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Originally Published: 10/6/2006


By The Issue Wonk


Liberalism is a political philosophy that holds liberty and individual rights as its primary tenets and, thus, espouses limitations on the powers of government which could obstruct or hinder individual rights.  The United States of America was the first nation to construct a constitution based on the concept of liberal government, especially the Lockian idea of governments ruling only by the consent of the governed – the Social Contract Theory1.  Nearly all Western democracies are based on Liberalism.  (Wikipedia)  Liberalism rejects many of the assumptions which dominated the earlier theories of government, such as the Divine Right of Kings,2 hereditary status or nobility, and establishment of religion. 


According to the Columbia Encyclopedia,3 Liberalism is a


philosophy or movement that has as its aim the development of individual freedom.  Because the concepts of liberty or freedom change in different historical periods the specific programs of liberalism also change.  The final aim of liberalism, however, remains fixed, as does its characteristic belief not only in essential human goodness but also in human rationality.  Liberalism assumes that people, having a rational intellect, have the ability to recognize problems and solve them and thus can achieve systematic improvement in the human condition.  Often opposed to liberalism is the doctrine of conservatism, which, simply stated, supports the maintenance of the status quo.  Liberalism, which seeks what it considers to be improvement or progress, necessarily desires to change the existing order.


Liberalism’s approach to government, based on limitations of government and individual rights, results in a belief in the separation of church and state, in the rule of law, free public education, the free exchange of ideas, a market economy that supports relatively free private enterprise, and a transparent system of government in which the rights of all citizens are protected.  It promotes open and fair elections where all citizens have equal rights by law and an equal opportunity to succeed.  (Wikipedia)


The term “liberalism” has been used in many different ways.  Following are definitions.


Political Liberalism refers to a constitutionally liberal democracy, such as the U.S. Constitution, based on the above tenets.


Cultural Liberalism refers to individual liberty over laws limiting liberty for patriotic or religious reasons.


Economic Liberalism refers to the support of private property over government regulation.


Social Liberalism refers to a support of equality over inequality in opportunities available to all.




1 John Locke.  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

2 Divine Right of King.  The European Enlightenment Glossary.  Washington State University.

3 The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2001-2005.  See Bartleby.com.




© The Issue Wonk, 2006


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