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?

“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).

  • Gian

    The proposed link between General Will and the Welfare state is needs to be made clear. A more detailed
    explication of Rousseau would be helpful since English-speaking world is not familiar with his ideas in detailed
    as compared with Locke.

    A discussion of classical liberalism is also incomplete without mention of their opponents, the Tories.
    Do Tories in 18C or 19C exist still?

    • Michael PS

      Rousseau is a very concise and close reasoner, so it is difficult to find helpful quotes, but good starting point might be this passage from “The Social Contract” :

      “He who dares to undertake the making of a people’s institutions ought to feel himself capable, so to speak, of changing human nature, of transforming each individual, who is by himself a complete and solitary whole, into part of a greater whole from which he in a manner receives his life and being; of altering man’s constitution for the purpose of strengthening it; and of substituting a partial and moral existence for the physical and independent existence nature has conferred on us all. He must, in a word, take away from man his own resources and give him instead new ones alien to him, and incapable of being made use of without the help of other men. The more completely these natural resources are annihilated, the greater and the more lasting are those which he acquires, and the more stable and perfect the new institutions; so that if each citizen is nothing and can do nothing without the rest, and the resources acquired by the whole are equal or superior to the aggregate of the resources of all the individuals, it may be said that legislation is at the highest possible point of perfection.”

      Similarly, speaking of the Social Contract itself, Rousseau says:

      “These clauses, properly understood, may be reduced to one — the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community; for, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others.

      Moreover, the alienation being without reserve, the union is as perfect as it can be, and no associate has anything more to demand: for, if the individuals retained certain rights, as there would be no common superior to decide between them and the public, each, being on one point his own judge, would ask to be so on all; the state of nature would thus continue, and the association would necessarily become inoperative or tyrannical.”

      The conclusion being:

      “Each man alienates, I admit, by the social compact, only such part of his powers, goods and liberty as it is important for the community to control; but it must also be granted that the Sovereign [Sovereign = We, the People NOT the government] is sole judge of what is important.”

      I hope this helps.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Gian: Rousseau’s political philosophy is complicated. The quotes offered above by Michael PS are helpful. Also, yesterday published a good column on Rousseau by George Marlin, calling him “The High Priest of Civic Religions.” Rousseau was convinced almost religiously that there was some “General Will” that could be made manifest under the proper conditions, but that there was always a conflict with “The Will of All” (volonté de tous) and with factions. So ideally the best government would require a very small state where everything was decided by something like town meetings. But in large states, more aggressive means must be used to make sure the “General Will” is not interfered with by individuals — Rousseau even uses the phrase, “forcing men to be free.”

  • Martial Artist

    @Professor Kainz,

    Does not a part of the confusion in the modern use of the word arise historically from the early twentieth century?

    I know that I have read at least one historian who asserts that what are in the U.S. today called “liberals” are, in actuality the philosophical descendants of the progressives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (e.g., Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, Hoover, etc.) and that they renamed themselves “liberals” when the U.S. electorate became disenchanted with progressivism.

    • Michael PS

      In France, the term “lLiberal” means a supporter of laissez faire economics and no political party uses it. The nearest equivalent to the American usage is Social Democrat. Similarly, a “conservative” means someone who believes in the “sacred and indissoluble alliance of Throne and Altar.” No party uses that either.

  • Anders13

    Today, in the U.S. “conservative” commonly refers to “Reagan conservative” after former President Ronald Reagan who’s philosophy was more like the nation’s founders than like traditional conservatives.

    “Liberal” leaders of today are “Franklin Roosevelt liberals” which means that they are actually progressive socialist who renamed themselves because the German Nazis were progressive socialist. Today they are starting to call themselves progressives again because it sounds good and most people have forgotten about the Nazis being progressive socialist.

  • Michael PS

    At the risk of a gross over-simplification, I suppose one could say that, for Locke, freedom meant freedom from government interference and, for Rousseau, freedom meant sharing in the government.

    Following Rousseau, Europeans are inclined to see government action as the consummated result of their own organized wishes and the government as the people’s agent.

    • Martial Artist

      @Michael PS,

      That is doubtless true. The problem arises that once the populace has, in general, conflated “the government” with “their own organized wishes,” where is the barrier to that government declaring the will of the majority an inviolate mandate for all? I would suggest that the majority will see no barrier.

      Pax et bonum,
      Keith Töpfer

      • Michael PS

        The utter contempt in which the political class, and even parliamentary government itself, is held is something of a corrective.

        Astonishing as it may seem, I have known people who admired both General de Gaulle and Philippe Pétain; for such people, their principle virtue is that they belonged to no party, they were their own men, not politicians.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Martial Artist: It’s true, the word has been bandied about, but the Oxford English Dictionary gives multiple examples of the word “liberal” being used in the political sense even in the 18th century. John Dewey tried to clear things up in the early 20th century by making a distinction between the “old liberal,” roughly equivalent to what we now call a libertarian, and the “new liberal,” who favors highly structured or even socialistic approaches to assure political equality.

  • Martial Artist

    Thank you, Professor. I suppose that, as an Old Whig (both in the sense used by Hayek and Burke, and in my age—six and a half decades) my problem arises from the lack of precision in the usage, both over the several centuries and in present times, of both liberal and conservative. I am beginning to ponder ideas of a more Austro-libertarian, or even anarcho-Austrian-libertarian, variety.

  • Jack

    Rousseau had a conception of freedom called positive freedom, which is intertwined with notions of civic virtue, participatory democracy, and the sacrifice of individual interests to the common good. This is because his Social Contract is a work on classical republicanism. Republicanism emphasizes virtue, citizenship, and the public good (the latin phrase from which it’s derived, res publica, means “public thing”).
    The freedom in a classical republic is the freedom of the citizen. This is a much more complicated idea than freedom as it’s generally used. When people talk about freedom, they generally mean it in the negative sense. Negative freedom means that someone is free to do whatever they want, that is, when the law doesn’t regulate your actions, you’re free.

    For Rousseau, freedom doesn’t mean you’re not dominated at all, it just means that you’re not dominated by some private interest (the tyranny of an absolute monarch, for example). Notice at the beginning of The Social Contract, when he says that “man is born but is everywhere in chains” he doesn’t go on to say he can show how to break the chains, but that he can show how to make the chains legitimate. The chains are made legitimate when each participant in the contract completely gives up their natural rights and their negative liberty to the will of the whole body of the people. This leveling of social conditions ensures that no individual interest is raised above the interest of the whole people. Therefore each individual puts himself under the supreme direction of the general will as opposed to particular wills. This despotism of the public interest is “freedom” in the positive sense, because, for Rousseau, there is no conflict between the general interest and individual interests. To the extent a person has interests opposed to the general interest, that person is not free in the sense that Rousseau means freedom.

    Basically, freedom in Rousseau means that each individual is free to join with the whole society in deliberating on, and formulating, a general will. Then, each person is free to be regulated and directed by the laws.

    This is very different from the conception of freedom in liberalism which we generally adhere to in the America. Liberal freedom means that, in civil society, every individual is entitled to rights that protect private freedom: the freedom to do whatever you want to do within a sphere that is limited only by the equal freedom of others.

    But Rousseau’s positive freedom only exists when an association of individuals becomes an organic body politic with a will according to the process outlined above. Another way of saying it is that citizen obligations come before rights and freedom. Rights and freedom are derivative of the reciprocal relationships and obligations between the individual and the state (the state means the whole body of the people, not the government). So rights and freedom are explicitly civil and political. In liberalism, on the contrary, rights and freedom mean exemptions from the will of the state. But for Rousseau, you’re only free to the extent you’re under the direction of the state. This is why he says, if individuals violate the laws they can be “forced to be free.” This is a paradox if by freedom, you mean exemptions. But Rousseau’s concept of freedom is radically different from ours in America, where the 1st Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law…”

    It’s important to note that there’s an interpretation of The Social Contract that says it’s totalitarian or fascist. In that interpretation it’s more accurate to call his utopia a people’s republic than a liberal democracy like America.

    For more on these typologies of liberty, look up Isaiah Berlin.