The Difference Between Classical Liberalism and Modern Liberalism

In the history of politics, there is only one fundamental, abiding issue – it is individualism vs. collectivism.  

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Do individuals have the right to pursue their own happiness, as Thomas Jefferson thought and as the Declaration of Independence deemed self-evident?

Or do we have an obligation to live our lives for the community or the state as most societies have claimed throughout most of history?

Classical liberalism was the political philosophy of the Founding Fathers – it permeates the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and many other documents produced by the people who created the American system of government.  Many emancipationists who opposed slavery were essentially classical liberals as were the suffragettes who fought for equal rights for women.

Classical liberalism is based on a belief in liberty.

Even today, one of the clearest statements of this philosophy is found in the Declaration of Independence.  In 1776, most people believed that rights came from government and people thought they had only such rights as government elected to give them.  However, following British philosopher John Locke, Jefferson argued that it’s the other way around and people have rights apart from government, as part of their nature.   Furthermore, people can both form governments and dissolve them and the only legitimate purpose of government is to protect these rights.
– John C. Goodman –

True classical “Thomas Jefferson liberals” believe liberty is about allowing people to do whatever they want as long as it does not infringe on others rights. When one believes in liberty they do not believe in any absolute social outcome, they believe in allowing society to manifest on its own and naturally work out its own social issues without having government mandate legislation geared towards manifesting a desired particular social outcome. You have the right to pursue happiness and services, but happiness and services are not a right.

Modern liberals believe in principles that are drastically and quite opposite of true classical liberals who believe in authoritarianism through a centralized governing body with a monopoly of force dictating and enforcing equal opportunity and equality as they see, for everyone. They believe it’s the duty of the government to alleviate social ills and to protect civil liberties, individual and human rights through legislation and force. They believe the government is intended to guarantee that no one is in need.

They believe that the government is more effective than the private sector in regards to almost everything from social issues to economic issues. They typically will tell you that to not believe in a centralized governing body dictating to the masses about almost every aspect of our culture and economy is to believe in anarchy.

They have a very low to no concept of what true Liberty means.

They cannot conceptualize that forcing individuals to offer their services to others violates one’s civil rights when in fact it is within one’s civil rights to refuse anyone of their services for whatever reasons they deem fit. They unfortunately cannot comprehend that people have a right to seek services but they do not have a right to force others to offer them services.

Under the principles of liberty, self-ownership and the pursuit of happiness, people providing services have the right to charge whatever they want and they have the right to decide for themselves who they are going to service and not service.

Modern liberals can’t seem to wrap their mind around true liberalism.

  • Unfortunately, I don’t know what to call it if you believe in individual liberty in some areas, and not others. American Capitalism does not regard basic health care as a right, and subjugates patient care to market forces. I do not think health care (or K-12 education) should be a matter of competition based on individuals acting in liberty. But I do believe in individual liberty with regard to most activities related to commerce and the acquisition of wealth. Am I a Democratic Socialist, a Social Democrat, a Semi-Classical Liberal, an “I don’t count”, or what?