Liberalism is a political and social philosophy that emphasizes individual rights, equality, and the rule of law. It advocates for a limited government that protects personal freedoms and promotes a market-oriented economy.


Liberalism, a multifaceted system of political thought, places the interests and goals of the individual above those of society or the state. Derived from the Latin word “liber,” signifying a class of free men, liberalism signifies a political movement that champions the liberty of the individual as the primary goal of public policy. At its core, liberal ideology seeks to construct a society that enables individuals to pursue their interests and find fulfillment. Organized around the principles of constitutionalism and consent, liberal societies aim to safeguard citizens from the potential tyranny of government.

Origins and Development

The roots of liberalism can be traced back to earlier settled communities seeking ways to trade and coexist with strangers. However, as a fully developed ideology, liberalism emerged in response to the breakdown of feudalism in Europe and the rise of a market-driven capitalist society. Liberals challenged the absolute power of monarchies, particularly the notion of the ‘divine rights’ of kings. The 19th century witnessed the proliferation of liberalism, advocating for industrialized and market-oriented economic orders free from excessive government interference. This transformation initially took root in the UK in the mid-18th century before spreading across North America and Europe.

Core Themes


  • With the displacement of feudalism, individuals faced a broader array of choices and social possibilities, encouraging independent thought.
  • C.B. Macpherson characterized early liberalism as ‘possessive individualism,’ viewed individuals as proprietors of their own capacities. Modern liberals, however, emphasize a sense of social responsibility alongside individualism.


  • Liberals reject the idea of absolute entitlement to freedom, recognizing that unlimited liberty can lead to ‘license’ or the abuse of others.
  • In On Liberty (1859) John Stuart Mill argued that ‘the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will is to prevent harm to others. 
  • In his ‘Two concepts of Liberty’ Isaiah Berlin distinguished between negative and positive freedom. Early liberals believed in negative freedom which means free from interference. Modern liberals believed in positive freedom- defined by Berlin as the ability to be one’s own master. 


  • Embedded in the Enlightenment project, liberalism shares a commitment to releasing humanity from superstition and embracing reason.
  • The power of reason, according to liberalism, empowers individuals to take control of their lives.


  • Liberal justice is grounded in a belief in various forms of equality, including foundational equality, equal citizenship, and equality of opportunity.
  • While classical liberals advocate for strict meritocracy, modern liberals see social justice as implying a measure of social equality, as argued by John Rawls in “A Theory of Justice.”


  • Liberalism celebrates diversity in moral, cultural, and political aspects, epitomized by Voltaire in his work “The commitment to toleration”,’I detest what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.’

Liberalism, Government, and Democracy

  • Liberals assert that a balanced and tolerant society necessitates a sovereign state, as freedom can only exist under the law.
  • Government, viewed as a constant threat to individual liberty, requires constitutional constraints to prevent abuse of power.
  • The concept of constitutionalism, including a written constitution and the dispersion of political power among institutions, is integral to safeguarding individual freedom.

Definitions of Liberalism

Harold Laski: It is not easy to describe, much less to define. For it is hardly a lesser habit of mind than a body of doctrine.

Sartori: Simply, liberalism is the theory and practice of individual liberty, juridical defines and the constitutional state.

Koerner: Liberalism begins and ends with the ideals of individual freedom, individual human rights, and individual happiness.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, defines liberalism as an idea, commodity, freedom as a method and a policy in government, as an organizing principle in society and as a way of life for the individual and the community.

Types of Liberalism

Classical Liberalism

During the early stages of nineteenth-century industrialization, Classical Liberalism emerged as a prominent ideology, drawing upon various doctrines and theories. One of its cornerstone principles is the concept of Natural Rights. This notion, influencing liberal thought significantly, is exemplified by Locke’s assertion that the contractual relationship between the state and citizens is specific and limited. According to Locke, the primary purpose of this contract is to safeguard well-defined natural rights, leading to his advocacy for a limited government. In essence, the legitimate role of government, as perceived by Locke, is constrained to the protection of ‘life, liberty, and property.’

In addition to Natural Rights, another pivotal component of Classical Liberalism is Economic Liberalism. Nineteenth-century economists embraced the idea that the economy functions most effectively when left unhindered by government intervention. They believed in the market’s capacity to operate according to the wishes and decisions of free individuals, for whom pleasure is equated with the acquisition and consumption of wealth. Adam Smith’s vision of a self-regulating market reflects the liberal belief in a naturally existing harmony among conflicting interests within society. The pinnacle of free-market beliefs was reached with the laissez-faire doctrine. However, in the late twentieth century, a resurgence of faith in the free market occurred through the rise of neoliberalism

This modern iteration of economic liberalism, marked by market fundamentalism, saw a revival of Smith’s ideas, as evident in his seminal work ‘The Wealth of Nations,’ which is considered the first economic textbook. In this book Smith gave the theory of ‘Invisible Hand’ which states that individuals should be left with complete freedom to pursue their own economic interests in the free market. Adam Smith is consequently hailed as the father of market economics.

Difference between Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism:

Classical Liberalism emerged as a powerful response to earlier political movements that concentrated authority in the hands of churches, monarchs, or governments. In stark contrast to these systems, its core principle championed individual freedom over centralized control. Originating as a reaction to the challenges posed by the industrial revolution and population growth in the late 1800s, influential thinkers like Adam Smith and John Locke played key roles in shaping its ideology. The movement sought to diminish government involvement and prioritize the liberties of individuals.

On the other hand, Libertarianism represents a robust form of Classical Liberalism, asserting that individuals should enjoy substantial autonomy with minimal interference from the state. Advocates of pure Libertarianism argue for the government to abstain from intervening in both social and economic matters, emphasizing personal responsibility as the primary catalyst for success. 

The distinction between Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism lies in their historical contexts—Classical Liberalism emerged as a response to theocratic monarchies and oppressive governments, while Libertarianism evolved in reaction to an excessively expansive government and the welfare state.

Classical Liberalism aimed to dismantle oppressive structures imposed by theocracies and monarchies, challenging the notion that a select few should rule over the masses. Libertarianism, in turn, addresses concerns related to imperialistic tendencies, bureaucratic overreach, and aggressive progressivism. As Mario Rizzo succinctly puts it, Classical liberalism represents the philosophy of political liberty throughout history, whereas Libertarianism embodies the modern revival of liberty, particularly from the late sixties to early seventies.

Libertarian Thinkers

  • Ludwig von Mises: – His work on economic calculation proved that a completely centrally planned economy cannot exist due to the lack of vital information signals that result from market activity. His famous book is “Human Action”.
  • Murray Rothbard: – His book Man, Economy and State is widely regarded as the most comprehensive text on Austrian economics. He coined the term “anarcho-capitalism”, and developed the most widely accepted theory of libertarian property rights.
  • Friedrich von Hayek: Hayek developed spontaneous order into a coherent theory of social progress, providing the intellectual foundation for the idea that the private sector generally does things better than the state. In his book “The Road to Serfdom” he stated that growth of state will lead to totalitarianism. According to Hayek Freedom is the state in which man is not subject to coercion by arbitrary will of others. In his other work, “Constitution of Liberty”, Hayek held that cardinal values of liberty should not be exploited by the advocates of collectivism to justify large amounts of state intervention. Hayek called the idea of social justice useless.
  • David Friedman: – Friedman is sometimes thought of as the founder of the consequentialist version of anarcho-capitalism. He provides a robust case for anarcho-capitalism in his book “The Machinery of Freedom”,and has contributed to the theoretical and historical body of knowledge of non-state legal systems.
  • Milton Friedman: A prominent proponent of free-market libertarianism. In his book “Capitalism and Freedom” Friedman condemns the welfare state by observing that not all means are justified simply by reference to ends how so ever noble they are.
  • Robert Nozick: Renowned for his libertarian doctrine advanced in “Anarchy, State, and Utopia.” Nozick argued for a minimal state, primarily focused on protecting individual rights, especially property rights. He proposed the “minimal state” as the only justifiable form of government, limiting its role to enforcing contracts, protecting against force and fraud, and adjudicating disputes. He defends the market as “night watchman” and “welfare state as a kind of enslavement”. In his work “Zigzag of Politics” Nozick’s notion of justice revolved around the concept of entitlement, suggesting that a just distribution of resources and holdings can result from a series of voluntary exchanges.

Modern Liberalism: A 20th-Century Synthesis

Modern liberalism, often referred to as 20th-century liberalism, represents a fusion of new and old liberal ideas. Modern Liberalism advocates for state intervention in order to have the fullest development of all individuals within the society.  Key features of modern liberalism include:


John Stuart Mill’s ideas, articulated in “On Liberty” (1859), are considered the essence of modern liberalism. Mill emphasized individuality, asserting that liberty enables personal development, the acquisition of talents, skills, and knowledge, and the refinement of sensibilities. Distinguishing between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures, Mill advocated promoting experiences that enhance intellectual, moral, or aesthetic sensibilities.

Positive Freedom:

‘New liberals’ like L.T. Hobhouse and J. A. Hobson drew inspiration from T.H. Green. Green’s optimistic view of human nature highlighted the constraint of egoism by altruism, aligning with socialist notions of sociable and cooperative humanity. This blend of ideas has been termed ‘socialist liberalism,’ advocating for an enabling state with expanded social and economic responsibilities.

Social Liberalism:

Twentieth-century modern states transitioned into welfare states, driven by the principle of equality of opportunity. Social liberals argue that the state has a social responsibility to mitigate disadvantages stemming from individuals’ social circumstances, ensuring equal life chances. John Rawls’ contributions, particularly in “A Theory of Justice,” further developed social liberalism, introducing the ‘difference principle’ and endorsing redistribution based on ‘equality as fairness.’

Economic Management:

The wall street crash of 1929 was the most dramatic demonstration of the failure of the free market. After world war II, all western states adopted policies of economic intervention in an attempt to return to the pre-war levels of unemployment. These policies were guided by the works of the UK economist John Maynard Keynes. In the general theory of employment, Interest and Money, Keynes rejected its belief in self-regulating markets. The first attempt to apply Keynes’ ideas was undertaken in the USA during Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’. He argued that the government can regulate demand primarily through adjustments like ‘Taxation’.  


The term Neoliberalism was given by Alexander Rustow in 1938. Rustow defined Neoliberalism as the priority of price mechanism, free enterprise, competition and strong impartial state. Neoliberalism constitutes a comprehensive policy model that spans both political and economic spheres, aiming to shift control of economic factors from the public sector to the private sector. Within the framework of neoliberal policies, efforts are made to bolster the mechanisms of free-market capitalism while imposing constraints on government spending, regulatory measures, and public ownership.

The era of neoliberalism is closely linked with the leadership of influential figures such as Margaret Thatcher, who served as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990 and led the Conservative Party from 1975 to 1990, and Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States (1981 to 1989). Their tenures are often associated with the implementation and promotion of neoliberal policies.

While there is occasional confusion between neoliberalism and libertarianism, it is essential to note a key distinction. Neoliberals generally advocate for increased government intervention in both the economy and society, setting them apart from libertarians. Notably, neoliberals often express support for progressive taxation, whereas libertarians, in contrast, often reject this approach, favoring alternatives such as a flat tax rate applicable to all taxpayers. The crux of the differentiation lies in the level of trust placed in the government’s capacity to address societal challenges.

In essence, the divide between neoliberals and libertarians hinges on the extent to which individuals believe in the government’s competence to manage and resolve issues. This nuanced threshold shapes their respective stances on economic and social intervention, revealing the intricacies of their divergent approaches within the broader political and economic landscape.

Liberalism in a Global Age

The initial facet of global liberalism is represented by neoliberalism, intricately tied to the phenomenon of economic globalization. The second facet is embodied by liberal democracy, which has transcended its origins in the Western sphere to emerge as a pervasive influence worldwide. The pinnacle of liberal optimism materialized in the aftermath of communism’s collapse, with proponents like Francis Fukuyama espousing the “end of history” theory, asserting that Western liberal democracy had solidified itself as the preeminent form of governance.

The third dimension of global liberalism emanates from the ethical considerations inherent in the progress of globalization. As individuals gain access to information about events unfolding in various corners of the world, the confinement of moral sensibilities solely to members of one’s own state becomes increasingly challenging. This cosmopolitan perspective is intricately linked to the concept of global justice.


In conclusion, liberalism has played a pivotal role in shaping modern societies, championing individual liberties, democratic governance, and market-oriented economies. Its emphasis on human rights, equality, and the rule of law has driven social progress and political evolution. While facing challenges and evolving interpretations, liberalism remains a foundational force in fostering open societies that strive for inclusivity, tolerance, and the pursuit of individual and collective well-being. As a dynamic philosophy, liberalism continues to adapt to the complexities of the contemporary world, contributing to the ongoing discourse on governance and human rights.

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