Classical Liberalism vs Modern Liberalism: What’s the Difference? - Politics | PoFo

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Has the definition of “liberal” changed over time?

One of the more compelling debates in American intellectual circles concerns classical liberalism vs modern liberalism.

In American parlance, the word liberal is used reflexively, often without much deep thought about its origin. It usually refers to individuals associated with the contemporary left and loosely connected to the Democratic Party. However, liberal did not always have that connotation in American politics.

To understand these changes, let’s take a stroll down memory lane to learn how its meaning has evolved over time.

Classical Liberalism vs. Modern Liberalism

Originally, liberalism was associated with a political philosophy of governance that protected individual rights, called for checks on government, encouraged economic freedom, and was centered around individualism.

In the present, we see liberalism generally associated with the modern-day political Left which is more focused on using the state to proactively promote egalitarianism and purge society of perceived blights such as racism, oppression, and patriarchal institutions.

The proactive role for the state to modify behavior would seem foreign to the liberals of yore, who generally believed in a restrained state. Crucial historical developments such as the Progressive Era, World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II forever changed American politics, and by extension, politics in the West.

One of the more profound changes was the way the word “liberal” would be used in political speech.

What Changed

Some historians such as the paleoconservative scholar Paul Gottfried make the case that old school liberalism transitioned into a more progressive statism centered on social engineering and behavioral control starting in the 1900s. In his book, After Liberalism, Gottfried documents how the restrained liberalism of the 19th century gradually vanished, to be later replaced by its modern-day successor.

Gottfried argued that “Liberalism is increasingly adrift. Having gone over to social planning earlier in the century, it had to jettison its nineteenth-century heritage in return for humanitarian and ‘scientific’ goals.” The rise of the Progressive Movement at the end of the 19th century, which came about in response to the perceived injustices of the Gilded Age, started to plant the seeds of 19th century liberalism’s destruction.

From Laissez-Faire Capitalism to Welfare Capitalism

Welfare capitalism was a reasonable compromise for those skeptical of both the market and totalitarian economic systems such as Communism. This contemporary political economy generally features a system of progressive taxation, national wage standards, state-run pension systems, and welfare programs for the poor.

On the behavioral front, liberal states in the past century frequently turned to anti-discrimination laws and administrative edicts to purge society of undesirable behavior such as racism, sexism, and homophobia. Top-down state activism was justified under the banner of promoting social justice.

How Progressivism Grew

Many progressive reformers started out locally, but this was only one step in their quest for power. Their vision was to make their way to the top and use the levers of state power to mold American society along scientific lines. Although Progressives had an elitist outlook, they saw mass democracy as one tool to overthrow the previous political order.

The Impact of War on Liberalism

World War I was a major catalyst for governments across the West to assume greater powers than previously imagined. It is often forgotten that a battery of commissions set up during this period inspired a number of New Deal era agencies. Progressives did not see war-time measures as temporary, but rather stepping stones for even larger interventions that would become permanent in times of peace.

Education as a Tool to Socialize the Masses

Progressives were busy on the education front as well. They recognized the power of public education as a tool to socialize the masses. So they did not waste any time to impose their beliefs on the malleable minds of America’s youth.

Educators such as Thomas Dewey were energetic about using public education to spread progressive liberal ideas and socialize the American public. Dewey originally championed progressivism, but grew tired of the term over time.

Gottfried observed that other ideological currents taking root in the early 1900s, compelled reformers like Dewey to describe their approach as “liberal” by default:

“When Dewey decided to characterize his proposed social reforms as ‘liberal,’ he had already tried out ‘progressive,’ ‘corporate,’ and ‘organic.’ The rise of fascism may have rendered rhetorically problematic the last two alternatives to “liberal.” And since there were competitors for ‘progressive’ associated with the reform wings of the two major national parties, Dewey and his confreres may have become ‘liberals’ faute de mieux.”
– Paul Gottfried

The Transformational Era of the New Deal

Once the New Deal rolled around, the word “liberal” took on a whole different meaning in American parlance. In Gottfried’s view, the rise of the managerial state — a technocratic state that occupies itself with modifying people’s behavior — during the Progressive Era and its subsequent consolidation during the interventionist period of the New Deal is what put an end to the liberal current of the 19th century.

The economist John Maynard Keynes played an integral role throughout the New Deal in normalizing government intervention in the economy. His public policy prescriptions of massive government spending and bureaucratic administration were a radical departure from the previous laissez-faire paradigm of divided powers, bourgeois morality, and a robust civil society to keep the state in check.

The Civil Rights Revolution’s Knockout Punch

The Great Society reforms of the 1960s further accelerated the ascent of modern-day liberalism after anti-discrimination laws and welfare became the norm. Once the 1960s ended, American liberalism became a force for social reconstruction that made the liberalism of the previous century look even quainter.

Gottfried contended that “Liberalism now survives as a series of social programs informed by a vague egalitarian spirit, and it maintains its power by pointing its finger accusingly at antiliberals.” The constant desire to reshape society is part and parcel of the modern-day liberal experiment.

What is Modern Liberalism

Modern-day liberalism mostly refers to the mass democratic philosophy that center-Left political parties across the West — from liberal internationalists to social democrats — have thoroughly embraced. The way one can define modern liberalism is by characterizing it as a system which features a mixed economy with an activist state that is involved in molding people’s behaviors.

Classical liberals believed in the protection of private property, free speech, and a robust civil society. Modern liberals were more in favor of using the state as a vehicle of promoting social change. They are by no means communists. Modern liberals still believe in private property and civil society outside of the state.

But for the modern-day liberal, these institutions could be exploited and co-opted to serve managerial elites’ ends. Modern liberals ultimately conceded that a functioning market was necessary for funding a welfare state.

What is Classical Liberalism

Figuring out the difference between classical liberalism and modern liberalism requires us to go back to the origins of liberalism itself. English philosopher John Locke is largely credited as the founder of classical liberalism and his example serves as a good starting point for any classical liberal vs modern liberal analysis.

His famous Two Treatises of Civil Government functioned as the definitive text for liberal governance in a time when Europe was largely marked by absolutist monarchies. Locke did not believe in the divine right of kings but was rather of the view that governments needed the consent of the governed in order to have legitimacy.

Locke’s emphasis on “pre-political” rights was revolutionary in that it placed the individual at the forefront of any political order. In addition, individuals could set up their own governments and disband them if they felt that they no longer protected their rights.

For Locke, the government’s only legitimate function was to protect life and property. His ideas would play integral roles during the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution.

The American Revolution’s Liberal Origins

In the case of the American Revolution, a number of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence drew heavily from Locke. They used his ideology as a basis of rebelling against the British government, which they perceived as a government that usurped its legitimate functions and violated traditional English liberties.

America’s Liberal Experiment in Action

Subsequently, the founding generation drew from Lockean principles to codify a number of civil liberties and limited government functions in the U.S. constitution. These included a separation of powers between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches and the protection of liberties such as the freedom of religion, free speech, freedom to peacefully assemble, freedom of religion, the right to bear arms, and due process.

The French’s Role in Influencing American Governance

The separation of powers was largely inspired by liberal thinkers such as the French political philosopher Baron de Montesquieu and his Enlightenment counterparts who championed a social contract of sorts between individuals and the state. Under this political order, the rule of law, equal rights among rulers and the ruled, and the ability for citizens to petition their government would be safeguarded.

How Classical Liberalism Provided the Intellectual Backbone for Capitalism

Classical liberalism wasn’t just confined to the political sphere. Economists such as Adam Smith took the logic of liberalism and applied it to economic policy. Smith became a firm believer in a capitalist economy that promoted free commerce between nations, as opposed to the prevailing mercantilist model that European preferred at the time.

Similar to Locke’s political works, Smith’s Wealth of Nations became one of the most influential pieces of economic literature in human history and put the field of economics on the map.

Classical Liberalism’s Peak in the 19th Century

By the mid-19th century, liberalism reached a turning point after the British Empire embraced global free trade through its repeal of the Corn Laws. From that point until World War I, Britain and most of the West enjoyed unprecedented economic prosperity, relative peace, and a gradual transition to constitutional democratic rule.

For many historians of liberalism, the Gilded Age or Belle Epoque (Beautiful Era) was the height of personal freedom in the West combined with a level of economic growth that was never seen before thanks to the Industrial Revolution.

Given these historical contrasts, it’s no surprise why many historians like to participate in the classical liberal vs modern liberal discussion. Upon deep inspection, there are clear differences in these ideological strands, which merit considerable analysis.

Classical Liberalism vs Modern Liberalism on the Nolan chart

The Nolan chart was named after David Nolan, a respected activist who was heavily involved in the liberty movement. This chart has helped determine how Americans identify themselves on the political spectrum. It went beyond the typical liberalism vs. conservatism debates of the 1900s and added a twist by including criteria that was generally associated with libertarianism.

The chart is divided into four quadrants that list political viewpoints along two axes, which highlight economic and personal freedom.

The classical liberal respect for individual liberties and a restrained state has lived on in modern-day libertarianism. Most classical liberals would likely score in the lower part of the libertarian quadrant closer towards the centrist bloc.

Liberals in the present, on the other hand, would probably land more on the left hand progressive quadrant, with some sliding downwards towards statism. Their economic views put them well to the left of all free-market liberals.

That said, there are some progressives and contemporary liberals who share similar views with free-market liberals regarding civil liberties.

Liberalism’s Comeback

19th century liberal ideas have witnessed somewhat of a comeback but with a slightly more radical twist after World War II. Economists such as Friedrich A. Hayek and Milton Friedman helped supply the intellectual ammo that sparked a resurgence in liberal thought and the subsequent entrance of libertarianism in American politics.

The Differences Between Classical Liberals and Libertarians

Although there are considerable degrees of overlap between classical liberals and libertarians, the latter tend to be more radical in their views of the role the state plays in society and how much government intervention should be tolerated.

For many sects of libertarianism, the state should only be limited to the provision of defense, the court system, and law enforcement. The more anarchist wings of this movement tend to believe that the private sector and civil society can assume all competencies of the state.

Where Liberalism Stands Now

As much as some would like to deny it, the definition of words matter. They can have different meanings depending on the country, time, or place. In the rest of the Anglosphere, liberal is generally associated with the free-market Right.

The same is the case in Spanish-speaking countries. However, this has not been the case in the American context. Political movements tend to come and go throughout history.

The Perceived Triumph of Liberalism Against Communism

The 20th century largely saw the demise of 19th century liberalism and ushered in a completely different paradigm. The waning years of the Cold War witnessed the demise of Soviet-style totalitarianism and the perceived triumph of liberal democracy.

Political leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan provided the public policies and political leadership that allowed for market-based liberalism to thrive and set itself apart from central planning.

The New Liberal Consensus

By the 1990s, market-based economies were generally accepted by elites and became the order of the day. This became embodied in “neoliberalism”, a resurgence of economic liberalism in the form of lower tariffs, multilateral trade, less stringent migration, moves towards privatization of state enterprises, and slightly sleeker welfare states.

Neoliberal Dominance

In contrast to its distant 19th century ancestor, neoliberalism was not as pro-liberty and still maintained the managerial state and the concomitant social engineering measures that were established in the 1960s. Regardless, the ideological dominance of neoliberalism cannot be denied as most of the globe has embraced some form of market economy and has largely rejected Soviet-style central planning.

Although the New Deal saw a leftist shift on economics issues, “neoliberals” of the post-Cold War era started taking more market-based positions on multilateral free trade and immigration.

The Fragile Nature of the Post-Cold War Order

At a glance, post-Cold War liberals have appeared to engage in a form of “fusionism”, wherein they blend free-market positions on immigration and trade, with more left collectivist positions on education, healthcare, free speech, gender relations, and freedom of association.

The emergence of “wokism” has further perverted liberalism, as its collectivism has now become more racialized and has taken on an iconoclastic form now that basic gender relations, appreciation for a nation’s history, and free speech are all being called into question.

Many liberals have grudgingly moved along with this new trend of leftism. Indeed, a 90s neoliberal would likely shudder at the prospect of any member of the woke generation coming into power.

The Challenge of Resurrecting Liberal Ideas

Several public intellectuals such as American political commentator Dave Rubin and psychology professor Jordan Peterson have made attempts to resurrect old liberalism in a time when political discourse is threatened by cancel culture and anti-free speech forces on the Left.

Based on the new political challenges of the 21st century, classically liberal ideas have a tall task in front of them in trying to become relevant again in political movements on the Right. Nationalism and conservatism are the most influential movements on the Right at the moment and they have generally become less liberal over time.

Regardless of the changing political ecosystem, it would still benefit people to understand the classical liberalism vs. modern liberalism debate in order to make sense of our ever-changing political environment.

Classical Liberalism vs Modern Liberalism: What’s the Difference? originally appeared on Thought Grenades, the blog on Libertas Bella.
Not sure if it'd be fully synonymous but the tendencies as expressed in the distinction between classical and modern liberal sound to me a lot like a distinction I make as economic liberalism and civic liberalism.
Economic liberalism is the more individual anti-social laws against restriction and interference commonly associated with classical liberalism. It's basically what the capitalist class and ideologues of their class represented when opposing the conservative forces of Feudalism/Aristocracy.
It's basically about not being restricted in the pursuit of profit and expansion of capital.

Civic liberalism is similar in opposing restrictions but in an expanded sense than the original capitalist class as it also opposes traditional norms but based in racism, patriarchy and so on. This tendency arises in part because the ideal of equality which comes about in the abstract laws of the capitalist class provides some traction for voicing opposition to overtly discriminatory laws. The equality of law was a useful tool of the bourgeosie but it of course was restricted to the property-owning men.
The women liberation movement and civil rights movement arose as women's and blacks labor had paid value as they aren't valued in themselves but in terms of things/commodities.
Putting it slightly differently, women transformed their labour from labour which took place outside of the exchange of commodities into labour which, like that of other workers — had value. It is no wonder then that this movement soon gave rise to the demand for Equal Pay and more fundamentally given the gender segmentation of the labour process, for “Equal Pay for work of Equal Value” and the struggle to prove in practice that women's work had value equal to men's work.

It is always the case that a feminist movement in any country is always preceded by industrialization and the movement of women's work into markets/commodified form and never before it.

But of course social movements objectified themselves in the state in terms of dismantling the laws which weren't reflective of the abstract equality of liberalism, demanding that it not be limited to the property owning/capitalist class. The social movements of the 20th century aimed to objectify their ideals in institutionalized practices, many which were reflected in the state itself.
If a social movement does not aim for the ‘forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions’ (Communist Manifesto, 1848), then incorporation, or mainstreaming, is exactly what a social movement is aiming for. Hegel explained this process in terms of three processes: mechanism (the social movement relates externally to others forming a cultural mosaic), chemism (the social movement forms relationships of affinity and mutual exchange with the others) and organism (the social movement and the others each use the other as means to their own ends) ultimately merging as one concept in an integral form of life.

So if we take ‘project’ such that ‘social movement’ is just one phase of its development, then we can understand the entire social fabric – even its more brittle parts – as woven from projects. This is particularly important for the understanding of social movements, because we must not see social movements as alien to the ‘established’ institutions, but use the same theoretical means to understand the structure and dynamics of the wider social fabric with which a social movement is interacting. Further, just as a social movement is mobilised behind an ideal, what Jamison calls a ‘cosmology’ – a concept of how the world might be other than it is, at its completion and objectification within the larger community, its ideal has not disappeared, but remains within the language and ideological cosmos of the existing society as a concept, modifying the social practices of the community.
Once the word “sexism” was created a whole literature on the topic was created and a range of anti-discrimination laws put into legislation, as well as instituting a range of social practices to oppose it. The creation of artefacts realising a concept, including technology, images, regulations, laws and literature, secures the place of a concept in our lives. This way, a concept will never be completely forgotten or misconstrued, and some stability is given to the meaning of the concept. The continued use of material realisations of a concept in social practices, institutionalises the concept and consolidates it.

But it isn't simply top down, simply because it is realized in legal form and enforced somewhat by the state.
THese ideas always arose from civil society and problems within it before being implemented in many ways partially across society.

But this is somewhat contested as the subsumption of such ideas and practices of different movements as under the state leads to those movements of course dying out as their role is institutionalized in the state. Whether it's welfare of a workers movement and opposition to discrimination.

So classical liberalism has its social basis in the interests of capitalist class which simply pursues its interest while its own ideology where people are abstractly equals who come to the market to exchange things for an equal value has been extended to all over civil society. The movements have largely achieved the abstract equality in dismantling formal legal discrimination.
But of course this has brought to light that it doesn't really do away with all the problems of racism and what ever.
The achievement of formal political and legal equality has brought to light the impossibility of achieving substantive political and legal equality while social inequality exists.

But the attempt to equalize things socially by a redistribution of wealth has been the logical conclusion of these attempts to overcome the limitations of formal inequality.
It is, however, this very consequent egalitarianism which is simultaneously the limitations of the Jacobin politics. Recall Marx's fundamental insight about the "bourgeois" limitation of the logic of equality: the capitalist inequalities ("exploitations") are not the "unprincipled violations of the principle of equality," but are absolutely inherent to the logic of equality, they are the paradoxical result of its consequent realization. What we have in mind here is not only the old boring motif of how market exchange presupposes formally/legally equal subjects who meet and interact on the market; the crucial moment of Marx's critique of "bourgeois" socialists is that capitalist exploitation does not involve any kind of "unequal" exchange between the worker and the capitalist - this exchange is fully equal and "just," ideally (in principle), the worker gets paid the full value of the commodity he is selling (his labour force). Of course, radical bourgeois revolutionaries are aware of this limitation; however, the way they try to amend it is through a direct "terrorist" imposition of more and more de facto equality (equal salaries, equal health service...), which can only be imposed through new forms of formal inequality (different sorts of preferential treatments of the under-privileged). In short, the axiom of "equality" means either not enough (it remains the abstract form of actual inequality) or too much (enforce "terrorist" equality) - it is a formalist notion in a strict dialectical sense, i.e., its limitation is precisely that its form is not concrete enough, but a mere neutral container of some content that eludes this form.
For several pages, Fanon argues that black people must embrace blackness, and struggle on the basis of being black, in order to negate white supremacists social relations. But to stop there reproduces our one-sided existence and the forms of appearance of capitalism. Identity politics argues, “I am a black man,” or “I am a woman,” without filling out the other side of the contradiction “…and I am a human.” If the starting and ending point is one-sided, there is no possibility for abolishing racialized and gendered social relations. For supporters of identity politics (despite claiming otherwise), womanhood, a form of appearance within society, is reduced to a natural, static “identity.” Social relations such as “womanhood,” or simply gender, become static objects, or “institutions.” Society is therefore organized into individuals, or sociological groups with natural characteristics. Therefore, the only possibility for struggle under identity politics is based on equal distribution or individualism.

Basically, liberalism can't erase the conditions which continue a kind of patriarchy or racism in a diminished form from what it once was institutionalized formally.
Instead, capitalism creates the conditions for substantive freedom but never itself leads there.
The implementation of such a genuine, substantive freedom of course would require “despotic inroads117 on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production,” something Marx already wrote earlier, in The Communist Manifesto (Manifesto of the Communist Party, MECW 6:504). It would neither be a realization of bourgeois freedom nor would it even be commensurate with, or justifiable on the basis of, bourgeois freedom and equality, even as it is bourgeois production which makes this substantive freedom first possible. In the reformist struggles of workers under capitalism, we see a first inkling of how this genuine, substantive freedom comes into conflict with formal, bourgeois freedom.
In Capital, as in the Grundrisse, we see that the worker's freedom to enter into a contract and to dispose of his labor-power as he wills is only an illusory freedom, and that he was never in this transaction a totally “free agent” at all because he is not simply free to sell his labor-power or not, but rather is compelled to sell it if he wishes to live. That compulsion makes the worker susceptible to the most brutal working conditions. Thus, the first step in bringing about substantive freedom from oppressive working conditions and exploitative relations of production is for workers to combine together and push for laws that actually curtail the abstract freedom granted to them in bourgeois society. These measures on the part of workers are vehemently opposed by the bourgeoisie

Civic liberalism is just a different side of the same coin of the more narrow economic liberalism or libertarianism.
The ability to actually have political power and say is needed rather than shuffling the wealth around.
The point is that rather than decrying the lack of (distributive) equality, we must actively use and promote notions of equality that both have traction in political arguments, and contribute to people gaining control over their own destiny. Further, the demand for equality of participation in determining one’s own activity does not call upon a bureaucratic power to take on the role of Equaliser, but on the contrary encourages subjects to strive for self-determination in dialogue with others. It also challenges the remaining domains of legitimised status subordination in the modern world and challenges the power of those institutions which are overseeing the untenable and inhuman levels of distributive inequality we see today.

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