Classical Versus Contemporary Liberalism

In previous elections, including the last presidential election, many of us will recall hearing allegations that this or that candidate “is a liberal,” “has a 100 percent liberal record,” “has always sided with the liberals in his party,” and so forth. And, without any further elaboration or explanation, certain ideological positions came automatically to our mind: support for abortion and same-sex “marriage”; no restrictions on obscenity or pornography but censorship of religious speech and symbols; governmental redistribution of wealth from the rich to the economically challenged.

But liberalism has had a long and largely honorable existence in recent centuries. Many of the American Founders were liberals and intent on establishing a liberal constitution and a liberal way of life for the United States. So what has happened? Has some enormous change of meaning sneaked up on us?

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“Liberalism” has liber as its Latin etymological root, meaning “free.” And the interpretation of liberalism runs parallel to one’s interpretation of freedom.

For some, freedom may connote arbitrary choice — “doing what you want, as long as you don’t infringe on someone else’s freedom (or as long as you don’t get caught).” The choices in question could be good, bad, or indifferent. I might impulsively and arbitrarily decide to go out and give cash to needy persons, or collect rattlesnakes, or commit suicide in such a way that no one who depends on me will be affected.

For others, freedom may mean the opportunity to pursue his or her natural rights, most of which are included at least implicitly in the UN Charter of Human Rights: namely, the right to life and property; the right to reproduce (not “reproductive rights” as a bizarre synonym for abortion), raise a family, and bequeath property to one’s offspring; the right to pursue knowledge, to be educated or educate oneself; to express what one considers to be the truth to others; and to contribute in rational and constructive ways to the building up of communities and societies.

As regards political ramifications, either of the above types of freedom could view the state as an impediment or as an important facilitator. If the state is viewed as an impediment, an extreme proponent of freedom might end up as an anarchist. But more moderate and rational views of government might include:

  • A minimal, “night watchman” type of state, simply providing security for all its individual citizens, as they go about their various pursuits and businesses. This type of state could be optimally supported by a laissez-faire approach to economics.
  • With a little more sophistication, political libertarianism, as systematic political maneuvering to make sure that the natural rights of individuals are untrammeled by needless laws, unfair taxation, or intrusions into any person’s private life.

If, on the other hand, the state is seen as a facilitator, the extremist proponent of “freedom for all” may resort to a dictatorship or to an overbearing nanny state. But more moderate implementations might include:

  • Strict and uniform governmental regulation of education and economics.
  • Enactment of laws to ensure basic human rights, including freedom of religion without favoritism of any particular religion.
  • Moderate democratic socialism (which may bring out that other common meaning of “liberal,” i.e., supplying all manner of material benefits to as many persons as possible).

Classical liberals generally have gravitated to the first political interpretation – i.e., concern about the encroachment of the state upon the freedom of individuals; and political philosophers like John Locke have proposed guidelines for deciding when state encroachment has become so extreme that revolution is justified.

Contemporary liberals, however, tend to favor the second political interpretation, idealizing a state that is proactive in assuring (what they consider to be) the welfare of all. The New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt serves as one model for liberals who want to minimize abject poverty, put people to work, and provide “safety nets” to cushion those who are caught in unforeseeable circumstances.

European liberals have largely been influenced by the political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who favored a small and manageable state and theorized that the never-ending task of large states would be attempts to implement the “general will” of the populace and prevent factions as much as possible. This has resulted in a strong movement among Western European nations toward the “welfare state.” Even many members of European “conservative” political parties would not favor the abolition of some entitlements that U.S. libertarians would consider socialistic.

Americans have been significantly influenced by the liberal political philosophy of Locke, whose political writings were popular among the Founders. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution reflect the Lockean emphasis on individual rights to life and property. This emphasis, down the historical line, has been instrumental in the emancipation of slaves, suffrage for women, and the growing empowerment of women in the workplace and the professions.


The contemporary political interpretation of liberalism, however — and here is where we come to the problem that perturbs many — emphasizes a combination of the first (arbitrary) type of freedom with the second (proactive) type of politics. Going considerably beyond the basic natural rights adumbrated above, and largely included in the UN charter, the contemporary card-carrying liberal may cheerfully support:

  • distributing condoms and contraceptives to augment sexual freedom and brake the natural development of families
  • providing governmental assistance and funding for abortion facilities
  • removing all obstacles to the normalization of homosexuality (including homosexual “marriage”)
  • supporting restrictions on speech, writings, and demonstrations that cast doubt on the arbitrary values espoused by the liberals themselves
  • removing “freedom of conscience” guidelines for doctors, pharmacists, and other medical professionals who have religious objections to some of these values

Thus what we are witnessing is a truly Orwellian change of meanings, even of dictionary definitions — along with “reproductive rights,” which used to mean the right to have children; “gay,” which formerly meant happy, joyful, or cheerful; and “marriage,” which not too long ago meant the lifelong union of man and woman, leading to the formation of a family.

“Liberalism,” likewise, formerly meant support of individual rights for all, including the right to life, to education, free speech, economic entrepreneurship, expression of religious beliefs, and nuclear families as the foundation for civil society. But now it connotes for many an ideological agenda to change long-standing and constructive social institutions, as well as the way people act and think. In fact, many contemporary liberals work to invert the natural individual rights enumerated above — the right to life being replaced by the right to die, the right to reproduce replaced by the right to snuff out the life of one’s offspring, the right to pursue the truth replaced by the right to proselytize political correctness, and the right to constructive social engagement replaced by socialistic restructuring.

Where are the classical liberals now? Have they managed to avoid the Orwellian change of meaning that has taken place? I believe they are still among us — including many pro-life Republicans and Democrats who oppose abortion, because of the basic right of pre-born humans to life, and support property rights and traditional marriage; they are affiliated with one strand of classical liberalism but will be classified and often denigrated as “conservatives,” “religious fundamentalists,” or worse. Many libertarians who consider themselves firmly in the classical liberal tradition of Locke and the Founders would also fit the description — but, like so many others, have avoided potential linguistic confusion by discarding that frequently redefined name, “liberal.”


  • Howard Kainz

    Howard Kainz is professor emeritus at Marquette University. He is the author of several books, including Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

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