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What is Liberalism?

Liberalism:  A political philosophy whose foundation is in the Enlightenment concept of ‘Egalitarian Universalism’ emphasizes individual liberty (hence liberal) over societal authority.  Liberalism contends that all human beings are born with equal intrinsic value.  By extension, liberalism contends that all humans are born unique, with individual talents, skills, motivations, etc.  As such, a civilised society must judge each individual according to their individual merit, regardless of their immutable characteristics (race, sex, eye colour, etc) or socio-economic class.  These principles define the foundation of 'civilisation' or 'modernity'.


Contravening this principle and judging individuals by such characteristics is the definition of racism, sexism, classism or any number of other 'isms', and forms the foundation of tribalism, feudalism and their modern reincarnations; socialism and post-modernism.  Ironically, pre-modernity and socialism/post-modernism are substantially identical while maintaining superficial differences, but I digress.  More on that in a different article.


Liberalism is widely described in the works of John Locke (‘The Father of Liberalism’; ‘A Letter Concerning Toleration’, 1689; ‘Two Treatises of Government’, 1689), Jean Baptiste Say (‘A Treatise on Political Economy’, 1803), Voltaire (‘A Treatise on Toleration’, 1763), John Adams, Adam Smith (‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759; ‘The Wealth of Nations’, 1776), Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill (‘The Principles of Political Economy’, 1859; ‘On Liberty’, 1859; ‘The Subjection of Women’, 1869), among others. 


Many of these cover liberal economics, which will be covered in a separate article, but should not be considered independent of liberal political philosophy.  Writings on liberal economics, otherwise known as free-market economics, began in the modern era with Adam Smith, but has been expanded for the modern reader by Friedrich Hayak ('Road to Serfcom'), Henry Hazlitt ('Economics in One Lesson') and Jonathon Tepper ('The Myth of Capitalism').  Liberal economics tends to reject macro-economic theories as being insufficiently nuanced to deal with true complexity, and instead emphasize the effects of 'distributed intelligence' where billions of one-on-one economic interactions is able to solve problems no interventionist or centrally planned economic system can.


Liberalism contends that a society or nation derives its value from the citizens within it, holding individual human rights and civil and economic liberties as having highest value, with group or state interests always being subservient to rights of the individual.  A liberal believes in individual responsibility and justice based on individual merit and common law.  ‘Equality’ to a liberal means ‘formal equality’ or ‘formal equality of opportunity’; defined by equality before the law and protection from direct discrimination, with the ultimate aim of social, cultural and economic diversity based on individual competence, defined as a combination of knowledge, skill, effort and ethics. 

Liberalism can be divided into ‘Pure’ Liberalism and ‘Social’ Liberalism, with the latter focussing on greater government regulation for the protection of workers rights and safety, outlawing child labour, protection of a free market from the corrupting influences of monopolies, cartels, etc.; and providing a social safety net (financial and health care) to help cushion citizens from adverse economic and health circumstances beyond their control.

Libertarian:  In the modern (post WWII) sense, this is a term used by real Liberals to differentiate themselves from 'Modern Liberals', who are neither 'modern' nor 'liberal'. 


Historically Libertarianism is a purist subset of Classical Liberalism that made/makes the claim that political liberalism and liberal democracy come hand in hand with social or cultural liberalism. 


However, liberals would argue that when religious, social or cultural movements stray from the religious, philosophical and cultural roots of Egalitarian Universalism, which lies at the core of western liberal democracy, political chaos and social conflict are inevitable.  It's this disagreement on the necessity for 'social fabric' that differentiates traditional 'libertarianism' with 'classical liberalism'.  John Locke would be described as 'liberal' and Voltaire leaned more 'libertarian'.  Abraham Lincoln, often called a libertarian, was actually a liberal.

Reading List:

'The Second Treatise of Government' - John Locke

'A letter Concerning Toleration' - John Locke

'A Treatise on Toleration' - Voltaire

'The Theory of Moral Sentiments' - Adam Smith

'On Liberty' - John Stuart Mill *

'The Subjection of Women' - John Stuart Mill

* If you want a basic grounding in true liberalism, 'On Liberty' by Mill is probably the best place to start.

Edited: 16 May 2023

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