Liberalism: Different types

Liberalism: Different Types

Classical Liberalism

  • Originated in the 18th and 19th centuries, classical liberalism emphasises the importance of individual liberty and limited government.
  • Favours a laissez-faire economic system where state intervention in the economy is minimised.
  • Believes in natural rights, the idea that every individual is born with certain fundamental rights such as life, liberty, and property.
  • Prominent thinkers include John Locke and Adam Smith, who collectively stressed the importance of constitutional governance, rule of law, and free markets.

Social Liberalism

  • Also known as modern liberalism, this school of thought emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries in response to the social and economic conditions of the industrial era.
  • Advocates for an active role of the state in society and the economy to ensure freedom and equality for all, particularly for the most vulnerable.
  • Believes in the concept of positive liberty, or the idea that freedom necessitates the conditions and capabilities to fulfil one’s potential, not just absence of constraints.
  • Promoted by thinkers like T.H. Green and John Rawls, it supports welfare state measures, progressive taxation, and labour rights as a means to rectify social inequalities.


  • A contemporary form of liberalism that gained prominence in the late 20th century, neoliberalism advocates for economic liberalisation.
  • Emphasises the efficiency of free markets, privatisation, deregulation, globalisation, and minimal state intervention in the economy.
  • Associates freedom with consumer choice and competition in the market.
  • Key proponents include economist Friedrich Hayek and former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Note: While these categories provide a useful way to understand varied strands of liberal thinking, it is important to remember that they represent points on a spectrum rather than distinct, mutually exclusive categories. There can be considerable overlap and variation within each category, reflecting the diverse and evolving nature of liberal thought.