The use of the term liberal can be ambiguous and contradictory, causing as much confusion as anything else among students and observers of politics. In the context of American politics, it is accurate to say that both liberals and conservatives are generally "liberal" in the classic sense. Further, it seems to be that contemporary American "liberals" have divergent economic tendencies compared with liberals throughout the rest of the world. For this reason it is useful to distinguish between classical liberals and the more contemporary and American uses of the term.
DEFINITION AND BASIC CHARACTERISTICS OF CLASSICAL LIBERALISM
Classical liberalism is a broad philosophy of politics, economics, and human society, that promotes individual freedom and the recognition of universal human dignity. Central characteristics of classical liberalism include the following beliefs:
- all human beings have inherent dignity and worth
- all individuals have inherent natural rights; including life, liberty, and property
- governments and social arrangements are human constructs; their justification is the establishment of order, to promote justice, and to protect and enhance natural rights
- While humans are equal in rights and dignity, our inequality in talents, interests, and other qualities is a valid and necessary aspect of the human condition. Thus classical liberals oppose leftist attempts to force equalization of condition or result.
- an emphasis on free market economics, limited/constitutional government, and the rule of law
In short, classical liberalism pursues the right balance of freedom (having power and control over one's life and choices; living without external restraints) and equality. These twin principles erode each other, making a liberal order one of constant politics, compromise, and debate. It is interesting to note that when viewed from the perspective of a leftist, classical liberalism is accused of promoting excessive inequality; while a traditional conservative in most of the world, defending the "old order" of rigid, hierarchical class systems, views the classical liberal as an egalitarian idealist.
It may be easier to understand classical liberalism by identifying some of the parallel ideologies with which it is associated: [moral or social] individualism, capitalism, constitutionalism, republicanism, objectivism, universalism, natural rights philosophy, and natural law philosophy.
Many would also compare classical liberalism with certain strains of libertarianism.