What Does Liberalism Mean? The Origin and Types of Liberalism

Liberalism is the political ideology of liberty and equality. Classical liberalism focuses on individual liberty, and modern social liberalism focuses on social equality.[1][2][3][4]

  • 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, 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.
  • Examples of Social Liberal Values: Equal pay for equal work, anti-slavery, women’s right to choose, LGBT rights, gender equality, healthcare is 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.

Beyond this there are many humanist, environmental, economic minded, and more types of liberalism. Even the position of the social conservative can be liberal in some respects, as they often want “deregulation” and “small government” (classically liberal positions, that becomes socially conservative when they oppose socially liberal policy, which itself is partly classically conservative in its use of power).

Ultimately, America is a liberal nation (has been since 1776), full of liberals, so things can get complex. Still, we can understand most of the complexities by simply looking at the classical and modern (or social) forms noted above and then understanding that all the forms of liberalism and conservatism are essentially an extension of or opposition to this.

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.

TIP: Another really accurate and insightful article on liberalism can be found at philosophybasics.com. I suggest comparing that page to ours for different, but correlating, bits of the puzzle.

What is a Liberal?

TIP: The opposition philosophy to classical liberalism is classical conservatism (the favoring of traditional state-authority and order). Likewise, the opposition philosophy to social liberalism is social conservatism (the favoring of traditional social order). A classical conservative might favor big government and state religion over a more disorderly system, but a social conservative would sooner allow individuals to own slaves than allow a central government power over states.

TIP: As we will discuss below, some forms of liberalism are more economically minded (economic liberalism, which comes in both a classical and social form), some are more religious minded, some are focused on individual rights, some are focused on collective rights, some focused on the purpose of government, etc. At this point in history there really is no one singular way to understand liberalism, but 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, but also classical liberalism and social liberalism  and classical conservatism and social conservatism as opposition philosophies of sorts.

The Origin of Liberalism

All the types of liberalism we will discuss below (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 major liberal revolutions: England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 (of which Locke was a part), America’s Revolution for independence from Britain of 1776 (where Jefferson essentially cites Locke), and the French Revolution of 1789 (where Thomas Paine provided a philosophical backbone for the revolution like he had in America).

Here Locke, Paine, all the founders of each revolution, and essentially 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 type of liberal. Thus, it should be obvious, there are many different types of liberals… and actually, I can make a case for Filmer, Hobbes, and even some of the aforementioned Kings, Anciens, and Tories as “liberal-conservatives”. In words, the political ideologies are necessarily complex and rarely singular. They are big tents in which we can place the world’s 7.2 billion and all historical figures and factions… this being one good reason for considering their sub-types and not just their 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 as it were.

FACT: In America, Republicans are essentially classical liberals / social conservatives who are favored by the North and cities and Democrats are essentially social liberals / classical conservatives who are favored by the South and rural voters. In common language in America, the term “liberal” means “American liberalism”… which is actually “a brand of social liberalism that is a bit authoritative in its use of government, which 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 Different Types of Liberalism: The 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! Not so fast…

From day one there were a few very different types of liberalism (even though they didn’t have names them, we can give them names now). We can describe them like this (although this list isn’t exhaustive and these aren’t all official accepted names):

  • Classical liberalism in general: A pushback against authority of church and state in terms of religion, economics, and liberties and rights. It generally favors the ideas of the Enlightenment thinkers in respect to rights and politics. So separation of powers, voting, republics, free-trade, religious liberty, free speech, anti-slavery (usually), etc.
  • Economic classical liberalism: Like Smith and Ricardo. The focus is on free-trade, not state-based mercantilism.
  • Religious classical liberalism: Many minority faiths just 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 wryly individual-liberty minded Americans in the south like Jefferson. This can range from being so liberal that you justify slavery, or being so liberal you behead all the elite, to really really just wanting to live in peace on a farm and not have government tell you what to do.
  • Social classical liberalism: Most liberal philosophers were what I would call social classical liberals. Where the founders of America couldn’t dismiss slavery, Locke and Montesquieu defined it as an abomination. Where 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. They put forth ideas in the 1600’s and 1700’s we still haven’t fully grasped today.  To use an analogy, where the classical liberal radicals were like early versions of Malcom 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 are best 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 Bushs) 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 world-wide 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 world-wide 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 guy living in the south was property, a woman was nearly property, and most of the working class wasn’t far removed from slavery via the workplace. So things were better for many bourgeoisie, but still “kind of sucked” in many ways for what today we call “the 99%” (the proletariat), especially if you were poor, female, or black. So, anyway, Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, and the Roosevelts push back against the oppression and begin to demand social justice and the followers of Marx push back and begin to demand 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 way to describe those who favor social justice, but favor capitalism over communism. I would say almost every modern American liberal is actually a social capitalist. It is the idea that we can move toward social justice via a mostly free / “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: Straight up socialist state Communism. Here there is no individual liberty, just the collective. Even in an ideal world where this doesn’t actually just 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. Its 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.

TIP: Other forms of thought related to liberalism include humanism, utilitarianism, pluralism, environmentalism, types of collectivism, types of left-leaning libertarianism, and more. Furthermore, under some lens, an idea like “pure anarchy” can be considered a type of liberalism (as it is anti-authority). Furthermore, we can give more names to forms and call forms by less common names like 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 err towards democracy or social betterment ranging from democracy itself to a state run by a benevolent monarch. From a wide definition, anything that isn’t pure conservatism can be a type of liberalism, so even very conservative hybrids can be noted in a broad discussion. Even a state run by a benevolent church, despite all its conservative properties, can be said to have flairs of social liberalism due to its focus on social betterment.

“Socialism” vs “Communism” | Etymosemanticology. A video that describes honestly the actual ideology in 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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