I am very confused. The Wikipedia entry of liberalism states that this ideology is based on the concepts of liberty and equality. Yet, these are in many senses not fully compatible. Think of a tax on inheritance. It might aim to reduce intergenerational inequality, but it is clearly a constraint on liberty. Alternatively, liberty as in free market might lead to monopolies and concentration of wealth, thereby increasing equality.

The wikipedia entry also refers to common ideals pursued by liberals, like

freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free markets, civil rights, democratic societies, secular governments, gender equality, and international cooperation.

Many groups from the left would define themselves as liberals in terms of moral values (marriage, secular society, freedom of speech, gender equality, etc), yet are critical to capitalism as in free markets and property rights. Conversely, many from the right declare themselves liberals from an economic perspective, without strong advocacy for more progressive rights. In fact, neoliberalism is perhaps an example of the latter.

My way around this dilemma is that the original concept of liberalism was indeed based on both liberty and equality, insofar as it was a response to an agriculturally-based society founded in absolutism and conservatism of the XVIII and XIX centuries. However, when (i) capitalism became dominant, and the new elite of industrialist emerged, in opposition to the aristocrat, land based elite, and (ii) socialism as in Marx emerged as an alternative, the two concepts of liberty and equality were, in broad terms, no longer compatible, in particular when contrasting moral and economic dimensions.

As such, ideologies that emerged and built upon this original concept of liberalism, became much more refined later on. Therefore, the concept of liberalism no longer discriminates between these ideologies precisely, thereby being a poor tool to denominate a group of ideas. Liberalism then became a "misnomer". Is this a fair analysis?

For example, Paul Krugman, a Nobel-prize winner economist from the US, calls himself a liberal, but he is a Democrat, supporter of government intervention in the economy. He is clearly not a "neoliberal". Then, in the end, all this is to me very confusing.

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    That's a general problem with broad political labels like "liberal", "conservative", "left" or "right". They are oversimplifications which rarely fit every single opinion a given person holds. If you try to put people into such categories, you soon end up with no true Scotsman circular reasoning. A person who holds the view "personal freedom and equality for everyone, but smash the corporations" could be described as socially liberal and economically authoritarian.
    – Philipp
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 10:40
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. Commented May 24, 2017 at 18:11
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    What is your question? Commented May 25, 2017 at 15:58
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    One just has to accept that classical liberalism in the context of the Enlightenment and progressive liberalism are two different things. Here's a history of the parties to guide you. powerlineblog.com/archives/2011/12/…
    – user9790
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 16:21
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    Related: What is the difference between liberalism and libertarianism? Commented May 25, 2017 at 16:23

1 Answer 1

  • "Liberalism" comes from the Latin word "libertas"which means freedom.
  • "Conservatism", the common foil of liberalism comes from the Latin word "Conservare" which is a stronger version of "Servare" means "To save, keep, or guard"

Hundreds of years ago, Liberty was not the de-facto norm, and Liberals, who wanted more freedom were at odds with conservatives who wanted to guard traditions.

What probably happened is that people considered the label "liberal" part of their identity, and shifts in the liberal movement bring it to where it is today where their main ideology no longer has much to do with the freedom-vs-monarchy axis. Today they're more about new changes and improvements to society, which is why they often call themselves "progressives"

The conservative movement went through changes too, but It fundamentally still values traditionalism. The reason Conservatives like to invoke freedom today is because Freedom is now considered to be a traditional value, at least it is in the US.

more reading:

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    This is a fine answer to some question. Perhaps you should offer an edit to the question to make them line up better.
    – user9389
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 16:11
  • @notstoreboughtdirt What about this answer doesn't address the OP's question? It seems to me as tough this question is asking why "Liberalism" a term that is supposed to have to do with freedom, doesn't necessarily always come down on the side of more freedom, and I believe that this answer covers at a high level what you need to know to understand why that is. Commented May 25, 2017 at 17:17
  • I'm listed on the hold for not seeing a clear meaning of the question. If you have an understanding of what's being asked or an idea of what could be asked, I hope you will edit the question to help me understand.
    – user9389
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 17:25
  • @notstoreboughtdirt I'll leave that as an exercise for the OP. It's one thing to interpret the question as I understand it for the sake of answering it. It's another to make a major edit based off of that interpretation and to risk changing the intent of the question. Commented May 25, 2017 at 19:10
  • "Hundreds of years ago", "What probably happened" - Couldn't you be more specific to provide a valuable answer? Also, what do you mean by '"Conservatis", the common foil of liberalism'? It is completely cryptic to me what you intend to say with this phrase.
    – jjdb
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 9:12

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