According to wikipedia

Liberalism (from the Latin liberalis) is a political philosophy or worldview founded on the idea of liberty and equality. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally they support ideas such as free and fair elections, civil rights, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free trade, and a right to life, liberty, and property.


Libertarianism is the group of political philosophies which advocate minimizing coercion and emphasize freedom, liberty, and voluntary association. Libertarians generally advocate a society with significantly less government compared to most present day societies.

From these definitions it seems that liberalism has a stronger focus on equality, while libertarianism is strongly associated with small government. Can anybody describe the differences more accurately? Might it be that the term libertarianism got more widespread as the meaning of liberalism in the USA shifted leftwards?

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    There is a third term: libertine.
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 10, 2012 at 22:55
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    A Liberal in most other places in the world would have more in common with a Libertarian in the United States, it is apparently just in the United States that the world Liberal was demonized.
    – user117
    Commented Dec 11, 2012 at 2:13
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    @gerrit - libertine is more of a moral/ethical term than political, I think.
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 11, 2012 at 3:45
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    Since you didn't specify if you wanted Modern American (aka Welfare) liberalism or Classical Liberalism, I gave an answer that addresses both.
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 11, 2012 at 4:18
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    ..liberalism has a stronger focus on equality don't confuse between liberty(freedom) and equality. Often, they are opposing forces.
    – KNU
    Commented Oct 22, 2016 at 2:02

5 Answers 5


The word "libertarianism" was essentially invented because classical liberals felt that the word had become expropriated.

Leonard E. Reed wrote in Castles in the Air:

There was a word that I always liked; the classical economists used it: liberal. The word liberal really meant, in the classical sense, the liberalization of the individuals from the tyranny of the State. That word was expropriated by our opponents and it has now come to mean liberality with other people’s money. The word was taken over. And so I, more than anybody else, was responsible for introducing and publicizing and perhaps making world-wide the word libertarian. . .


First of all, as usual in politics, you got definition confusions galore. For one thing, what we call "libertarianism" in USA today was originally called "classical liberalism" - and AFAIK is still called that in Europe (don't tell any of the modern liberals in America who get allergic reaction from a mention of Mises or Ayn Rand :)

  • If you mean "modern American liberalism", that has 2 other semantic problems:

    1. It is again a fairly vague term with wide variety of views inside. You got people from Dennis Kucinich to Weather Underground; from Charlie Wilson ("Liberal from Lufkin") to Nancy Pelosi.

    2. Some of the words of definitions are very political-viewpoint-specicfic (in other words, just because a liberal will tell you he stands for "X", doesn't mean he stands for "X" in reality, at least from the point of view of his political opponent. Same with when an anti-liberal telling you that liberals stand for "Y").

      For example your Wiki definition mentioned "freedom of the press". That is extra double hard to square with modern American Liberals solidly supporting "Fairness Doctrine" in 2000s. Or state-supported arts. Or bailouts to floundering liberal newspapers like NYT. Or with strong political support for Hugo Chavez who closes down all opposition press.

      "Free trade" - tell that to Colombians who got shafted by union friendly Democrats from getting an already-negotiated Free Trade agreement approved. The one prominent Democrat who was strongly pro-free-trade (Bill Clinton) was definitely not on the "liberal" wing of DNC.

      "a right to life, liberty, and property" - as long as your right to life doesn't conflict with their political ideals; and your right to liberty as long as you don't do anything they disagree with - from "thinking bad thoughts" to "acting with prejudice against protected minority, where liberals are the only judges whether you were doing so", and your right to property as long as you aren't the demonized-right-now evil class (loggers, oil producers, people who use animals for testing products, evil "bankers", evil "rich people" etc...). Oh, and you have a right to property till liberals decide you make "too much money" and not enough of it is taken from you in taxes. Again, with THEM being the only judge of where "too much" is.

    Having said that, if you want to try for some generalizations, you may say that in USA, liberals are more for bigger government with more powers (tax, regulatory, social rules) and libertarians are for smaller governments with less powers (tax, regulatory, social rules).

    Also, American liberals don't mind using force and violence (in a civilized way) to get their ends (for example, using police power of the state to enforce their material redistribution problems, or personally intimidating people who donate money to causes they find morally repugnant), while most of modern libertarianism is built on philosophical and ethical foundation of NON-violence. Purely 100% libertarian society is based on fully voluntary contracts for 100% of things, and no coercion.

    To address the last item in your question: When you say "focus on equality", again, you run into definition issues. Liberals are focused on equality of outcome, at the cost of equality of opportunity (e.g. Affirmative Action, highly progressive taxation). Libertarians are committed to equality of opportunity (e.g. everyone gets to play by the same rules), while admitting that said approach will necessarily result in inequality of outcomes.

  • Now, if you meant the difference between "classical liberalism" and libertarianism, that one is a lot more nuanced since they are much closer to each other.

    Short short version is that libertarianism is in some ways derived - or inherits from - classical libertarianism, throwing out the idea of Social Contract and more clearly defines the basis for individual rights and limits on governments.

    One of the posters at mises.org put the differences down as follows:

    Norman Barry has written a book on the different trends into the contemporary libertarian tradition, fittingly titled "On classical liberalism and libertarianism"; where he differentiates the two on the basis of the consequentialist (ie, economic or utilitarian) v. deontological (normative) foundation of the respective theories. He does, however, concedes that he is using this classification as a short-hand in the absence of a more sophisticated treatment of the dividing line.'

    In plain/street english, libertarianism is seen as an extreme/radical variant of classical liberalism, somewhere between liberalism and anarchism... just taking the liberal concepts further and accepting their logical consequences.

A good resource for comparison is an article "Classical Liberalism, Libertarianism, and Individualism" by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D. (archive.org link). Here are relevant exerpts, though I recommend reading the whole thing:

  • First of all, on Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism:

    It seems to be clear that Libertarianism developed from Classical Liberalism. Its modern form developed in the United States, where it drew on rights theory, free-market economics, the romantic individualist ideas set out in works such as those of Ayn Rand, for instance, and the American tradition of non-interventionism in foreign policy. The Vietnam War, and resistance to conscription during that time, and the socio-political attitudes arising from the turmoil of the 1960s seem to have resulted in a loose movement that included a variety of different people, conservatives and liberals, who held the common view that people ought to make decisions for themselves and not force their decisions on others.

    A division eventually developed between those Libertarians who wanted to get rid of the state or government altogether and those who were uneasy about the state, but thought that it should be severely limited. The former group are called the Anarco-Capitalist Libertarians, while the latter group are called either just Libertarians or, like myself, Moderate Libertarians. There may be, of course, other interpretations of Libertarianism that I don't know about, and they may place another modifier in front of the term "Libertarian." Also, I don't think there are significant foundational differences between Moderate Libertarians and Classical Liberals, although disagreements between the two may arise when it comes to some specific practical policies such as defense, capital punishment, law and order, and so forth, and the role of a government in these matters.

  • He also wrote on differences between Classical Liberals and Welfare Liberals, which I discussed in the first half of the answer:

    Classical Liberals, like myself, stress such ideas as voluntary association, incentives, and self-interest. We believe that people are bound by their own decisions, agreements, contracts, and so on. Therefore, people may do unpleasant jobs, for instance, because they pay. They may, of course, do things as well for non-financial reasons. It is important to note that we stress that our way of doing things combines a way to get things done with a high degree of individual freedom. We assume that people recognize the rights of others and some uncontracted obligations toward others, as well. Classical Liberalism can be contrasted with Welfare or Modern Liberalism which has an opposing view and is currently the dominant political philosophy in the United States.

    Welfare Liberals think that citizens should have far more welfare guarantees; indeed, some have suggested that everyone should have a guaranteed income. For example, two Yale Law School professors, Bruce Ackermann and Ann Alstott, have advocated that every U.S. citizen with a high school diploma should receive a bounty of $80,000 on his or her twenty-first birthday.

    Welfare Liberals tend to favor paternalistic actions by government to protect people, and they are less worried about the ethics and practicalities of social engineering by government. They give more weight to social obligations, instead of basic rights, and when they talk about rights and obligations, they have in mind the idea that those who are fortunate have an obligation to serve the community as a whole.

    ..So we can say in a general way that one approach, Classical Liberalism, favors incentives, the shaping of the individual through family upbringing, and participation in the ordinary institutions of a commercial society. The other side, Welfare or Modern Liberals, puts greater weight on socialization to predispose people to specific views and perspectives which favor their agenda.

    Welfare Liberalism, by the way, does have a real problem with how to get individuals to do things since there is little incentive to do constructive things if you are given what you need by the government rather than having to work for it yourself. One might note that welfare recipients have little incentive to take really unpleasant jobs.

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    One note - Rand was an Objectivist, which is not the same as classic liberalism.
    – StasM
    Commented Dec 13, 2012 at 7:34
  • @StasM - Quite correct. However, for the purposes of illustrating things that welfare liberals are allergic to, it's not a significant enough distinction (to them :)
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 13, 2012 at 12:32
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    There is a serious flaw in your argument: "Liberals are focused on equality of outcome, at the cost of equality of opportunity." No. Liberals believe that equality of opportunity is not given if the government retreats and that current society will favor some groups over others and thus undermine equality of opportunity. Example: Rich parents would send their kids to better schools and universities, so that they would get better jobs even if they are neither more intelligent nor more hard-working than the kids of poorer parents. The government is then called by liberals to correct the issue.
    – Thern
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 16:30
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    @Nebr - not to get into the weeds, but as someone who went to cheap state college, i call complete BS on that specific argument. "better schools" may have effect on whether you end up in 1% vs 5% top (as it may offer networking at the top level). It does not in any way affect whether you end up in 5% or 95%, if the student works hard and studies instead of partying and chasing sex. I don't know anyone from my college who worked hard and didn't succeed.
    – user4012
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 16:35
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    @user4012 I will not discuss the validity of the argument, as that may be debatable. It is just to show that the argument "liberals want equality of outcome" is incorrect. They want equality of opportunity as well, but they believe that this equality of opportunity is not given currently. How you judge this may be a large part of the decision if you are a liberal or a libertarian. Equality of outcome is a socialist argument, not a liberal one.
    – Thern
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 18:12

It's all a bit silly, really.

Classical liberalism is libertarianism - if you take the William Gladstone era as a reference. von Mises and Hayek built upon it and this spurred the (professed) politics of Thatcher and Reagan: strip away the state and let everything be free.

In parallel, socialism emerged and was adopted across Europe and China but was rejected in America for a variety of reasons - mostly the Cold War, where it was "un-American" to be a leftist, socialist or communist. Since McCarthy, it has been largely taboo to identify as any of these.

So the American left had to find another label: it chose Liberal to mean "not conservative". But here is the problem, classical liberalism is one of the main tribes of conservatism. Just listen to how the recent Tea Party and all its various adherents promoted "libertarianism" whilst at the same time disparaging "liberals". So, in America today, "liberal" can mean almost anything. Hence the massive confusion.

I highly recommend that people discard the label "liberal" as its meaning has been balkanised.

Instead, try to use these:

Reactionaries or Paleoconservatives - nationalist, protectionist, anti-abortion, pro-gun etc. Usually but not always "free markets within our borders", but can be quite statist. Often champion the past as a golden era, promoting "the narrative of decline". Donald Trump and Pat Buchanan.

Libertarians - free trade & open borders, reduce government size & influence; usually pro-gun and anti-abortion but not always. Ron Paul, Rand Paul, Thatcher, Reagan, Daniel Hannan, von Mises, Hayek.

Centerists - a mix of left and right, normally "globalist". Usually champion "the narrative of progress" so sometimes self-identify as "progressive". Clinton, Obama, Blair.

Socialists - redistributionist statists but can self-identify as "progressive" - Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn

Communists - the state is everything, you do what it says - Xi Jinping, Deng Xiaoping, Mao Zedong, Stalin, Lenin

Note: Marx was, paradoxically, a libertarian. He believed that in the final revolution, all need for government would be swept away and the people would just spontaneously be benevolent. He simply viewed communism as a necessary step on that journey. The problem is that this path to the final revolution tends to get stuck at the communist stage - and the all-powerful central committee won't give up power.

Note 2: "progressive" is as catch-all as "liberal", but can be define a bit more unambiguously. It generally hinges around the idea of promoting social reform, because not only can a better world can be achieved but it should be actively be pursued. This is the narrative of progress and almost all political movements, apart from Reactionaries and Paleoconservatives preach it; so it can included libertarians and communists, who don't agree on much. So "progressive" is best avoided.

My naive idea is that if this terminology becomes widely used, political debates might make a lot more sense!


Liberalism and libertarianism have much more in common then most people and the postings above give it credit. Both hold civil and natural rights above all else. Libertarians believe these rights can only be abridged by commission of actions. Liberals feel, in addition to committed actions, acts of omission can impeach liberties as well - such not providing healthcare to those who cannot afford it. Thus is the rationale for redistributive policies, i.e. taxing the rich to support the poor.

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    Libertarianism uses the principle of self-ownership as a moral guide, which is totally different from just fighting for "liberty". youtube.com/watch?v=8GazZBvHhgQ Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 10:22
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    Modern Liberalism does NOT value Natural Rights. All Natural Rights are negative rights. Meaning they cannot compel individual A to perform, in order to provide rights to individual B. Modern so-called Liberalism is all based on negative rights, whereas Libertarianism considers positive rights to be an act of aggression (look up Non Aggression Principle)against other individuals Natural(negative rights). For you to have a right to healthcare, that requires an act of aggression against my property(income) to accomplish. The govt has to steal $ from someone to give others healthcare. Opposites
    – Aporter
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 13:58
  • Addition to Eduardo: political principles can be justified by reason alone, that they are objective and universal in scope, and that they do not depend on the subjective feelings or desires of individuals or originate in the decrees of government. link
    – netfed
    Commented Nov 10, 2019 at 8:06

1 Never use wikipedia as a source because your definition of Liberalism is wrong just like wikipedia is not a viable source for college papers.

Liberalism- a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties; specifically : such a philosophy that considers government as a crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequities (as those involving race, gender, or class) source Merriam-Webster.com

Libertarianism- an advocate of the doctrine of free will a : a person who upholds the principles of individual liberty especially of thought and action b capitalized : a member of a political party advocating libertarian principles

Main difference. Liberals believe in government ordained belief structure, Libertarians believe in free will with limited government. Ron Swanson from Parks and Rec is Libertarian model. President Obama is the Liberal model. One doesn't care what your beliefs and practices are as long as they don't effect him while the other pushes his belief structure on the mass and even though 60% of people disagree with it they're all forced to deal with it.

  • Your definition of liberalism is contradictory. Either you have a essential goodness or you have social inequalities, i do not see how you can have both. Commented Aug 20, 2014 at 2:30
  • I am up voting this because I agree that the above definition (provided in the question) of Liberalism is junk. With that being said I think that Merriam-Webster's definition is not much better and your own description below contradicts "the autonomy of the individual", with your Obama example and the definition itself, contradicts itself.
    – Aporter
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 14:06

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