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Classical and Modern Liberalism Research Paper

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Updated: Feb 9th, 2022

In the contemporary world, freedom is one of the most significant assets a human being has at his disposal. Without the liberty to express his or her will and to achieve set goals, a modern person is not able to function correctly. The political institutions and social environments that grant people the capability to act freely are all based on the ideology of liberalism. The history of this philosophy dates back to the 17th century, and the notion has seen many alterations and extensions.

The early version of liberalism, known today as classical liberalism, is primarily based on the concept of negative liberty. In today’s fast-changing world, however, people do not need freedom from anything but require freedom for all activities needed to meet the economic and social demands of contemporary society. Therefore, classical liberalism should only be used as the foundation, but new endeavors should refer to the ideas of modern liberalism.


When assessing the overall conceptual array of liberalism, it is common to distinguish two stages in the genesis of liberal problems: classical liberalism (XVII-XIX centuries) and modern liberalism (late XIX – early XX centuries) (Lichbach, 2017). Classical liberalism focused on the issues of political and economic freedoms, the natural rights of the individual, and the social contract (Mingardi, 2017).

The novelty of the ideas of classical liberalism is based on the European and North American interpretations of liberalism (Laski, 2018). In the United States, a split in liberal problems was manifested in the emergence of “moderate” and “democratic” variants of liberalism (Turner, 2016). In Europe, there was a separation of Anglo-Saxon and continental European liberal traditions (Laski, 2018).

Comparison of Classical and Modern Liberalism

All representatives of classical political economy built their concepts based on a single idea of ​​human nature, society, and government. According to the classical liberal paradigm, all people have their own interests, and they have the capability to advocate for them most effectively (Hudson, 2017). This approach makes society a collection of individuals, and views the term “public interests” as a derivative of personal interests (Feng & Osborne, 2017).

The most reasonable society is the one that allows individuals to exercise their private interests freely. The government, according to classical liberals, is created by free people to protect the rights established by the constitution, and the state should be limited to this function (Mingardi, 2017). Since there are no objective methods that allow individuals to determine their preferences, it is the individuals themselves who must decide what is right and what is false, maximizing their utility function. However, relying only on the concepts provided by classical liberalism is not correct, because contemporary society and economy cannot function without required adjustments of the ideology.

The central problem of modern liberalism was the issue of social protection of the rights and freedoms of individuals. The idea was partially formed by the popularity of Marxism, within the framework of which the concept of social solidarity was developed (Schaefer, 2019). In classical liberalism, individual freedom based on fundamental principles took a central role (Mingardi, 2017). Individuals’ worth, their responsibility not only for society but also for themselves, a right for self-realization, free development, and self-affirmation are the building blocks of individual freedom (De La Vega, 2016).

The main difference between the problems of classical and modern liberalism is the understanding of the notion of liberty. For classical liberalism, as noted by Laski (2018), there was a characteristic tradition of interpreting freedom in a negative context, when it was believed that freedom is necessary for an individual to get rid of certain restrictions so that a person can do what he or she pleases. In modern liberalism, the concept of negative liberty is supplemented by the concept of positive liberty – freedom for self-development and for expanding the spectrum of one’s own capabilities (Turner, 2016). Positive liberty means a person’s power over him or herself, over his or her desires, and the consistent rationalization of his or her own actions.

In classical liberalism, the state’s interference in the social sphere was limited. For modern liberalism, however, the idea of ​​state regulation of the social sphere has become dominant, which is why modern liberalism is sometimes called the statist form of liberalism (De La Vega, 2016). All this required a change in attitude towards the state, which was already perceived as an instrument of expanding freedom, and not its limitation (Turner, 2016).

Relations between the state and individuals began to acquire a shape of partnership. On the one hand, there was a narrowing of the application of the liberal credo. In classical liberalism, the basic creed (“laissez faire”) was correlated only with freedom in the economic sphere (Laski, 2018). On the other hand, in modern liberalism, which is characterized by the gradual development of new spheres of social freedom, the liberal creed extended to new spheres of social life (De La Vega, 2016). Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the ideas of classical liberalism are not sufficient to cover all aspects of contemporary human activity.

Classical liberalism precluded government involvement in market relations; modern liberalism, on the contrary, welcomes government participation in a market economy in order to protect people from the injustices of the economic system (Lichbach, 2017). Modern liberals have achieved higher wages and shorter working hours, the right to organize various unions, the payment of unemployment benefits, and health insurance (Lichbach, 2017). In addition, they were able to achieve equal opportunities for all when entering educational institutions (Lichbach, 2017). At the same time, they wanted to raise taxes for the wealthy and not for the working class (Lichbach, 2017). A new wave of liberalism underlines the importance of freedom of speech and the press. These and other mentioned benefits portray the superiority of modern liberalism over its classical counterpart.


Despite differences between classical and modern liberalism, they should not be viewed as two separate and opposing ideologies. Modern liberalism is a derivative of the classical variant and uses its concepts while making required alterations and additions to meet the demands of contemporary politics and economy. The provisions of classical liberalism, particularly the notion of liberty, are not entirely appropriate for the contemporary world. For instance, a modern human being is in need of positive liberty because he or she often generates new ideas and wishes to achieve set goals. A person’s ambitions cannot be fulfilled only with negative liberty. Therefore, modern liberalism fits into contemporary social and economic context much better than classical liberalism. However, it should be noted that classical liberalism will remain a fundamental building block of other branches of the ideology of liberalism.


De La Vega, R. G. (2016). Tolerance and modern liberalism: From paradox to aretaic moral ideal. London, UK: Rowman & Littlefield.

Feng, X., Li, W., & Osborne, E. W. (2017). Classical liberalism in China: Some history and prospects. Econ Journal Watch, 14(2), 218-240.

Hudson, S. (2017). Classical liberalism and indigenous policy. Policy: A Journal of Public Policy and Ideas, 33(4), 40-44.

Laski, H. J. (2018). The rise of European liberalism. New York, NY: Routledge.

Lichbach, M. I. (2017). Liberalism 1: The Role of Modern Liberalism. In M. Stohl, M. Lichbach, & P. Grabovsky (Eds.), States and peoples in conflict (pp. 32-49). New York, NY: Routledge.

Mingardi, A. (2017). Classical liberalism in Italian economic thought, from the time of unification. Econ Journal Watch, 14(1), 22-54.

Schaefer, D. L. (2019). Montaigne: Founder of modern liberalism. Perspectives on Political Science, 48(1), 33-45.

Turner, P. N. (2016). Mill and modern liberalism. In C. Macleod & D. Miller (Eds.), A companion to Mill (pp. 567-582). Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons.

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