What Does Liberalism Mean? The Origin and Types of Liberalism

Liberalism is the ideology of governmental, cultural, and economic liberty and equality that generally comes in classical, social, and economic forms.

Introduction to Liberalism in its Different Forms

Politically, liberalism includes concepts like tolerance, the use of reason, freedom of speech, legal rights, and a separation of governmental powers.

In its classical form (classical liberalism) it focuses on individual liberties and rights (like those found in the Bill of Rights).

In its social form (social liberalism) it focuses more on collective equalities and rights (like those of a Second Bill of Rights).

Economically, classical liberalism generally rejects state controlled economies and favors lightly regulated free-markets. Meanwhile, social liberalism generally favors a social safety net, increased taxation, and more government involvement.

These forms are, in many ways, the antithesis of classical conservatism and social conservatism respectively.

See more attributes of classical and social liberalism in their social, political, and economic forms below.

FACT: Liberalism came from the enlightenment thinkers, although we can trace its history back before figures like the Father of Liberalism John Locke to figures like the Father of Philosophy Plato, it begins in its modern form in Locke’s time.

TIP: In terms of classical forms of governments: Conservatism is the ideology of Monarchies, and Liberalism is the ideology of Democracies (meanwhile, the ideal mixed-republic‘s ideology is somewhere in the middle.)

TIP: We generally focus on American liberalism here. It is closely related to liberalism as a general concept and western liberalism, but isn’t exactly the same in all cases. As labour, socialists, progressives, and general “social liberals” are generally called “liberal” in America, while abroad our more “classically liberal” conservatives (like “neocons”) are considered liberal (although this changes nation-by-nation, era-by-era). With that said, this page isn’t about one nation, it is about the root concept of liberalism and that is unchanging (regardless of modern semantics).

Liberalism in politics:

Liberalism is the political ideology of liberty and equality, where classical liberalism emphasizes individual liberty and social liberalism emphasizes social equality.[1][2][3][4]

TIP: Social liberalism is closely related to “Progressivism“, but it is not “the same” as “Socialism” (although the two ideologies do share some planks).[5][6]

TIP: Conservatism, the ideology of order, tradition, and hierarchy, is the opposition philosophy. From this frame of reference, as an opposition philosophy, liberalism is all about pushing back against “the old ways” and trying to make things more liberal and/or equal. This is to say, liberalism is born from pushing back against the state, while conservatism is often defined by pushing back against liberalism or pushing for order, tradition, and excesses of equality or liberty. See: Understanding liberalism and conservatism for a comparison.

TIP: Both liberalism and Conservatism, in their enlightened forms, seek to use reason to seek just ends. However where liberalism favors: the principles of democracy, republicanism, separation of powers, popular sovereignty, free speech, free trade, freedom of religion, and other general ideologies that favor human rights and the liberties and the well being of individuals and groups. Conservatism favors the opposite in most cases, it favors: the principles of aristocracy, authority, central power, absolutism, censorship, protectionism, state-based religions, and other ideologies that favor social hierarchy and authority over individuals. This is complicated by the social and classical forms of each.

TIP: Liberalism as a broad concept shouldn’t be confused with American “Left Wing” “Democratic Party” Liberalism. Like, American “Right Wing” “Republican Party” Conservatism, American Liberalism is unique. With that said, understanding the foundation of liberalism and conservatism will help you understand any form. See American “Left Wing” Liberalism and American “Right Wing” Conservatism and Liberalism and Conservatism.

Liberalism in left-right terms:

Social liberalism is “to the right” of the classical form in terms of authority and typically “to the left” in terms of social issues. people can and often do have “mixed” political views that differ issue-to-issue.

They are both generally “to the left” of conservatism socially, but on some issues “small government” conservatism can be “to the left” of “big government liberalism” in terms of authority. People can and often do have “mixed” political views that differ issue-to-issue.

Liberalism in economics:

Liberalism is the economic ideology that favors either liberty or equality in the markets. Where classical liberal economics (like Smith) favor liberty and social liberal economics (like Keynes) favors state guided equality focused economics.

Further, fiscal liberalism in general just means “to spend liberally”, it is the opposite of fiscal conservatism (this point should not be confused with how we generally use any of these terms in practice; no modern political party creates a surplus in practice, so all are fiscally liberal and none are fiscally conservative as an absolute).

Liberalism in party politics:

In party politics there are two general types of liberals “populists” and “establishment”.

Each generally comes in a conservative, moderate, and radical form.

Some on the far-left favor a very limited government, some favor government when it suits them, some favor big “socially liberal” government (the planned welfare state).

Within any ideology, especially when we just consider two groups like “liberal and conservative”, there is going to be many different types.

There is a big difference between Bernie Sanders, Establishment Liberals like Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Noam Chomsky, and Jill Stein.

I can’t explain all the political factions here, but consider, The Democratic party is “a big tent” and some in that tent are further left than others on business, social issues, or both.

TIP: In America, the two general types of liberals are neoliberals and progressives. I can get meta and describe mind-numbing details on different factions, but the general populist establishment works for both the left and right (creating our four basic forms the two classical and two social). Very generally speaking.

More on the Nature of Liberalism

With the above in mind, we can say, liberalism is, in all forms, the ideology of liberty and equality (just as Democracy is the form of government with these ideals).

Classical liberalism of any form generally stands against authoritarianism and for liberty (against classical conservatism), and social liberalism of any form generally stands against inequality and for equality (and social conservatism stands against that), and the correct answer is generally somewhere in the middle (as is expressed by liberalism as a general concept; which is mean to be tempered by, but not oppressed by, conservatism classically speaking, as one can see visually in the table below).

The two liberal ideologies butt heads both with each-other and with the conservative ideologies due to the paradox that some amount of authority is needed to ensure liberty and equality, but despite the inherent complications, we can generally just say “liberalism is the political ideology of liberty and equality”, “there is a related classical and social form”, “there are economic forms that aren’t directly related to the political forms”, and “there is a form of conservatism to oppose each”.

Before we get started, on a chart, it looks like this (see another way to express this here):

SPHERE OF ACTION Not Liberal Enough / Too Conservative The Liberal-Conservative Mean Overly Liberal / Not Conservative Enough
Liberty Overly Authoritative Liberal Overly Liberal
Equality Extreme Inequality Equal Extreme Equality

Charts showing why aside, perhaps the simplest way to understand liberalism is by comparing the two basic forms and their values, so let us start there:

  • Examples of Classical Liberal Values: Economic freedom, free trade, individual liberty, property rights, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the right to a fair trial. They champion essential Human Rights (like those found in the Bill of Rights), but not necessarily at the cost of using too much governmental power. From a rejection of Kings to Gilded Age Era freedoms. See: Adam Smith, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Popular Sovereignty, Grover Cleveland, and Calvin Coolidge.
  • Examples of Social Liberal Values: Equal pay for equal work, anti-slavery, women’s right to choose, LGBT rights, gender equality, healthcare as a right, pro-safety-net, anti-economic inequality, pro-globalism, fair-trade, pro-union, workers’ rights. They champion Universal Human Rights, even if that means “big government.” From the rejection of Gilded Age Inequalities to The New Deal Coalition. See: The Reform era, William Jennings Bryan, the Progressive era, Barack Obama, and Bernie Sanders.

TIP: In modern America, when people say “liberal” they typically mean “progressive social liberal” like Obama or Sanders… not “classical populist liberal” like Andrew Jackson. From a global and historical perspective, essentially every American is a liberalThe Bill of Rights and Constitution ensure it. From an American perspective, in comparative terms, we can denote our differing ideologies by terms like left and right, conservative and liberal, socially conservative and socially liberal, classically conservative and classically liberal, libertarian, constitutionalist, progressive, environmentalist, humanist, and more. The idea is that “we have the liberty to choose, debate, speak freely, assemble, vote, and protest” because we are a liberal nation, and that creates a range of liberal positions that are “left” or “right” of each other on any issue. Ask questions below.

FACT: Liberty and equality have been considered the principles of democracy since Plato wrote his Republic. Liberalism is a lot like Democracy, but, it is a little more complex. It not only seeks liberty and equality, it seeks them in a sustainable and ordered way. It uses reason and the principles of Republicanism to temper its virtues, because as Plato also suggested, extreme liberty and equality don’t work so well in practice. Liberalism also champions concepts like the separation of powers, popular sovereignty, law and fairness, free speech, free trade, freedom of religion, and general ideologies that favor human rights and the liberties and well-being of individuals and groups.

The origin of liberalism? John Locke is the father of liberalism, and he wrote his most famous work around the time of England’s 1688 Revolution. That said, the term “liberal” doesn’t come into popular use until at least the late 1700’s if not later. Certainly, by the mid-1800’s important philosophers like Marx are using the term liberal, but the ideology predates the term (especially if we consider Plato’s Democratic man “a liberal”). With that said, reformer progressives and classical liberals have always both essentially existed and always essentially disagreed over whether collective or individual liberty should be favored in the liberty or equality paradigm (AKA the left-right spectrum) which can be illustrated like this, or like the table above.[7]

What is a Liberal?

TIP: You can find an accurate and insightful article on liberalism at philosophybasics.com. I suggest comparing that page to ours for different but correlated, bits of the issue. If there is one source that presents an honestly complex view of liberalism, I will point to philosophybasics.com. For another approach to this issue, see an essay on the related left-right spectrum.

Understanding the Basics of Liberalism: Overview

Modern liberalism began in the mid-1600’s with the father of Liberalism John Locke, and social liberalism began in the mid-1800’s in the time of Lincoln and Marx.

Each form of liberalism has many types. For example, classical liberals like Alexander Hamilton were more conservative and business-minded than the more radical classical conservatives like Thomas Jefferson. Likewise, modern social liberals like Hillary Clinton are more conservative and business-minded than more progressive social liberals like Bernie Sanders. In any era, an ideology or a person may be liberal on different key issues. This creates different types of liberals. Some liberals care only about trade; some want to be left alone; some want a collective equality.

Thus, beyond the basic distinctions, there are many humanist, environmental, economic-minded, and other types of liberalism. The types get as complex as the humans that they describe and the voter issues that bring them into the political realm.

Not only does liberalism come in many forms, some conservative positions can be liberal in some respects. For example, the position of the social conservative can be liberal regarding wanting “deregulation” and “small government.” These are classically liberal positions, that becomes socially conservative when they oppose a socially liberal policy, which itself is partly classically conservative in its use of power. Likewise, even some classically conservative positions can be considered liberal, especially in America. For example, the use of state-power to ensure social justice.

Ultimately, America is a liberal nation and has been since 1776. When we say “left” and “right” or “liberal” and “conservative,” we often mean “left of this classically liberal position” or “right of this socially liberal position.”

The best way to understand this is that America and the West are liberal, and only a truly despotic state is fully conservative. When we say “liberal” or “Leftist” in today, we are using modern American terms that denote a progressive social liberal. When we say “right-winger” or “conservative” we are talking about a range of ideologies found in the Republican party that span from classical liberal, to socially conservative, to traditionally conservative in the context of a liberal nation. “Liberalism” is a meaningful term, but in modern or nuanced conversation, it is a descriptive and comparative term of which the meaning can change based on context.

Left-Right Chart Liberal Vs. Conservative

This chart shows the different types of liberalism and conservatism as the political “left” and “right.”

TIP: Napoleon was a liberal Emperor, and King George III was a king of a liberal nation. A conservative in the purest sense is one who opposes both liberty and equality. Since people rarely do this in an absolutist sense, liberalism is a comparative and descriptive term. A nation or ideology that allows for liberties is going to be “more liberal” than one who doesn’t.

TIP: See our page on conservatism and liberalism for the different types of conservatism and liberalism. Or, see our page on the American left and right to understand the ideologies from an American perspective.

The History of Liberalism.

TIP: The opposition philosophy to classical liberalism is classical conservatism, which favors traditional state authority and order. Likewise, the opposition philosophy to social liberalism is social conservatism, which favors traditional social order. A classical conservative might favor big government and state religion over a more disorderly system while a social conservative would rather allow individuals in certain states to own slaves than give a central government power over states.

TIP: As we will discuss below, some forms of liberalism are economically minded; economic liberalism comes in both a classical and social form. Other forms may be religious minded or focused on individual or collective rights. Some liberals may be focused on the purpose of government. At this point in history, there is no one way to classify liberalism. Discussions like left and right, collectivists and individualists and even Hume’s fork can help shed light on the underlying mechanics the create not only conservatism and liberalism as opposition philosophies. They may also clarify terms like “classical liberalism” and “social liberalism”  or “classical conservatism” and “social conservatism” as opposing philosophies.

The Origin and History Liberalism: Details

Now that we have an overview out of the way let’s discuss the history of liberalism in more detail.

All the types of liberalism we will discuss below and all the forms of classical and social liberalism, are rooted in classical liberalism.

This ideology gets its official start in the Enlightenment as a pushback against hierarchal patriarchal society, restrictive rights, the divine right and absolute right of kings, and state-based religion in the mid-1600’s.

Although I can cite Plato and Aristotle, Livy and Cicero, or Machiavelli and Buchanan and describe the core principles of liberalism, most modern scholars start the story of classical liberalism with John Locke (the father of liberalism).

John Locke provided the philosophical backbone for the three important liberal revolutions. The first was England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, of which Locke was a part. The second was America’s Revolution for independence from Britain of 1776, during which Jefferson cites Locke. The third was the French Revolution of 1789, in which Thomas Paine provided a philosophical backbone for that revolution as he had in America.

Here Locke, Paine, all the founders of each revolution, and everyone who WASN’T King George III, King Louis XVI, a member of the Ancien Régime, a Tory, Robert Filmer, or Thomas Hobbes WAS a liberal. There are many different types of liberals. I can make a case for Filmer, Hobbes, and even some of the Kings, Anciens, and Tories as “liberal-conservatives.” Political ideologies are necessarily complex and rarely singular. They are big tents under which we can place the world’s 7.2 billion people and all the historical figures and factions. The complexity of ideologies is an excellent reason for considering sub-types rather than an overarching label.

Social contract theories. The types of liberalism have about as much in common as Hobbes and Locke, Mises and Marx, Jefferson and Hamilton, Burke and Rousseau, or as a Donkey and an Elephant.

FACT: In America, Republicans are essentially classical liberals, and social conservatives who are favored by the North and cities and Democrats are essentially social liberals and classical conservatives who are favored by the South and rural voters. In common language in America, the term “liberal” means “American liberalism.” This is “a brand of social liberalism that is a bit authoritative in its use of government, and is rather conservative in the classical sense.” The exact meaning changes as the parties and times change. See the history of the American political parties and the types of American liberalism and conservatism.

The History of Classical Liberalism – Learn Liberty

Different Types of Classical and Social Liberalism

With all western powers being founded on liberalism, and with all America’s founders being liberal, one might assume we now live in a wonderful utopia where everyone agrees. Obviously, this assertion could not be further from the truth.

Even when our country was first organized, there were different types of liberalism. Even though they didn’t have names them, we can give them names now. We can describe them like this:

TIP: Everything above is citable, and can be backed up with research and in the citations below. I’m using some of my own terms to describe real ideologies in practice as not every ideology has an accepted name.

  • Classical liberalism in general: A pushback against the authority of church and state in religion, economics, and liberties and rights. It favors the ideas of the Enlightenment thinkers in respect to rights and politics. Key beliefs are the separation of powers, voting, republics, free-trade, religious liberty, free speech, (usually) anti-slavery, etc.
  • Economic classical liberalism: Like Smith and Ricardo. The focus is on free-trade, not state-based mercantilism.
  • Religious classical liberalism: Many minority faiths wanted the freedom to practice religion without persecution. This was not common before modern times. Thus, some classical liberals, like Martin Luther, were more focused on religious freedom than any other aspect of liberalism.
  • Radical classical liberalism: Like the shirtless patriots of the French Revolution who became a tyrannical Jacobin mob, and also like some of the more individual liberty minded Americans in the south such as Jefferson. This can range from being so liberal that you justify slavery, or being so liberal you behead all the elite, to wanting to live in peace on a farm and not have the government tell you what to do.
  • Social classical liberalism: Most liberal philosophers were what I would call social classical liberals. The founders of America couldn’t dismiss slavery; Locke and Montesquieu defined it as an abomination. Napoleon was crowned the new emperor of France. Rousseau advocated for the general will and voting. The philosophers, as is evidenced by their famous works, were very focused on republics, mixed governments, human rights, being against slavery, justifying private property, the state of nature, the social contract, the rights of man and citizen, etc. In the 1600’s and 1700’s, they developed ideas that we haven’t fully grasped today.  To use an analogy, where the classical liberal radicals were like early versions of Malcolm X, the classical liberal philosophers were like early versions of Martian Luther King.
  • Liberal conservatism: The old Whigs like Burke and more conservative American founders like Hamilton and Adams can be described as liberal-conservatives. They are against Kings and for basic rights and free-trade, but that aside, favor classical conservatism. Most modern elites are a type of liberal-conservative, typically in America a “neocon” (like the Bushes) or “neoliberal” (like the Clintons).
  • Modern Social liberalism in general: Starting in the mid-1800’s a new wave of liberalism began pushing back against social inequality. The easiest way to see this is over issues like Slavery in America and Marx in worldwide economics. In both cases, classical liberalism had finally given rights to certain classes of white men, who in America, England, and France were well on their way to finally becoming worldwide superpowers. However, the focus on individual liberty had a cost. Where a white person born in the right situation could go on to become a Rockefeller or Carnegie, a black person living in the south was likely to be property; women were either property or nearly property; most of the working class wasn’t far removed from slavery in their working and living conditions. Life was better for some Caucasian bourgeoisie, but still very difficult for what today we call “the 99%” (the proletariat), especially if you were poor, female, or non-Caucasian. Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, and some wealthy families like the Roosevelts began to push for social justice. The followers of Marx pushed their country toward socialism. Thus, we get a wide range of types of SOCIAL liberalism.
  • American Social Liberalism: The ideology of Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, and the Roosevelts that says, you know what Gouverneur Morris was right. He may have been a bit of conservative in his favoring of government, but at least he was willing to stand up against slavery. That isn’t “individual liberty” that is BS. In other words, they are willing to use state power (and thus not be classically liberal) to ensure social justice.
  • Social Capitalism: A term I use to describe those who favor social justice but also favor capitalism over communism (see an essay on re-defining Social Capitalism). I would say almost every modern American liberal is a social capitalist. It is the idea that we can move toward social justice via a mostly free or “fair” market. That individual liberty and collective liberty aren’t mutually exclusive.
  • Neoliberal: A version of social capitalism that is focused on classical liberal economics and government power.
  • Western Marxist Socialism: The ideology of Marx’s non-militant followers. It is a version of socialism that is socially minded and not radically minded.
  • Communism: Socialist State Communism is just barely liberalism in the sense that Marx used liberalism as a stepping stone to his equality-centered Marxist Communism. In his philosophy, there is no individual liberty, just the collective. Thus, there is no classical liberalism, but there is some social liberalism in theory. However, in the description lies the problem. Even in an ideal world where Communism doesn’t turn into a totalitarian nightmare, there is still an issue with it standing against most of what classical liberalism stood for. Communism is classically conservative, but with a value-set that is theoretically socially minded. It’s hard to talk about in a meaningful way as people tend to have a strong bias against Communism, but it is an extension of social liberalism in many ways. You need to understand that, to understand the history of “the Red Scare” and the World Wars.

TIP: Other forms of thought related to liberalism include humanism, utilitarianism, pluralism, environmentalism, types of collectivism, types of left-leaning libertarianism, and more. An idea like “pure anarchy” can be considered a type of liberalism as it is anti-authority. We could confuse the issue further and give more names to forms or call forms by less common names. We could have Cultural liberalism (focused on culture), Paleoliberalism (a very socially focused and loosely defined form), Ordoliberalism (a type focused on ensuring the free-market via technocracy), and even technocracy, itself is arguably a type of liberalism. We can also discuss governmental forms that lean towards democracy or social betterment ranging from democracy itself to a state run by a benevolent monarch. Anything that isn’t pure conservatism can be a type of liberalism; very conservative hybrids can be considered liberal in a broad discussion. Even a state run by a benevolent church, despite all its conservative properties, can be said to have elements of social liberalism due to its focus on social betterment.

“Socialism” vs “Communism” | Etymosemanticology. A video that honestly describes the ideology on which Marxism is based. From an honest and non-Red-scare viewpoint, it makes sense as to why it must always be a part of any conversation about the evolution of liberalism and conservatism.

TIP: See our page comparing conservatism and liberalism for another take on this, see also our page on understanding the American left and right.


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