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Liberalism is an ideology based on free trade and free markets facilitated by a government limited by inalienable civil rights often granted in the form of a constitution. It is accepted as the ideology that shaped almost everything in modern politics, with opposition to liberalism usually being typified as either far-left or far-right respectively. As a movement, it has historically represented the interests of the upwardly mobile middle-class and the owners of industry. Care should be taken to differentiate between liberalism understood as the ideology that emerged out of the industrial revolution as the hand-maiden to capitalism and the more wrong commonplace/American understanding of liberalism as "progressivism", or specifically social liberalism.Wikipedia

The essentials[edit]

Liberal societies vary greatly in policy, history, and temperament, yet a surprising swathe of the political spectrum in most western democracies is liberal, even if many hate to admit it and prefer to use the term as a pejorative. Regardless, all, or at the very least most liberals, tend to take three key institutions for granted.


Liberalism is a capitalist ideology. Liberals understand economic freedom primarily as the ability to own property and buy and sell goods on the free market. Both liberal philosophy and liberal policy reflect this. Indeed much of early liberal thought revolves around articulating the freedoms that should be afforded to rational humans and the importance of respecting property rights; often with the combined suggestion that rational humans exercising their property rights will naturally come to the most effective and sensible economic arrangements. Again this is an unsurprising conclusion to reach for a movement that finds its base of support among the industrial bourgeois.

Accordingly, libertarians often refer to themselves as "classical liberals", implying that contemporary "progressive" liberals have abandoned the more paired down liberalism of their heroes Adam Smith, John Locke and John Stuart Mill. Although there is nothing inherently illiberal about, for instance, higher rates of tax or regulations of industry — as these measures arguably do not remove capitalism from its position as the driving economic engine of liberalism. Scandinavian social democracies for instance, while being regulated and relatively highly taxed, still remain fundamentally liberal.


A core tennent of liberalism is the importance of exercising universal suffrage within the context of a multi-party democracy. These elections may be "first past the post" or managed through a system of proportional representation; however, they typically have key features.

  1. Communication regarding the candidates on offer in an election and their respective policies is done through journalists and the candidates themselves working in a media that is largely privately owned.
  2. Political parties in a liberal democracy consist of private individuals whose campaigns and activities are paid for by private donors due to the liberal belief in free speech, free association, and the ability to spend your money as you see fit.

Multi-culturalism and secularism[edit]

In contrast to the feudal society that preceded it, liberal society does not require any prescriptive religious beliefs in order to function. While one can be an atheist and a liberal quite sensibly, being an atheist and a "feudalist" is philosophically ridiculous as well as anachronistic, since feudal society was explicitly legitimised through the church. Liberal society and its institutions, by contrast, derive their authority from reason and appeals to a social contract that is independent of any particular religious tradition. Accordingly, most liberal societies are functionally secular, avoiding whenever possible discriminating in favour or against any particular religious tradition, even if they retain certain religious trappings for ceremonial purposes.

Multiculturalism likewise extends from liberalism for the same reasons. At least in theory, liberal society is bound together by a system of shared laws rather than a unifying culture or set of traditions. Consequently, most liberal societies leave people to engage in whatever cultural practices they like so long as they are not harming others. Some problems have emerged. "Culture" often includes ideas of taboo around speech, dress, and behaviour that overlap with ideas of what should be legal. The result is that there are many situations in which liberal society comes into conflict when balancing its desire for a harmonious multiculturalism with its own values around free speech.[1] Furthermore plenty of liberal societies have in practice implemented laws and supported political movements that sought to abandon the multiculturalism.[2]

Libertarianism vs conservativism vs progressivism[edit]

Conservatives, libertarians, and progressives are all liberals when it comes to the big political questions; they differ primarily in what adjustments they would like to see made to the liberal formula. Libertarians are fundamentalists looking to return to an earlier, less complicated, but nonetheless utopian, vision of liberal society and suspicious of its meddling democracy; conservatives are typically okay with electoralism and capitalism but often feel ambivalent about the multicultural and secular society that the free market has produced; and finally, progressive liberals, while broadly capitalistic, wish to make revisions and extensions to liberal theory and practice in service of more humanistic ideals such as equality and justice.

Liberalism and human rights[edit]

Although reference to a just government limited by the inalienable rights of its citizens is common in liberal rhetoric it is questionable the extent to which this has been the case in practice, or indeed the extent to which "human rights" really are central to the functioning of liberal society.

Liberal societies are often quick to ignore the rights of those who they deem to be threatening, undesirable or just "beneath" them: see Democratic support for the War on Terror, the genocide of native americans[3] and colonialism more broadly. And the founding architects of liberalism certainly never enviseged the kind of human rights framework that we have today. The early United States restricted suffrage to property-owning white males,[4] and many early liberal thinkers owned slaves.

The Founding Fathers for instance recognized that slavery violated the principle of liberty, but their intersectional commitment to limited government and a sanctified belief in private property rights were used as a justification to continue the institution of slavery after the American Revolution.[5] The wealth of the Southern Founders was also inextricable from the institution of slavery.[5] However, not all of the Founders supported slavery. Jefferson himself signed the act that outlawed the international slave trade.[5] The ban on foreign importation of slaves also benefited the economic interests of Virginia and Maryland slaveholders, who could now sell their surplus slave population with a noted markup in prices to Western and Southern consumers.[5] Of course, even the abolitionist Fathers tended to support a gradual abolition of slavery rather than quick and sudden emancipation.[5]

Furthermore while many liberals like to think of their movement as the driving force behind universal suffrage, often it was communist and socialist movements within liberal society did some of the hardest fighting on these fronts.[6][7][8]

Liberalism and fascism[edit]

Multiculturalism and a respect for human rights typically sets most progressive liberals in opposition to fascism. However, throughout the Cold War, the United States and others liberal societies lent significant support to far-right governments as a way of squashing socialist movements in the Third World. On top of this, the demographics one would normally associate with liberals — namely, wealthy industrialists — played a key role in the National Socialists rising to power in 1930's Germany; their anti-communism being very appealing to captains of industry and an anxious middle-class keen to hold on to their wealth having just witnessed the Russian Revolution.[9] Bennito Mussolini, the founder of fascism, found a lot of support from capitalists by having his "blackshirts" beat up and kill socialists and trade-unionists who were seen to be "causing trouble".[10] A common charge against liberalism is that when threatened, it often reverts to authoritarian fascism in order to see off communist insurrection. As the old adage goes:

Scratch a liberal and a fascist bleeds —Anon

Part of this stems from the fact that while liberalism and socialism are fundamentally incompatible, as the economic engine that drives their two societies pulls in completely different directions, liberalism and fascism are not. One can hold onto capitalism while conceding large swathes of ground to fascism, meaning that when liberalism hits a bump in the road, it swerves right far more easily than it does left.

Some key examples[edit]

  • Guatemalan 1954 Coup d'état - An American CIA backed operation which removed the democratically elected leader of Guatemala and replace him with a military dictator who killed thousands, and was the first in a long tradition of authoritarian U.S. backed dictators in Guatemala. All for the sake of cheaper fruit in the U.S.
  • Indonesian 1960's Genocide - In which arguably the largest unarmed communist party in history was slaughtered and disappeared in purges that killed millions. The twin strategy of disseminating hysterical anti-communist propaganda[11] while arming conservatives was so effective in provoking the mass slaughter of suspected socialists that was it was soon dubbed "The Jakarta Method" and became a source of inspiration for other similar programs in South America.[12]
  • Pinochet's Chile - A fascist coup and military dictatorship endorsed by the likes of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Milton Friedman no less!
  • Operation Gladio - What do good liberal democracies do when they see a popular socialist movement gaining ground in post-war Italy? Why they allow democracy to play out unmolested engage in black propaganda, terrorism, and torture of course!
  • McCarthyism and the Red Scare - Who says a liberal democracy can't censor culture, political life and the arts?

Overall, liberalism's claim to being a tolerant, anti-authoritarian and peaceful ideology is largely dependent on people evaluating it based on how it behaves when everything is going well and the scales are tipped in its favour. When liberalism feels threatened however it has proven more than comfortable clamping down on civil liberties, murdering rivals and sponsoring terrorism. In short, liberalism is a really lovely, polite, principled and respectful ideology so long as it gets its way. And when it doesn't... that's when the jack-booted thugs come out. None of this is to say that your average "progressive" liberal would support any of the atrocities or abuses listed in this section but rather that liberal history is so pockmarked with fascist and authoritarian turns, often ostensibly in order to preserve or save liberal ideals, that it is hard not to see the repeated slides into fascism as the rule rather than the exception.

See also[edit]

Icon fun.svg For those of you in the mood, RationalWiki has a fun article about Liberalism.
  • Free market
  • Human rights
  • American Revolution
  • French Revolution
  • Liberal International — This international organization is linked to European 'centrist' and 'moderate' parties. The Democratic Party of the United States does not belong here and belongs to the Progressive Alliance, a coalition of center-left parties in Europe.
  • Individualist feminism — The academic meaning of original 'liberalism' used in Europe and others is closely related to individualism.
  • Libertarianism — American libertarianism originated from classical liberalism. Since the European liberal tradition is a movement against traditional authoritarian conservatism and centralized socialism, the term "liberal" and "libertarian" in Europe are not clearly distinguished.
  • Radicalism (In Europe) — Social liberals in Europe often refer to themselves as "radical".