Defining & Understanding Liberalism

Defining & Understanding Liberalism


When the term “liberalism” (derived from the Latin word liberalis, meaning “pertaining to a free man”) first emerged in the early 1800s, its hallmarks were a belief in: individual rights (which included civil liberties, political equality, freedom of conscience, and freedom of thought); the rule of law; limited government; private property; and laissez faire economics. Moreover, liberalism favored a pluralistic secular state and opposed all efforts to link religion to the government. It also believed strongly in the idea of progress, but stressed, unlike socialism, that progress should take place by means of orderly, legal procedures rather than by revolutionary upheaval; in other words, liberty could not be separated from the means used to attain it. These would remain the defining characteristics of liberalism throughout the liberal epoch, generally identified as the period of 1815-1914. It was a time of industrial development, unprecedented growth in both population and living standards, expansion of individual liberties and social tolerance, the abolition of slavery and serfdom, a reprieve from major wars, and the waning of political authoritarianism.

The foregoing liberal ideals did not coalesce in a vacuum. Classical liberalism grew out of the 17th-century Age of Reason and the 18th-century Enlightenment. This was a period when:

  • Western culture broke its long-held faith in the presumptive and everlasting authority of the past, and embraced instead the notion that human beings were capable of progressing beyond the knowledge and insights of ancient scholars and writers;
  • skepticism gained unprecedented prestige, making it acceptable to doubt every tenet of conventional wisdom or tradition that could not be readily justified by a valid criterion of truth;
  • man’s willingness to admit his ignorance about things that could not be proved by scientific method, was seen as a proper humility, preferable to feigned certainty;
  • legislators, philosophers and the common man alike endeavored to devise better ways of governing and of treating their fellow citizens;
  • the culture came to believe that “natural” human motivations such as the pursuit of happiness — which eventually would be enshrined in the Declaration of Independence — were every bit as constant and predictable as the natural laws that governed the orbits of the planets;
  • the West came to understand that each person’s knowledge and beliefs were limited to his experiences and surroundings, a realization that promoted tolerance for other cultures, faiths, and worldviews;
  • it was widely believed that a commercial, secular, and religiously diversified state was much to be preferred over a state dominated by the elite of any single faith; and
  • a free-market, laissez faire economy was seen as the system best suited for the creation of wealth.

These views were proposed and advanced by a host of giants in the fields of philosophy, economics, and science — among them Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, the Baron de Montesquieu, David Hume, Joseph Butler, Denis Diderot, and Adam Smith.

No figure was more important than Locke, whose observation that all knowledge and ideas arise from human experience paved the way to classical liberalism’s humility about the limits of our knowledge, its respect for freedom of thought and of religion, and its admonition against sudden, revolutionary breaks with established tradition. Locke also identified the vital link between political liberty and private property; indeed, history has since shown that only when a government acknowledges the right of the individual to own private property, does that government understand that there are boundaries to its own power.

When the American colonists issued their Declaration of Independence in 1776, that document was steeped in liberal Lockean themes. Most notably, its assertion of the right of every man to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” echoed Locke’s claim that everyone had a right to defend their “life, health, Liberty, [and] possessions.” The Declaration’s notion that governments should be abolished and replaced if they become abusive of people’s natural rights, is yet another Lockean idea.

1776 also saw the publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, the foundational work of free-market economics. Embodied in that book, and in the Declaration of Independence, was a liberalism that was evolving from the proposals of philosophers into the policy of governments — thereby setting the stage for the century-long liberal epoch that would soon commence.

Since the end of that epoch, however, “liberalism” has been gradually transformed from a term denoting Jeffersonian domestic liberty, into a synonym for the welfare state; from a term advocating limited government, to a shill for expansive statism.

Tracing the cause of this semantic shift, the economist Joseph Schumpeter says: “As a supreme, if unintended, compliment, the enemies of private enterprise have thought it wise to appropriate its label” (i.e.,”liberalism”). In the early 20th century, for instance, the education reformer John Dewey marveled at the achievements of Soviet Bolshevism and urged Americans “to give up much of [their] economic freedom,” to abandon their “individualistic tradition,” and to recognize “the supremacy of public need over private possessions.” And yet Dewey called himself not a Marxist but a liberal — a “new” liberal; similarly, he referred to his ideas not as collectivism but rather as individualism — a “new” individualism.

Over the ensuing years and decades, leftists, progressives, and socialists have routinely championed crusades and ideals bearing ever-less resemblance to classical liberalism, yet they invariably have identified both themselves and their evolving causes as “liberal.” Programs that were in fact leftist and socialist were enacted by legislators and social reformers in the name of “liberalism,” whose reputation as a guardian of human freedom served not only to shield those programs from public criticism, but in fact to win wide public approval of them.

In terms of both semantic usage and governmental policy, “liberalism” today is most widely associated with a single concept: the mixed economy, i.e., a state that is neither completely capitalist (laissez faire) nor entirely socialist (totalitarian). It is a union of conflicting — liberal vs. anti-liberal — elements. As Friedrich Hayek, the great twentieth-century scholar of liberalism, observed, such inconsistencies raise a host of vital questions:

  • If we have the redistribution of wealth, then what of private property?
  • If we enact biased laws to effect economic (or “social”) equality, then what of political equality?
  • If we regard the collective as the essential entity, then what of the primacy of the individual?
  • Precisely what is the mix of the mixed economy?
  • When is it capitalist and when is it socialist?
  • When does it protect property and when does it confiscate it?
  • When does it leave people alone and when does it coerce them?
  • When does it adhere to the ethics of individualism and when does it obey the code of collectivism?

Mixed practices (such as the mixed economy) imply mixed principles, which in turn imply mixed, and therefore irrational, premises. And it is precisely that jumble which constitutes the modern “liberal” welfare state. Its exemplar is the “liberal” who supports laissez faire for social issues but statism for economic issues.

Contemporary “liberalism,” then, is a parody of its predecessor. It is leftism in disguise. Specifically, it is a stalwart champion of:

  • group rights and collective identity, rather than of individual rights and responsibilities (e.g., the racial preference policies known as affirmative action, and the left’s devotion to identity politics generally);
  • the expansion of government rather than its diminution (favoring ever-escalating taxes to fund a bloated welfare state and a government that oversees virtually every aspect of human life) (also a disregard for the separation of powers, as evidenced by the executive and judicial branches usurping the legislative authority of Congress);
  • the redistribution of wealth (through punitive taxes and, again, a mushrooming welfare state) rather than its creation through free markets based on private property; and
  • the circumvention of law rather than the rule of law (as exemplified by the flouting of immigration laws and nondiscrimination laws, or by a preference for judicial activism whereby judges co-opt the powers that rightfully belong to legislators, or by permitting certain individuals to be above the law and its penalties).

With regard to the fourth item listed above, Hoover Institution Fellow Thomas Sowell i 2012 identified a number of ways in which President Barack Obama had taken steps to impose his own political agendas on the American people, rather than abide by existing law. For example, wrote Dr. Sowell:

  • “To have a law [ObamaCare] that can cost an organization millions of dollars a year either apply or not apply, depending on the whim or political interest of the President of the United States, is to make a mockery of the rule of law. How secure is any freedom when there is this kind of arbitrary power in the hands of one man? What does your right of freedom of speech mean if saying something that irritates the Obama administration means that you or your business has to pay huge amounts of money and get hit with all sorts of red tape under ObamaCare that your competitor is exempted from, because your competitor either kept quiet or praised the Obama administration or donated to its reelection campaign?”[1]
  • “You do not have a self-governing people when ‘czars’ are created by Executive Orders, so that individuals wielding vast powers equal to, or greater than, the powers of Cabinet members do not have to be vetted and confirmed by the people’s elected representatives in the Senate, as Cabinet members must be.”
  • “You do not have a self-governing people when a so-called ‘consumer protection’ agency is created to be financed by the unelected officials of the Federal Reserve System, which can create its own money out of thin air, instead of being financed by appropriations voted by elected members of Congress who have to justify their priorities and trade-offs to the taxpaying public.”
  • “You do not have a self-governing people when laws passed by the Congress, signed by previous Presidents, and approved by the federal courts, can have the current President waive whatever sections he does not like, and refuse to enforce those sections, despite his oath to see that the laws are faithfully executed. Barack Obama, for example, has refused to carry out sections of the immigration laws that he does not like, unilaterally creating de facto amnesty for those illegal immigrants he has chosen to be exempt from the law.”[2]

Another noteworthy feature of today’s “liberalism” is that, unlike classical liberalism, it is intolerant of opposing viewpoints, favors the promotion of group-think, and interprets as treason any deviation from its own intellectual orthodoxy. We see this phenomenon manifested with particular clarity by self-identified black “liberals” who excoriate black conservatives as “race traitors,” “house slaves,” “Oreos,” and “Uncle Toms.”


  1. As of November 2012, the Obama administration had issued waivers from Obamacare’s onerous financial burdens to more than 2,000 favored companies and unions. In the summer of 2013, it became widely reported that Obamacare, which did not exempt members of Congress or their staffers from its reach, included a provision that should have cost each member of Congress and each staffer $5,000 to $11,000 per year. Many staffers were threatening to quit their jobs as a result. At that point, Obama got personally involved in working to circumvent the problem. On August 1, 2013, the President announced that taxpayers would cover 75% of those extra costs.
  2. notes that in the summer of 2012, “Obama directed immigration agencies not to deport some illegal immigrants who were brought to America as children, and to give them work-authorization permits. In effect, he implemented much of the DREAM Act that Congress has long debated, but never enacted.” In August 2013, President Obama instructed immigration agents to refrain from arresting and deporting illegal immigrant parents or primary providers of minor children.

Additional Resources:

Liberal and Left
By David Horowitz

The Difference between Liberalism and Leftism
By Lawrence Auster
December 14, 2002

Use These 32 Questions to Determine Whether Someone Is a Liberal or a Leftist
By Dennis Prager
March 2, 2021

Liberalism: The Slippery Slope to the Left
By Barry Loberfeld
September 9, 2004

Upside-Down Politics
By David Horowitz
July 27, 1998

The Origin of “Liberalism”
By Daniel Klein
February 13, 2014

Whose Liberalism?: The Curious Career of Two Ideas and One Word
By Kevin D. Williamson
December 29, 2014

The Psychology Underlying “Liberalism”
By John J. Ray
September 12, 2002

Classical Liberalism vs. Modern Liberalism and Modern Conservatism
By The National Center for Policy Analysis
September 8, 2008

What Is Classical Liberalism?
By John C. Goodman
December 20, 2005

The Case Against Liberal Compassion
By William Voegeli
October 2014

Leftism Is Not Liberalism
By Dennis Prager
September 12, 2017

If Liberals Voted Their Values, America Would Be Saved
By Dennis Prager
September 12, 2023

By Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
September 29, 2003

Freedom’s Dictators
By Bruce Thornton
January 10, 2008

Liberals: Exempt from Scrutiny 
By Victor Davis Hanson
May 6, 2014

Detroit’s Demise Is the Triumph of Liberalism
By Ellis Washington
February 13, 2008

The Context of Liberalism
By Ralph de Toledano
November 9, 1957

Classical Liberalism and World Peace
By Richard Ebeling
August 2003

Who Are the Real Liberals?
By Thomas Sowell
April 7, 2005

Liberals Are Really Socialists
By Nathan Tabor
August 24, 2005

The Leftist Jihad Has Nothing To Do with Liberalism
By Daniel Greenfield
October 9, 2014


What Is Classical Liberalism?
By Learn Liberty

Top 10 Ways Liberalism Makes America Worse
By Dennis Prager

© Copyright 2024,