Wikipedia defnes liberalism as follows:

Liberalism is a political and moral philosophy based on liberty, consent of the governed, and equality before the law. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but they generally support limited government, individual rights (including civil rights and human rights), capitalism (free markets), democracy, secularism, gender equality, racial equality, internationalism, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion.

However, the word liberalism can mean many things, it seems. If I understand correctly, classical liberalism is essentially libertarianism, which includes a strong focus on limiting government in all variations. I've also seen liberalism used to describe left-wing politics (like using liberal-conservative in place of left-right), which some people criticize for fighting against freedom of speech, which is a prominent part of the above definition of liberalism.

Is there an unambiguous term that describes a philosophy with a strong focus on individual rights, equality of opportunity and freedoms, that is also centrist on the socialism vs. capitalism spectrum?

P. S. I live in Russia and have no political education, so my perception of language and politics may be incorrect. Here in Russia, liberalism is synonymous with anti-Putin, it seems sometimes, which is yet another problem with colloquial usage.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 14:41
  • Keep in mind, there's a difference between a word having an inherent context, and groups with opposing philosophies intentionally using the word in a way to try and give it a negative connotation. By describing liberalism in a way that makes it sound like extreme left-wing ideas are at the core, it de-legitimizes the original context. Another example - "antifa" - which is short-hand for "anti-fascist." You'd think that would generally not be thought of as a horrible thing. If the intent is to smear, finding a "neutral" option just means that will be next up on the smear list. Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 18:55
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    Just to confuse the issue: In the US Liberal means left wing, in the UK centrist, and in Australia, right wing.
    – Keith
    Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 2:19
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    In the west it's a bit confusing because people tend to congregate into two opposing camps. One of those camps [The Left, 'liberals', 'democrats', etc] are generally socially liberal but economically conservative. The other are generally socially conservative but economically liberal [The Right, 'conservatives', 'republicans', etc]. For those who are all-around liberals (social+economic), it's generally the case that they end up hated by both of the above divisions, each pigeonholing the other based on half a platform. All around conservatives (social+economic) are basically just despots.
    – J...
    Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 17:04
  • I think what you seek to discern is collectivism vs individualism. The political affiliations that stem from these differing mindsets change over time and vary with different geographic locations. If you expand your research to include these terms you might find what you are looking for. Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 14:20

9 Answers 9


This all resolves if you realise that the term sought is: liberalism!

The linked Wiki page makes no mention of liberalism being a leftist thing.

liberalism (n.)
"liberal principles," especially the political principles of a liberal party, 1819, from liberal (adj.) in the political sense + -ism.



  • The quality of being liberal.
  • (politics) Any political movement founded on the autonomy and personal freedom of the individual, progress and reform, and government by law with the consent of the governed. quotations ▼
  • (economics) An economic ideology in favour of laissez faire and the free market (related to economic liberalism).

The term is not completely unambiguous. But the only confusion about the term concerning that a few people would consider this now to have anything to do with 'left' is that that 'reading' is a right-wing Americanism.

Don't use that word without explanation with Americans. And you'll be fine without complicated explanations in UK, Germany, France etc.

The word liberal has been so debased in America by right-wing demagogues that liberals have for at least two decades preferred to call themselves progressives.
–– Liberal? Are we talking about the same thing?, BBC

Exemplified in Wikipedia by making this necessary:

Modern liberalism in the United States
This article discusses liberalism as the term has been used in the United States since the 20th century. For the development of American liberalism, see Liberalism in the United States. For the origin and worldwide use of the term liberalism, see Liberalism.


Is there an unambiguous term that describes a philosophy with strong focus on individual rights, equality of opportunity and freedoms, while being centrist in the socialism vs capitalism spectrum?

I'd say that's civil libertarianism, according to Wikipedia:

Civil libertarianism is a strain of political thought that supports civil liberties, or which emphasizes the supremacy of individual rights and personal freedoms over and against any kind of authority (such as a state, a corporation, social norms imposed through peer pressure and so on). Civil libertarianism is not a complete ideology—rather, it is a collection of views on the specific issues of civil liberties and civil rights.

The latter part may be a bit more than what you asked for as it "emphasizes the supremacy of individual rights and personal freedoms over and against any kind of authority".

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    This is a pretty good answer, but ignores the rationalists, and the social contract/empiricists from consideration.
    – user9790
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 9:24
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    I think this is the only answer that satisfies the requirement of an unambiguous term. The most upvoted answer ("liberalism") completely disregards the requirement and relies on a scientific definition. Even comments here prove that the term is anything but unambiguous. Another good answer is "social liberalism", especially considering the term covers the economic part, but sadly it suffers from ambiguity even within Wikipedia's articles to some degree. In the world where definitions fluctuate based on emotions, choosing a rarely used term "civil libertarianism" is probably the best option.
    – Athari
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 21:45

JJJ gave a pretty good answer, but he eluded the part of your question where you also include "equality of opportunity", which itself is a non-trivial issue which much having been written about it. Equality of opportunity is probably impossible to fully address without an economic viewpoint... which you also seen to want to avoid taking a stance on.

On the other hand, if you want a centrist viewpoint on the latter issue of economics (rather than no viewpoint) then social liberalism and some synonyms thereof are the terms used to describe such a combination of centrist economic views with civil libertarianism:

Social liberalism, also known as left liberalism in Germany, modern liberalism in the United States and new liberalism in the United Kingdom, is a political ideology and a variety of liberalism that endorses a regulated market economy and the expansion of civil and political rights. [...]

A social liberal government is expected to address economic and social issues such as poverty, health care, education and the climate using government intervention whilst also emphasising the rights and autonomy of the individual.

So it depends how much of those issues like education, climate etc. you want to consider as being part of "equality of opportunity".

There's a much longer article on equality of opportunity on SEP: A bit of its conclusion section is worth quoting here

The slogan “equality of opportunity” commands wide allegiance among the members of contemporary societies. Under scrutiny, equality of opportunity divides into several different ideals, some of them being opposed rivals.


In order for it to be unambiguous, "Classical Liberalism" is probably what you're looking for. Merely "liberalism" will be quite context-dependent and definitely ambiguous. In the U.S. especially, 'liberalism' by itself now usually refers to the modern left, which is largely the opposite of classical liberalism, instead advocating for larger government and less economic freedom.

Wikipedia sums up Classical Liberalism as

a political ideology and a branch of liberalism which advocates civil liberties under the rule of law with an emphasis on economic freedom.


It's difficult not to subscribe to an economic viewpoint, as the economic system is deeply entwined with whether you are actually able to enjoy your individual rights. To some, a capitalist system is enabling, to others it is a barrier.

To arrive at a coherent philosophy, you need to also answer the questions

  • do my individual liberties include trading away my individual liberties?
  • do circumstances that limit my choices diminish my individual liberties?

A philosophy that emphasizes that individual liberties cannot be surrendered must have some form of remedy, should this ever happen, and that must involve help from other people if necessary.

(Interestingly, even Ayn Rand acknowledges this. There is a lengthy¹ passage in Atlas Shrugged where the inhabitants of Galt's Gulch mount a rescue mission for Hank Rearden, with everyone contributing to the best of their ability without charging each other for it.)

At the left and right ends of the spectrum, individual liberty requires that you also take responsibility to defend it. You can do so collectively or individually, with different trade-offs and failure modes. It is hard to envision a center position here².

¹ in other news, water is wet.

² that isn't reminiscent of Germany in the early 1930ies.

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    Hu? You mean Germany pre-'33 or pre-'36? In other words: middle–end of Great Depression and last years of Weimar, or early Nazi? In both cases: that should mean what, please explain? Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 23:38
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    @LangLangC, pre-'33. Formally, people still enjoyed the same liberties as during the golden twenties, but could not realize them, and Nazism initially promised a return to economic prosperity that would have made that possible, which made quite a few people look the other way. Commented Oct 13, 2019 at 0:14

I was born and raised in the English language in the United States, my answer is based on that. Further, it is based on my 71 years on the planet, with an interest in political topics. The questioner correctly states that language can be abused, for instance that pro-Putin Russians use “liberal” as a negative (pejorative). To divorce liberal from leftist, my answer is you use the noun liberal with the adjective classical, hence: classical liberal. Classical implies returning to an earlier time frame. Libertarian implies more, sometimes unlimited freedom of choice, freedom of decision, as in using marijuana, ?-“because it doesn’t hurt others”-?

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    Please edit your post when you want to make an addition. Also note that you're a bit heavy on the introduction compared to your actual answer. What constitutes a classic liberal? Perhaps add a link to its Wikipedia page and see which parts in the question fall within that category and which may not be covered by the term.
    – JJJ
    Commented Oct 13, 2019 at 13:36
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    Why do you think classical liberals would disagree with people smoking marijuana? Not only is it no violation of other people's liberties, but back in the day of classical liberals, it wasn't even a controlled substance. It wasn't any different from drinking alcohol or smoking tobacco. The whole "War on drugs" (and "war on poverty", and...) thing is just the governments claiming even more power over people they otherwise have no legal recourse on (it helped promote racist and anti-pacifist policies in the US, for example), exactly the opposite of what a classical liberal would want.
    – Luaan
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 9:07
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    Heck, it wasn't even called marijuana back then - that's the smear name the US government came up with, to make it sound more foreign ("Mexican"). It was usually known as "cannabis" or "hemp" (and probably "weed" etc.). It was at about the same level as coffee - something to help you perform better, without having serious drawbacks. It was used in all sorts of low-key medicines, mostly as analgesic. But regardless, "libertarian" was to explicitly mean "classical liberal", to reclaim what "liberal" used to mean. The fact that people started to associate it with drugs shows how futile that is.
    – Luaan
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 9:10
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    @Luaan Perhaps it's the smoking hemp angle. That's really filthy. Not fit for monarchies or royalty! Side-note: it is on the level of coffee, and ever was (much like coca: some extracts or new breeds notwithstanding. 'Drinking strength' is also valid for alcohol, like pure caffeine tablets…) Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 0:47
  • @LangLangC Right, I expect plenty of people used different methods of delivery - chewing like with tobacco or coca, drinking a brew, and of course the ever popular ointments. Needless to say, the same is true of coffee, cocoa, tea... Of course, the health issues are not necessarily diminished (e.g. I remember reading that when chewing tobacco was more popular than smoking, instead of lung cancer, you had tongue or laryngal cancer etc.), but hemp is really on a different level than tobacco, unless you smoke it (usually with tobacco, of course :D).
    – Luaan
    Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 6:33

Excellent question. Modern scholarship is contemptuous of left, right and center political spectrum; but it remains very important as the most widely used metric for describing modern and historical leaders and philosophies in use.

Your question presupposes that there is ambiguity in equating classic liberalism which, as you state, is better today classified as a moderate right leaning ideology(libertarianism); than with progressivism, the left, or modern liberalism(all synonyms). What you are missing is the understanding of what distinguishes left and right along with historical perspective.

The left is about new ideas, new solution when problems occur. Classic liberalism in the Age of Enlightenment when Jefferson, Paine, Beccaria, Baruch Spinoza, Diderot, Kant, Hume, Rousseau and Adam Smith first expressed them were new and thus liberal. Just as we say Stalin and Lenin were extreme examples of left ideology because they set out to create a new form of government.

The right or conservatism is about preserving the status quo. When conservatives face a problem they try previously used solutions or failing that reforming the existing system. We call the Roman senator Cato a conservative because at the end of the Roman Republic he dedicated himself to preserving the republic, the old system. He opposed the new, opposed empire. Alexander Hamilton is said to be the father of American conservatism for taking the opposite position. Hamilton favored recreating a monarchy in an age when monarchies were the norm. Hamilton and Cato both believed in the tried and true forms of government for there times but due to there periods supported opposite systems.

Hitler and Mussolini(fascism) are extreme examples of conservatism because in both Germany and Italy they were about recreating what had existed in the past. Hitler wanted to create the third Reich. Mussolini wanted to recreate the Roman Empire.

Each side has its advantages and disadvantages for moderate subscribers. Right leaning or conservatism tend to make safe well understood changes when confronting problems; however also by definition these solutions are compromises as there typically are reasons previous policies where changed. Conservatism really falls down when society faces systemic problems history has no answer for and reform is insufficient to address. ( ending slavery, labor laws after the dawn of the Industrial Age, trust busting, civil rights, woman’s suffrage ) Still conservative solutions are generally good safe solutions.

Left leaning or liberal solutions are inherently more dangerous with more unforeseen consequences. New ideas are inherently more risky than well understood previously tried solutions. Still without new ideas there is no progress. Most old ideas where at one time new ideas. Which brings us back along to libertarianism or classic liberalism.

Typically conservative ideology is most attractive after prolonged liberal rule; when society wants to introduce normalcy or just get things working again. Not coincidentally liberal ideology is most attractive and appealing after prolonged conservative rule. When society is struggling with systemic problems which history has no answer for.


Is there an unambiguous term that describes a philosophy with a strong focus on individual rights, equality of opportunity and freedoms, that is also centrist on the socialism vs. capitalism spectrum?

This is key to your question. You describe a economics axis. Although many casual readers probably equate classical liberalism with capitalism, I'm not sure that's quite true. Classical liberalism believes in free markets. Capitalism means private ownership. They are arguably not the same; capitalism does not necessarily support free markets (crony capitalism, robber baron capitalism). So a classical liberal supports the role of the state in regulating the proper operation of free markets. A pure capitalist system tends to monopoly.

There is a lot of discussion about how much regulation is required for the proper functioning of a free market, which can be a broad debate amongst classical liberals. For instance, someone could say that structural inequalities may impede a class of certain individuals from fully participating in the market. This argument is rooted in classical liberalism. This is why it's such a broad, even stretchy term, I think.

So I would say that if you use the term "classical liberal", you are reasonably close.


The term you're looking for is Libertarianism. Libertarianism is a very diverse world view, as there can only be one libertarian recognized at a time. It's not just classical liberalism. It's a world view that places the individual as the primary organizing structure of society, and the collective always comes second to the individuals well being. You're basically solving the problem of totalitarianism in the process.

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