free.

In the 19th century you had roughly two types of political parties; the conservative parties clinging to the established power and wanting the order of things to stay as they were, and the liberals, who felt that citizens should be free to make their own choices, politically and economically. Liberalism eventually prevailed, but then produced its own power elite, the capitalists. Unfortunately, capitalism came with its own problems. So in the course of the century, new parties arose, hoping to fight the ills of capitalism. Nowadays, lots of liberal parties that support the social-democratic style of government hope to abolish the ills of capitalism by making it more sustainable while also advocating for the rights of employees and urging wealthy companies to invest in the people and give back to the communities where they operate. An example of a popular social-democrat is Bernie Sanders. His life's work has been centred on reforming American capitalism and bringing about a more fair distribution of wealth.


In the second half of the 19th century, thanks to the liberalisation of the human personality, which was made possible by liberalism, the field of science and technology achieved great triumphs and many liberals hoped that science would only continue to make progress in the years to come. World War I put an end to all the optimism about the progress of mankind with one blow. World War II showed that fascism, communism and nationalism were constant battles that liberals would fight in the coming years. Countries such as Russia, Germany, Japan and Italy, where liberalism never really flourished sought to undo all the progress that liberalism had achieved through the years by waging a senseless war. Russia, which had a one-party communist system of government would later play an important but unfortunate role in spreading communism to other countries. These countries would destroy any chance of parliamentary democracy before it even starts. Although Russia claims to be a democracy these days, it is hardly a liberal country like Germany, Italy or Japan have become.

After World War II, the liberal parties of the western world thought that the increase in prosperity (largely due to capitalism) would lead to an increase in individual well-being, while maintaining the principle that "the happiness of the majority" would be a measure of social progress. They soon realised that due to unsustainable capitalism and the social injustices that could be found in a lot of western countries, the well-being of one is usually at the expense of another. In response, liberal philosophers such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin stressed that not individual freedom, but equality should be regarded as the core of liberal thought. They were of the opinion that wealth should be equally distributed among the populace and that governments must strive to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. A lot of Scandinavian countries are known to have successfully done this! Of course, individual freedom still remains just as important as equality.

In many European countries, liberal ideas have come to be ingrained in their constitutions. The Netherlands, for example, has a constitution that is largely liberal and one that is inextricably intertwined with the Dutch way of life. Most Dutch people wouldn't know how to exist in a non-liberal country and this includes the one who claim to be "conservative". Europe had a large number of parties that called themselves 'liberal' with very different points of view. While some parties focused on the rights of the populace, the others focused more on other social issues affecting the populace while a few other parties focus on economic liberalism. This has led to liberalism becoming more and more of a broad term - with a multitude of political views.

Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island, New York

When we first started looking for the answer to the question: what is liberalism, we did not automatically find one. Liberalism does not have one definition, that much is clear. Liberalism is a philosophy of life, one that remains valid no matter the time and the place. From Locke in England in 1632 to Johan Rudolph Thorbecke in the Netherlands in 1848, we hope that by understanding the philosophers who introduced the world to this way of thinking and the history behind their deeds, we can have a clear picture of what liberalism truly is all about.

If one thing has become clear to us then it is the difference between political liberalism and economic liberalism. Political liberalism states that every human being is a free being who should be allowed to make their own choices and live a happy life. Economic liberalism fights for freedom of trade, the right to be an entrepreneur with less rules and regulations from the government as possible and for the richest and most powerful individuals and companies to achieve greater prosperity, often with little regard for employees.

Although, we have to agree that while liberals no longer have to fight for social reforms like they once did, the fight today, is still on, but on a different kind of battlefield. Conservatives and right-wing politicians in the western world continue to deny women the right to make decisions concerning their own bodies (abortion rights) and in most countries, deny the credibility of global warming while refusing to listen to scientists on matters that affect the earth. They promote institutionalized racism, suppress the votes of minorities and seek to keep out non-white immigrants and refugees from coming into their countries. Conservative and right-wing (hateful) rhetoric has given rise to populism both in the United States and in some parts of Europe. Right-wing governments have won majority votes in countries like Hungary, Poland, Austria and Italy. Populist rhetoric which is mainly lies (fake news) also gave birth to brexit and Donald Trump becoming the President of the United States.

Social justice warriors are not liberals no matter how many times conservatives or people on the right call them 'liberals' or refer to them as 'libtards'. And before you go around insulting liberals, do not forget that liberalism has given you the right to vote and be voted for, fighting to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, fighting for the rights of the LGBTQ community, employees to be paid a liveable wage, wealthy and unsustainable companies to be held accountable for their crimes against the environment and the use of child labour, fighting for abortion rights, fighting discrimination at the workplace, gender inequality and a host of others.

Liberalism is a staunch commitment to the rights of all individuals, irrespective of the colour of their skin, sexuality, class, sex etc. It is the commitment to open markets, limited government brought about by civilised debate and progressive reform. Despite achieving so much in the past years, it can not live on past glories. Liberalism must reinvent itself and find solutions to the problems of today, one of which is unsustainable capitalism which is mostly caused by greed, selfishness and lack of human compassion.

Come what may, liberal values will always prevail.

Live and let live.

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