Classical liberalism (also called laissez-faire liberalism) is a term used to describe the philosophy developed by early liberals from the Enlightenment until John Stuart Mill as well as its revival in the 20th century by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, among others. This contemporary restatement of classical liberalism is sometimes called "new liberalism" or "neo-liberalism." Modern liberals reject classical liberalism in favor of socialism.
This political philosophy supports individual rights as pre-existing the state, and views the state as an entity that exists to protect those inherent rights. This can be ensured by a constitution or another such framework that protects individual autonomy and property from other individuals and governmental power (including economic power). The normative core of classical liberalism is the idea that in an environment of laissez-faire governance, a natural order of cooperation in exchanging goods and services emerges which satisfies human goals and desires.
The term "Classical" and change in meaning
The qualification "classical" has been applied in retrospect to distinguish the early 19th-century laissez-faire form of liberalism from modern interventionist social liberalism. The terminology is most applicable in the United States because modern American liberalism is closely identified with social democracy.
In the United States, the term "liberal" has changed meaning since the 1930s following policies enacted by Democratic leaders such as Franklin Roosevelt. Since that time Classical Liberalism is more in line with conservative or libertarian politics and philosophy. In other parts of the world, particularly continental Europe and Japan, this view is still referred to as liberalism.
A classical liberal is someone who is liberal in the original sense of the word: namely, advocating personal freedom over the divine right of the state.
The substantial core of Classical liberalism has historically been a blend of political liberalism and economic liberalism derived from Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Adam Smith, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, and Immanuel Kant.
Many elements of this ideology developed in the 17th and 18th centuries, and it is often seen as being the natural ideology of the industrial revolution and its subsequent capitalist system. The early liberal figures now described as "classical liberals" rejected many foundational assumptions that dominated most earlier theories of government, such as the Divine Right of Kings, hereditary status, and established religion and focuses on individual freedom, reason, justice, and tolerance. Such thinkers and their ideas helped to inspire the American Revolution and the French Revolution.
This interpretation of liberalism arose during the Enlightenment, and became influential through the American Revolution and French Revolution, and was also spread in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the classical economists.
Classical liberalism is the primary ideology behind politics in the United States. Both modern American liberalism and conservatism are branches of classical liberalism, as they both seek to promote individual freedom, though in different ways.
The original philosophy of liberalism (now sometimes called classical liberalism, or libertarianism in the US), favors many forms of freedom, such as:
- Freedom of speech
- Freedom of religion
- The right to form political parties and vote
- Freedom to invest in and use private property
- Freedom to work as one chooses
- Freedom to enter into economic contracts
- Free trade and freedom of migration
- Sexual freedom
- Equal rights independent of race or sex
British Liberalism is different than its American counterpart. In Britain, Liberalism was historically associated with free enterprise and individualism. The old Liberal Party was opposed to socialism, though its leader at the time of World War I, David Lloyd George advocated social reforms in order to combat the threat of international revolutionary Marxism and the socialist Labour Party, and also to improve national efficiency following the poor state of soldiers during the Boer War. This was known as "New Liberalism," and was signalled a move from classical liberalism to social liberalism.
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