Liberal (Classic Sense)

The term “liberal,” in the classic sense, carries a different meaning than the contemporary definition of the term. According to Wikipedia, classical liberalism rose to prominence in the United States and Europe in the 19th century, due to “changing economic and social conditions.” The ideology of classical liberalism, generally speaking, was supportive of liberty. Classical liberals advocated civil and political freedom, equal rights, and rights for individuals, as well as representative democracy and economic freedom. As one might notice, these beliefs are not diametrically opposed with modern liberalism. A major difference however, as indicated by John C. Goodman in his article “What is Classical Liberalism?,” is that in classical liberalism, there is much more of an emphasis on economic liberty than in modern liberalism. Indeed, classical liberals believed in a free market, and “opposed any income or wealth distribution.” They thought that “it is in the common interest that all individuals must be able to secure their own self-interest, without government direction.” Many modern liberals, or social liberals, by contrast, believed that government is something that, in certain situations, could be used to improve social issues, such as economic inequality. As far as beliefs in civil liberties and equal rights go however, the two ideologies are similar. The division between these kinds of liberalism occurred during the 19th century, as they disagreed “on the role of the state.” The term classical liberalism was later (retrospectively) applied in order to distinguish it from the more modern connotations of liberalism.

Although classical liberals generally supported limited government, there were still a few responsibilities they believed should be delegated to the government. They wanted “what they called a ‘slim state,’” which could utilize military force to defend itself against foreign invaders, as well as protect overseas markets.  This slim state could also enforce laws to protect its citizens, and build and maintain certain public institutions and works, such as roads and “postal and communication services.”

Although many of the fundamental ideas about classical liberalism had existed long before the 17th century, it was in this time period that these ideas were consolidated by figures like the philosopher John Locke. The article “The Rise, Decline, and Reemergence of Classical Liberalism” by Amy. H Sturgis, refers to Locke as “the founder of classical liberalism.” Locke’s liberal ideas influenced the American Revolution, and such documents as the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution of the United States of America. Adam Smith, a seminal figure in the ideology of free market economics, is also considered an important influence in the formation of classical liberalism.

As far as I am concerned, classical liberalism sounds similar to modern libertarianism. Some libertarians (as well as some conservatives) in fact, “use the term classical liberalism” to help describe their beliefs. It is interesting, as it seems that libertarian ideology is more often espoused by conservatives than liberals in modern politics. Perhaps this is a testament to how different classical liberals were from the liberals of today. On the other hand, these beliefs in civil liberties and equal rights were so similar to what modern liberals believe in. Regardless of who espouses the ideology of classical liberalism today, I don’t think it would be a bad idea for modern liberals to keep their classical roots in mind. Despite the level of conflict between the representatives of these modern political ideologies, the similarities that both share with classical liberalism could speak to their similar roots (indeed, maybe these groups have more in common with each other than they might realize.) This in turn speaks to the influence of classical liberalism on American politics and society in general. No doubt we will see how it influenced the history of media and communications in the United States.


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