Classical and Contemporary Liberal Views



All liberals desire to promote the liberties of all individuals. This is the common goal that has united liberals since the establishment of capitalism in the 18th century. However, during the industrial revolution, several issues came to light that left the liberals divided. It became apparent that a free society without enough intervention by the government led to the oppression of some groups while others benefited. This division gave rise to a new liberal view that cared about the welfare of every society member. Other supporters of the liberal ideology stood firmly behind earlier liberal interpretations. This is referred to the classic liberal view. There are several key differences between classical and contemporary liberal views.

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Key Differences between the Classic and Contemporary Liberal Views of the Resources

Differences between the classical and contemporary liberal viewpoints partly stem from the definition of ‘freedom’. Classical liberalists in the 18th and 19th centuries viewed freedom as the lack of restraint. In the wake of the industrial revolution, which saw the rapid expansion of industrialization, classical liberals demanded economic freedom (Ball et al. 67). This meant that they expected the nobles to abolish restraints against trade by the middle class. A free market driven by capitalism would benefit the common citizen and society as a whole. In comparison, contemporary liberals interpret freedom as both the lack of restraint and the empowerment of individuals (Ball et al. 76). Nevertheless, liberals from both views agree that the government has a role to play in ensuring these liberties. However, classical liberals believe that the government has a lesser role to play, whereas contemporary liberals believe the opposite is true. Therefore, classical liberals define freedom differently from contemporary liberals.

Classical Liberals

Classical Liberals believe that the government should provide resources that promote economic freedom as a means of ensuring basic individual liberties. These include infrastructure, lack of economic restrictions, free trade between countries, defense from foreign invasion, and the promotion of justice and order through property rights. Infrastructure such as roads, harbors, railways, and waterways are meant to boost trade through the easy transport of raw materials and finished goods. Classical liberals also demand that the government reduce the restrictions against free trade between countries (Ball et al. 67). In a classical liberal’s view, these resources are enough to guarantee that citizens’ rights are safeguarded.

Contemporary Liberals

Contemporary liberals expect the government to provide resources that empower individuals to promote basic freedoms. Such resources include public schools, hospitals, aid to the needy and disadvantaged, regulations regarding working conditions, and affirmative action programs. Furthermore, resources should be allocated to help the deprived find equal opportunities in society and to regulate economic competition (Ball et al. 77). As mentioned in above, this class of liberals also believes that the rights of the needy and disadvantaged cannot be ignored. Finally, affirmative programs allow for the empowerment of previously discriminated groups (Ball et al. 84). These resources ensure that the basic rights of individuals are not infringed upon.

The Human Nature Conception Between Classical Liberalism and Contemporary Liberalism

 Liberalism views human beings as rational individuals. This is the perception that underpins the ideology (Ball et al. 48). Unlike conservatism, liberals believe that people can act with self-restraint when dealing with their desires and passions. However, there are slight differences that set various liberals apart in regard to human nature. Classical liberals believe that if people are not bound by restrictions, they will thrive as individuals, which will result in a successful society. However, contemporary liberalism challenges this ideology as it results in unfair competition. Hence, it advocates for a society where everybody has an equal chance to be successful. This can only be achieved by allowing more power to a government that provides social amenities such as hospitals and schools (Ball et al. 76). According to contemporary liberals, this is the true definition of freedom.


Political Liberty

The understanding of human nature and society is different for contemporary and classical liberals. This can be deduced from their respective definition of human rights. Classical liberals view people as being driven by self-interest and passion. This is the mindset that drove Adam Smith (1723-1790) to promote the view of capitalism (Ball et al. 67). Together with other intellectuals of his time, Smith argued that if people are left to trade privately, they can improve their wellbeing. Later, it emerged that such rights only favored the middle class while the working class was exploited. Classical liberals justified this approach by dubbing it as mere ‘natural selection’ as expounded by Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Those who followed this line of thought believed that human beings were meant to freely compete. In such a scenario, only the strongest would emerge successful. Consequently, classical liberals such as Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) believed that the government should not interfere with the free market (Ball et al. 75). In contrast, contemporary liberals view human beings as social beings who rely on each other. Therefore, they work to promote the welfare of all citizens, including minority groups and the disadvantaged. These differing views of human nature are portrayed in the definition of basic human rights. Classical liberals understand political liberty differently from contemporary liberals. Indeed, both schools of thought believe in political liberties as characterized by great political movements such as the French revolution (Ball et al. 63). However, their views on human nature factor into their different perspectives about political liberty. Classical liberals aim to reduce the powers of the government. In contrast, contemporary liberals seek to increase the powers of the government. Therefore, contemporary liberals believe that the administration should have much power to improve the welfare of every citizen. To realize this goal, people must actively participate in the government in order to make it a true democracy. Therefore, political liberty plays a bigger role in contemporary liberal ideology than in classical liberal ideology.

Response to Affirmative Action

The issue of affirmative action is opposed by classical liberals as such they do not believe in any interference with people’s rights, except to safeguard them. Affirmative action favors certain discriminated minority groups. This is not acceptable to a classical liberal and the bias was the center of discussions during the 19th century. Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ (1859) fueled the conversation by claiming that nature dictates the survival of the fittest and natural selection (Ball et al. 75). Therefore, classical liberals believe in equal opportunities at school or work.

Contemporary liberals advocate affirmative action. The welfare of the majority is at the heart of such freedom. In society, cases arise where a certain group is discriminated against. Such collectives include, for example, women whose rights are violated, certain races, and certain religions. Another common example is the discrimination faced by the black population in the US. To compensate for such past injustices that may have left such groups far behind, contemporary liberals maintain that they should be given preference in job hiring and slots in institutions of learning (Ball et al. 84). Other groups who have been discriminated against include the special needs people such as the handicapped as they are not in a position to compete fairly with other able-bodied citizens. To correct this, a contemporary liberal would support affirmative action.


Conservatism seeks to preserve certain aspects of society, such as culture or religion. It is a political ideology that is based on the concept that human beings are imperfect (Ball et al. 94). Furthermore, these flaws make humans erroneous and incapable of always doing good deeds. Therefore, a system of government that will ensure that the people act with self-restraint is required. Different conservatives disagree on what the requirements are to be considered as a conservative. For instance, conservatism in the United States was built on issues that Europe considered liberal (Ball et al. 106). Such differences have led to divisions among proponents of this ideology. The result is four different thoughts about conservatism. These include traditional, individualist, neoconservatism, and the Religious Right (Ball et al. 113). Traditional conservatism views society as a fabric where individuals are interdependent from each other. Unlike traditional conservatism, this ideology requires the government to keep competition in check and to curb self-interest. Neoconservatism focuses on cultural conservation. It also supports the ideals of welfare liberalism provided that the people are uplifted so as to be independent of the government. Finally, the Religious Right calls for the conservation of morality in society (Ball et al. 117). Although there are differing views among conservatives, the fact that the ideology has persisted over the centuries shows that it is powerful and popular.


The aim of all liberals, both classical and contemporary, is to promote individual freedom. However, the means of achieving this objective differs between the groups. This is due to the two views defining freedom different



Work Cited

Ball, Terence, et al. Political Ideologies and the Democratic Ideal. Taylor & Francis, 2016.











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