Liberalism is a political philosophy based on the rights of the individual, political equality, liberty, equality before the law, and consent of the governed. However, political theorists usually make a distinction between social liberalism vs classical liberalism because these two branches of liberalism have different philosophical bases and different policy implications. In this article, we will be looking at the differences and similarities between social liberalism and classical liberalism.
What is social liberalism?
Social liberalism is a political philosophy and branch of liberalism that endorses social justice and the expansion of civil and political rights. This branch of liberalism contends that society must protect liberty and opportunity for all citizens. It views the common good as harmonious with the freedom of the individual and is economically based on the social market economy.
Social liberalism is also known as new liberalism (in the United Kingdom), modern liberalism (in the United States), progressive liberalism (in Spanish-speaking countries), and left-liberalism (in Germany). It has been a label used by progressive liberal parties to distinguish themselves from classical liberal parties, especially when there are two or more liberal parties in a country.
Unlike classical liberalism which embraces a strict laissez-faire philosophy, social liberalism sees a role for the State in rendering positive liberty for individuals. It believes the state should address economic and societal issues. That is, government regulations, laws, and enforcement are the best means to achieving the ends of overall societal good without minimizing individual freedoms.
Social liberalism rose in the late nineteenth century as an alternative to classical liberalism. Classic liberalism was in favor of the limited government, free market economics, and the rights of the individual but social liberalism arose to challenge this view. Social liberals believed that the solutions to inequalities in society were to be found in government institutions.
They believed firmly that the government should be involved in the economy and extend social welfare or social services to people. This was however, in response to the ebb and flow of the free market economy that sometimes left those at the bottom of the economy in horrible circumstances. Therefore, this political philosophy accepts some restrictions in economic affairs, such as minimum wage laws intending to secure economic opportunities for all or anti-trust laws to combat economic monopolies and regulatory bodies.
According to social liberalism, legitimate governments are expected to provide a basic level of welfare or workfare, health, and education, supported by taxation. Hence, proponents of this branch of liberalism are strong defenders of civil liberties and human rights. They support a mixed economy of mainly private enterprise with some state-provided or guaranteed public services. For instance, some social liberals defend obligatory universal health insurance, with the state paying basic health insurance to the poorest of the society.
Social liberalism emphasizes what it calls ‘positive liberty’ which seeks to enhance the positive freedoms of the poor and disadvantaged in society by means of government regulation. Hence, it rejects both the most extreme forms of capitalism and the revolutionary elements from the socialist school. Hence, social liberalism is unique in comparison to classical liberalism in that it believes that lack of economic opportunity, education, health care, etc can be considered to be threats to its conception of liberty.
What is classical liberalism?
Classical liberalism is a political philosophy and branch of liberalism that advocates laissez-faire and free market economics; civil liberties under the rule of law with particular emphasis on freedom of speech, individual autonomy, economic freedom, limited government, and political freedom. This branch of liberalism gained full flowering in the late 18th century and was built on ideas that stemmed as far back as the 13th century.
Unlike social liberalism, classical liberalism looks more negatively at social policies, taxation, and state involvement in the lives of individuals. Hence, it advocates deregulation and the protection of civil liberties and laissez-faire economic freedom by limiting the power of the central government. It developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as a response to the economic, social, and political changes that were brought on by Industrial Revolution and urbanization in Europe and the United States.
Until the great depression and the rise of social liberalism, classical liberalism was used under the name of economic liberalism. The term ‘classical liberalism’ was applied in retronym to differentiate earlier 19th-century liberalism from social liberalism. Classical liberals were based on a belief that social progress was best achieved through adherence to natural law and individualism. They drew on the economic ideas of Adam Smith in his classic 1776 book ‘The Wealth of Nations‘.
In contrast to social liberalism, classical liberalism believes that individuals should be free to pursue and protect their own economic self-interest free from unwarranted interference by the central government. In order to accomplish that, classical liberals advocated a minimal government, limited to only six functions:
- Defend the nation against foreign invasion.
- Protect individual rights and render services that cannot be provided in a free market.
- Enact laws to protect private property, enforce contracts, and protect citizens from harm committed against them by other citizens.
- Create and maintain public institutions, such as government agencies.
- Provide a standard of weights and measures and a stable currency.
- Build and maintain public roads, railways, canals, harbors, postal and communications systems
Therefore, classical liberalism favors limited government, economic freedom, and the protection of basic human rights, such as those in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Classical liberals advocate a level of economic freedom that allows individuals to freely invent and produce new processes and products, trade freely with others, and create and maintain wealth.
In this branch of liberalism, the essential goal of government is to facilitate an economy in which individuals are allowed the greatest possible chance to achieve their life goals. Hence, classical liberalism is different from social liberalism in that it embraces a society in which economic activities are determined by the decisions of individuals rather than by the actions of an autonomous, aristocratically-controlled government structure.
Social liberalism vs classical liberalism differences
- Social liberalism endorses social justice and the expansion of civil and political rights while classical liberalism advocates economic freedom and the protection of individual liberty by limiting central government power.
- The interpretation of ‘freedom’ is one of the major differences between social liberalism vs classical liberalism. Social liberals define freedom in positive terms, as ‘freedom to’ whereas classical liberals define freedom in negative terms, as ‘freedom from.’
- Another difference between social liberalism vs classical liberalism is that classical liberals understood the need for a government or state but felt it had to be kept to a minimum whereas social liberals see the need for a government or state as an enabler, to provide an opportunity for others to advance and progress.
- Classical liberalism supports a lack of state or government interference in areas such as taxation, regulation, and social matters, whereas social liberalism justifies higher state intervention in those areas.
Tabular differences between classical liberalism vs social liberalism
|Criteria for comparison||Social liberalism||Classical liberalism|
|Definition||Social liberalism is a political philosophy and branch of liberalism that endorses social justice and the expansion of civil and political rights. It advocates that the government should be involved in the economy and extend social welfare or social services to people||Classical liberalism is a political philosophy and branch of liberalism that advocates economic freedom and the protection of individual liberty by limiting central government power|
|Individual liberty||Positive liberty (the freedom to do something)||Negative liberty (the absence of restraints limiting individual freedoms)|
|Government interference||Social liberalism justifies higher state intervention in order to allow the poor to have the freedom to do the same things as the wealthy Social liberals see the need for a government or state as an enabler, to provide an opportunity for others to advance and progress.||Classical liberalism supports a lack of state or government interference in areas such as taxation, regulation, and social matters. Classical liberals understood the need for a government or state but felt it had to be kept to a minimum|
|Threat to individual freedom||Social liberals believe that freedom can be threatened by private economic actors, such as businesses, that dominate governments or exploit workers, and therefore advocate state action||Classical liberals believe that individual freedom is primarily threatened by the state and therefore advocate limiting its powers|
|When it started||Social liberalism rose in the late nineteenth century as an alternative to classical liberalism||Classical socialism rose in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as a response to the changes that came with the Industrial Revolution|
|Notable liberal thinkers||Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Hill Green, Lester Frank Ward, Lujo Brentano, John Dewey,|
Friedrich Naumann, Gerhart von Schulze-Gävernitz
|John Locke, Jean-Baptiste Say, Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, Thomas Sowell, George Stigler, Larry Arnhart|
|Economy||Social liberals support a mixed economy of mainly private enterprise with some state-provided public services. They feel that an unregulated free market can cause social problems||Classical liberals favor a laissez-faire and free-market approach to the economy|
Social liberalism vs classical liberalism similarities
- Social liberalism and classical liberalism both want to promote freedom, although the way it is done is different.
- Classical liberalism and social liberalism are both suspicious of an over-powerful state, supporting a limited government as the best way to protect the liberties of individuals.
- Social liberalism and classical liberalism are both parts of ‘liberal’ political philosophy, in contrast to socialism or conservatism.
- One major similarity between classical liberalism vs social liberalism is that they both believe in freedom as a central objective, and tend to value traits such as rationality, individualism, and freedom of expression.
Although there are differing ideas between social liberalism vs classical liberalism over the conception of freedom and the role of the state, there still remains some common ground between these two types of liberalism. They both see freedom as a fundamental goal and are both parts of ‘liberal’ political philosophy.