Modern liberalism definition

Classical liberals, such as John Locke, espoused the principles of individualism, liberty, justice, and equality. Modern liberals rhetorically endorse the same principles, using the same language, but attach a different meaning to these terms. However, when the differences in the meanings attached to these terms are carefully considered, the modern liberal definitions conflict with those of classical liberals.


Liberalism is defined as the political ideology of the preservation of individual liberty. Liberty is interchangeable with freedom, because if a man is unable to act as he wishes, his freedom is thereby restrained by another. In other words, Liberalism attempts to first argue that the foundation of society is founded upon by a social-contract amongst individuals, and that these individuals engage in said contract to best preserve their ability to think and act as they wish. John Locke, the father of this tradition, affirms this notion, arguing that ‘creatures of the same species and rank… should also be equal amongst another, ’ and that ‘every man has a property in his own person…nobody has any right to but himself.’ Core themes that set the foundation for Liberalism are the emphasis placed upon the individual, freedom and reason. Given Locke’s argument of self-ownership, individuals are at the root of Liberalism.

In addition, the purpose of individuals instituting government, via the social-contract, is to preserve their ability to pursue their aims with protection from other individuals that could potentially harass them whilst in pursuit of these aims. An additional liberal theme is the concept of justice: ‘a moral standard of fairness and impartiality’.

The function of the government is thus as Locke sums up as a ‘night watchman state’. This implies a limited state, which both preserves one’s civil liberty and protects one from aggression (either within said society or from a foreign nation). Classical liberals believe man is best designed to maximize his freedom to allow him maximized reason. This belief in the individual argues that since man is best enabled to handle his own economic and moral choices, he should be protected in as much as he doesn’t infringe upon the boundaries of another man’s liberties. In addition, Classical Liberals believe in the existence of natural rights. Thomas Jefferson explained these natural rights as seen in the Declaration of Independence:

‘That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed’, implying that government is designed as a ‘necessary evil’ because of its power to limit freedom to man, even if it is to protect them from aggression. The Classical Liberal ideal is then, the least government possible, the absolute protection of natural rights, and the freedom of individuals to pursue their aims without fear of attack or coercion from governments.

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