what is liberalism

Liberalism is a political philosophy that defends individual freedom, equality before the law, the separation of powers and tolerance within the framework of the rule of law.

It also proposes the limitation of the role of the State in civil life and in economic relations, and the protection of private property.

It is a political system essentially compatible with republican democracy of the representative type. It has concrete expressions in politics as well as in the economy and the social sphere.

Liberalism emerged around the seventeenth century in opposition to absolutism. It sought to achieve the freedom of the human being, guarantee legal equality and promote the economic well-being of nations. It was founded on the ideas of John Locke, considered the father of liberalism, and thinkers such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, among others.

The word liberalism is formed from the Latin term liberalisand “-ismo”, suffix relative to doctrine, system, school.

Characteristics of liberalism

The characteristics of liberalism derive from its most important ideas. Therefore, liberalism is characterized by defending or proposing the following aspects:

  • Principle of equality before the law. Liberalism understands that all people must be equal before the law, both in rights and obligations.
  • Separation of powers. It also proposes the separation of political power into different distributions: executive power, legislative power and judicial power, so that there is a political balance.
  • secular state. Liberalism opposes the confessional State and proposes the secular State. That is, put an end to the direct interference of religion in the administration of the State.
  • Parliamentarism. Liberalism encourages public debate on issues that affect the nation, through parliaments and assemblies.
  • Defense of individual liberty. Liberalism defends freedom of thought, as well as freedom of expression, of the press, of worship, of association, etc.
  • religious tolerance. Freedom of belief and respect for it is a very important aspect of liberalism, since it guarantees social peace.
  • Private property. Liberalism proposes private property as a right and encouragement of individual initiative.

types of liberalism

political liberalism

Political liberalism is a system based on the freedom of the individual and the protection of their civil liberties. Among them, freedom of thought, expression, association and the press.

These freedoms are protected by a rule of law, in which individuals can exercise sovereignty through democratically elected political representatives.

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Therefore, liberalism is expressed in generally republican systems, with a system of separation of powers and a clear distinction between Church and State. In addition, it proposes a limitation of state intervention in citizen affairs, be they economic, social or cultural.

economic liberalism

As economic liberalism is called the doctrine that proposes to limit the intervention of the State in economic matters. It was originally formulated by Adam Smith in his book The Wealth of Nations (1776). Economic liberalism considers that commercial relations must be carried out in a framework of freedom and equality of conditions, under the principles of individual and private initiative.

It also assumes that market forces and individual entrepreneurship boost a nation’s productivity, which, in theory, would lead to wealth and the common good. It is specified in aspects such as:

  • defense of free trade
  • promotion of privatizations,
  • reduction of public spending,
  • reduction of taxes on producers (the richest sectors) to promote supply,
  • recognition of a central bank that regulates the currency.

social liberalism

Social liberalism is also known as socioliberalism, social liberalism, democratic liberalism, or progressive liberalism, among others.

It arose in the 19th century as a response to the unfair living conditions caused by economic liberalism and the Industrial Revolution in the working class.

It opens the way to the current social democracy. In this way, social liberalism proposes the mediation of the State to offer fairer and more equal social conditions for the disadvantaged. For example, access to education and health services.

see also

  • Industrial Revolution.
  • economic liberalism.
  • Neoliberalism.

Origin of liberalism

Liberalism was born in England around the 17th century in opposition to the European absolutist monarchy, which was characterized by concentrating all the powers of the State in the hands of a single autocrat.

It gains strength during the Enlightenment period, also called Enlightenment, and rises at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, penetrating especially the bourgeois sectors of European society.

In this way, it inspired various revolutions, which spread the influence of liberalism throughout Europe and Latin America. In the latter, liberalism encouraged the independence revolutions that began in 1810, and that led to the creation of independent nations.

Stages of liberalism

Protoliberalism (1688-1799). In the stage of protoliberalism there are various historical milestones that influence the ideas of philosophers and politicians. Namely:

  • Glorious Revolution in England (1688-1689): the English parliament overthrows King James III Stuart, of absolutist tendency. He asserted the parliamentary monarchy, under the regency of Mary II and William III of Orange.
  • American Revolution (1776): it recognized individual freedom and enshrined it in the Constitution, created in 1787 and in force since 1789. This had the merit of being the first constitution in the world.
  • French Revolution (1789): it meant the fall of absolutism in Europe and the first declaration of the Rights of Man, to the cry of “liberty, equality and fraternity”.
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Classic liberalism (1780-1860). It is the period in which the foundations of liberal thought are formed. The thinkers elaborate the theories that redefine the relationship between the State and the people, particularly contractualism and constitutionalism. Particularly influential were John Locke (England) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (France), as well as Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith (both from Scotland).

Likewise, liberal thinkers appear who reflect on individualism and collectivism, and the possible harmonization of both aspects for cohesion and social development, that is, to harmonize the order of the private with the public. It reflects on the ethics of capitalism and promotes the idea of ​​expanded democracy.

In this stage, which leads to a greater concern for the social, the thought of John Stuart Mill, whose doctrine is known as utilitarianism.

This period covers the set of European revolutions that took place after 1848. These focused on the reflection and exercise of associativism for the defense of various sectors or values, in the midst of the dramatic changes caused by industrialization.

New liberalisms (1870 to the present). Currently, liberalism has maintained its validity, although it has been subject to new interpretations in light of historical changes. From the late nineteenth century to the present, there have been various trends within liberalism.

We can identify several trends that, although they emerged at different times, coexist with each other today. These are:

  • Social liberalisms (from about 1870). It is based on the concept of the welfare state, which seeks a balance between the public and private sectors. It has played an important role in preventing totalitarian models, whether from the left or the right.
  • Conservative liberalisms (since 1870 approximately). Represented by those sectors of liberalism that mistrust representative democracy and State action in relation to freedom of enterprise. Therefore, they seek to reduce the powers of the State to the minimum possible.
  • Communal liberalism (from about 1918). It brings together all those liberal groups that defend respect for political and cultural difference and the rights of minorities, within the framework of the universal rights of the human being.
  • Neutral liberalisms. (since 1945, end of World War II). They are those that are anchored in the application of universal principles for the regulation of social conflicts.
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Since 1980, there has been talk of neoliberalism to refer to the adaptation of economic liberalism to the current context. However, currently some authors consider that neoliberal practices have accentuated economic inequality worldwide, and therefore differentiate neoliberalism from classical liberalism in economic matters.

Main authors of liberalism

John Locke (British, 1632-1704). Father and founder of the principles of liberalism. He defended the constitutional monarchy. He understood the State as the result of free convention among men as long as the right to property and equality between them before the law is recognized. He proposed the separation of the legislative and judicial power and the separation of the Church in the affairs of the State.

Montesquieu (France, 1689-1755): laid the foundations of the concept of Nation (climate, geography, culture and economy). “Be national”. He understood that the monarch should only be conceived as an expression of executive power, not legislative. He proposed the independence of the judiciary.

Voltaire (France, 1694-1778): he sought to spread the ideas of Newton and Locke, and was a radical defender of freedom of thought. In this sense, he was a promoter of tolerance and, therefore, he fought religious fanaticism.

Rousseau (France, 1712-1778): he dedicated himself to studying that of civil society: “man is good, society corrupts him”. In 1762 he published the Social Contract: from freedom (individual) to oppression (society).

Adam Ferguson (Scotland, 1723-1816): philosopher and historian. He reflected on the nature of institutions, demystifying the idea of ​​divine legitimacy and the need for an individual, wise and unquestionable authority. For him, the set and interrelation of the actions of individuals form the institutions, deliberately or not.

Adam Smith (Scotland, 1723-1790): Scottish economist and philosopher. He considered that social welfare was closely related to the economic growth of individuals. He is considered the forerunner of classical economics thanks to his work The Wealth of Nations.

Alexis de Tocqueville (France, 1805-1859): politician, philosopher, jurist and historian. He defended the American-style representative system, characterized as an indirect democracy.

John Stuart Mill (United Kingdom, 1806-1873): politician, philosopher and economist, representative of the classical economic school. He defended individual freedom over state control and social oppression. Promoter of the current of utilitarianism, he was critical of economic liberalism and became close to socioliberalism, also known as liberal socialism. For Mill, there will be greater social welfare the greater the number of individuals with welfare.

see also

  • Democracy.
  • Liberal.
  • Absolutism.


Arceo Contreras, José Alejandro: What are we talking about when we talk about Liberalism?, Political Studies,Volume 29,
2013, Pages 129-147, ISSN 0185-1616.