Basically, 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. People thought they had only such rights as government elected to give them. But following British philosopher John Locke, Jefferson argued that it’s the other way around. People have rights apart from government, as part of their nature. Further, people can both form governments and dissolve them. The only legitimate purpose of government is to protect these rights.

The 19th century was the century of classical liberalism. Partly for that reason it was also the century of ever-increasing economic and political liberty, relative international peace, relative price stability and unprecedented economic growth. By contrast, the 20th century was the century that rejected classical liberalism. Partly for that reason, it was the century of dictatorship, depression and war. Nearly 265 million people were killed by their own governments (in addition to all the deaths from wars!) in the 20th century – more than in any previous century and possibly more than in all previous centuries combined.

All forms of collectivism in the 20th century rejected the classical liberal notion of rights and all asserted in their own way that need is a claim. For the communists, the needs of the class (proletariat) were a claim against every individual. For the Nazis, the needs of the race were a claim. For fascists (Italian-style) and for architects of the welfare state, the needs of society as a whole were a claim. Since in all these systems the state is the personification of the class, the race, society as a whole, etc., all these ideologies imply that, to one degree or another, individuals have an obligation to live for the state.

Yet, the ideas of liberty survived. Indeed, almost everything that is good about modern liberalism (mainly its defense of civil liberties) comes from classical liberalism. And almost everything that is good about modern conservatism (mainly its defense of economic liberties) also comes from classical liberalism.

Modern Liberalism and Modern Conservatism as Sociologies

One of the difficulties in describing political ideas is that the people who hold them are invariably more varied and complex than the ideas themselves. Take Southern Democrats, for example. For most of the 20th century, right up through the 1960s and even into the 1970s, virtually every Democratic politician in the South was an advocate of segregation and Jim Crow laws. This group included Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright (a favorite of the liberal media because of his opposition to the Vietnam War); North Carolina’s Sen. Sam Ervin (an ardent constitutionalist and another liberal favorite because his Senate hearings led to the downfall of Richard Nixon); Lyndon Johnson (who as president changed his public views on race and pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964); such economic populists as Louisiana Gov. Huey Long and Alabama Gov. George Wallace; West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd, one-time Ku Klux Klan member and king of pork on Capitol Hill; and small government types, such as South Carolina’s Sen. Strom Thurmond (who changed his views on race, began hiring black staffers and then switched parties and became a Republican).

This group held the balance of political power in Congress throughout most of the post-World War II period. To even try to use words like “conservative” and “liberal” when describing them is more likely to mislead than to shed any useful light. With that caution, let us attempt a brief summary.

Liberals tend to believe that marijuana consumption should be legal, even for recreational use. Yet they are quite content to have the government deny terminal cancer patients access to experimental drugs. Conservatives tend to hold the opposite opinion.


Goodman J.C (2017) Classical liberalism vs mordern liberalism and modern conservatism. Goodman institute for public policy