Interventionism in Politics vs. Liberalism

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

This lesson considers the government's role in the lives of its citizens. We'll look at the terms liberalism and interventionism and see how they have interacted throughout history.

An Active Government

How active do you want your government to be? If we can boil down the last 200 years of politics to a few essential questions, that would be one of them. Is it better to have a very active government that has the authority to regulate and monitor all of society, or is it better to have a government that stays out of your way? It's a difficult subject, and we've seen people answer it in very different ways over the last few centuries. Still, two distinct ideologies have emerged to dominate the conversation. Let's take a look at each and see how people have defended their ideas about how active their government should be.


Let's start with the ideology of interventionism. In the simplest terms, interventionism represents the political belief that the government should be active in a certain scenario. This is not a way to advocate for a totalitarian state, just a way to promote an active government in specific circumstances. Basically, the idea is that sometimes the government should, well, intervene.

Domestic Interventionism

Interventionism can take multiple forms. When we're looking at domestic politics, interventionism refers to a direct use of the government's authority to regulate, reform, monitor, or mediate some sector of society. Sometimes this is cultural, like when the government intervenes beyond its normal authority in order to protect traditional values. Sometimes it's political, like when the government uses more power than is traditionally acceptable in order to enforce a law or policy. The use of the military to enforce integration in the South would be an example of this.

Most of the time, however, when we talk about domestic interventionism, we're talking about economics. In the United States, perhaps the clearest example of this is the government's response to the Great Depression. When the stock market crashed in 1929, the government insisted that the economy would correct itself. It didn't, so the people voted a new president into office and demanded greater intervention. The result was the New Deal program, in which the government actively tried to rebuild the economy and establish safeguard against future depressions.

Interventionism was used in the New Deal to help create jobs and reform the economy

Foreign Interventionism

Of course, not all interventionism happens internally. We can also talk about foreign interventionism, which is what occurs when a government decides to intervene in the affairs of another state. This is a big deal as it encroaches upon a state's sovereignty; so how is it justified? Even within American history alone, we've seen a myriad of reasons.

In the last years of the 19th century, the USA intervened in Cuba's independence war with Spain under the premise of spreading democracy and protecting American business interests. The USA remained in Cuba after the war and basically wrote Cuba's constitution for them, under the justification that Cuba was too weak to do so alone and could be abused by European imperialists.

Pro-intervention cartoon showing Uncle Sam bringing freedom and liberty to Cuba

If we jump ahead to the 1940s, the United States intervened in the economies of countries ravaged by World War II and provided the aid needed to help them rebuild. This was justified in terms of restoring global productivity and preventing communism from spreading. The fear of communism also led the USA to intervene in Chile in the 1970s, aiding in the coup to overthrow socialist president Salvador Allende. In more modern times, the need to eradicate major terrorist organizations has provided legitimacy to economic, political, and military interventionism through the Middle East.

As you can see, foreign interventionism is hard to label as purely good or purely bad. In the best cases, it can help stabilize or protect countries that are unable to do so, but interventionism also violates sovereignty and may weaken the credibility and accountability of the governments being aided.


One of the reasons that the debate about interventionism matters is because it flies against one of the founding ideologies of modern countries like the USA: classical liberalism. Classical liberalism, in the simplest terms, is the devotion to personal liberty. The United States was built upon a principle of classical liberalism and the belief that all humans carry inalienable rights.

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