Study Notes

Comparison between Classical and Modern Liberalism

AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 1 Jul 2020

Here are four ways in which classical and modern liberalism can be compared.

The role of the state

John Stuart Mill plays a significant role here in the distinction between the two main strands of liberalism. Mill can readily be identified as the intellectual bridge between the eclipse of classical liberalism and the emergence of social liberalism of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. There is a considerable change of emphasis amongst liberal figures at the time in terms of how to maximise the concept of individual liberty. The primary focus here concerns the role of the state.

According to Mill, the laissez-faire economic system is consistent with liberal notions of free exchange of labour and the importance of consumer choice. Equally, Mill warned that when everyone expects the state to do things for them they naturally hold the state responsible for every misfortune that befalls them. However, as time progressed we can chart a more progressive outlook that eventually led to his support for worker co-operatives and an enabling role for the state.


Another important distinction between the two main strands of liberalism concerns the typology of freedom. Whereas those on the right-libertarian axis favour negative liberty, social liberals endorse a form of positive liberty. In his seminal work (1969) on ‘two concepts of liberty,’ Isaiah Berlin did more than any other theorist to explain how this categorisation should work. He begins with the notion that the very existence of freedom implies both a negative and positive conception. At a basic level, positive liberty consists of the right to do something. As such, it entails the freedom to perform an action of some kind. Negative liberty however consists of the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints. We therefore possess negative liberty to the extent that actions are available to us.

Individualism vs constructivism

It is also possible to make a distinction between two different manifestations of liberalism, that of the individualistic and the constructivist. The former perceives liberty as the result of limitations placed upon the state, whereas the latter aims to create new rights via an enabling state. Naturally, these distinctions fit very comfortably within the two main strands of liberalism.

Social justice

Yet perhaps the most important dividing line between classical liberalism and modern forms of liberalism concerns that of social justice. A concept associated with those on the left, social justice may not at first appear to match the liberal desire for greater freedom. However, the context and concerns voiced by liberal theorists (notably T.H. Green, Tawney, Rawls and Beveridge) and political figures (such as Lloyd George) during the nineteenth and twentieth century changed the direction and emphasis of liberal ideology. Their contributions did much to revive liberalism during an era in which the franchise expanded towards women and the working-class.

The goal of social justice holds overt implications for the scope and scale of welfare provision. According to one of its pioneering figures T.H. Green, society is more than the sum of its individual parts. We are both interdependent as well as independent, and we achieve self-fulfilment not merely via the pursuit of our own happiness but also by altruistic motivations such as concern for others. Inevitably, these assumptions shift the entire basis of the state away from the night-watchman role towards an enabling state. In short, it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that everyone can experience the maximisation of liberty.

With regards to social liberalism, the philosopher John Rawls argued that inequality can only be justified if it raises the level of prosperity for all. According to his conception of social justice, inequality cannot be justified if it means the poorest within society are made worse off than they were before. The Rawlsian difference principle seeks to demonstrate how individual liberty and inequality can co-exist with the concept of social justice. To this day, the work of John Rawls remains essential towards any understanding of social liberalism.

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