What Is Liberalism in Politics?

Statue of Liberty on a sunny day with tourists all around.

William Warby / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Liberalism is one of the principal doctrines in Western political philosophy. Its core values are typically expressed in terms of individual freedom and equality. How these two ought to be understood is a matter of dispute, so that they are often differently declined in different places or among different groups. Even so, it is typical to associate liberalism with democracy, capitalism, freedom of religion, and human rights. Liberalism has been mostly defended in England and the U.S. among the authors that most contributed to the development of liberalism, John Locke (1632-1704) and John Stuart Mill (1808-1873).

Early Liberalism

Political and civic behavior describable as liberal can be found across the history of humanity, but liberalism as a full-fledged doctrine can be traced back to approximately 350 years ago, in northern Europe, England, and Holland in particular. It should be remarked, however, that the history of liberalism is entrenched with the one of an earlier cultural movement — namely, humanism — which flourished in central Europe, especially in Florence, in the 1300s and 1400s and reached its apex during the Renaissance in the 1500s.

It is indeed in those countries that most delved into the exercise of free trade and the exchange of people and ideas that liberalism thrived. The Revolution of 1688 marks, from this perspective, an important date for liberal doctrine. This event is underlined by the success of entrepreneurs such as Lord Shaftesbury and authors such as John Locke, who returned to England after 1688 and resolved to finally publish his masterpiece, "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding," wherein he provided also a defense of individual liberties that are key to the liberalist doctrine.

Modern Liberalism

Despite its recent origins, liberalism has an articulated history testifying of its key role in modern Western society. The two great revolutions, in America (1776) and France (1789) refined some of the key ideas behind liberalism: democracy, equal rights, human rights, the separation between State and religion, freedom of religion, and the focus on the individual well-being.

The 19th century was a period of intense refinement of the values of liberalism, which had to face the novel economic and social conditions posed by the incipient industrial revolution. Authors such as John Stuart Mill gave a fundamental contribution to liberalism, bringing philosophical attention to topics such as freedom of speech and the liberties of women and of enslaved people. This time also saw the birth of the socialist and communist doctrines under the influence of Karl Marx and the French utopists, among others. This forced liberalists to refine their views and bond into more cohesive political groups.

In the 20th century, liberalism was restated to adjust to the changing economic situation by authors such as Ludwig von Mises and John Maynard Keynes. The politics and lifestyle diffused by the U.S. throughout the world, then, gave a key impulse to the success of a liberal lifestyle, at least in practice if not in principle. In more recent decades, liberalism has been used also to address the pressing issues of the crisis of capitalism and the globalized society. As the 21st century enters into its central phase, liberalism is still a driving doctrine that inspires political leaders and individual citizens. It is the duty of all those who live in a civil society to confront such a doctrine.


  • Ball, Terence, et all. "Liberalism." Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., January 6, 2020.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre. "The Essence of Neoliberalism." Le Monde diplomatique, December 1998.
  • Hayek, F.A. "Liberalism." Enciclopedia del Novicento, 1973.
  • "Home." Online Library of Liberty, Liberty Fund, Inc., 2020.
  • "Liberalism." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, The Metaphysics Research Lab, Center for the Study of Language and Information (CSLI), Stanford University, January 22, 2018.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Borghini, Andrea. "What Is Liberalism in Politics?" ThoughtCo, Nov. 17, 2020, thoughtco.com/liberalism-2670740. Borghini, Andrea. (2020, November 17). What Is Liberalism in Politics? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/liberalism-2670740 Borghini, Andrea. "What Is Liberalism in Politics?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/liberalism-2670740 (accessed June 7, 2023).