Liberalism: History, Ideology, and Influence

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  • 0:02 Liberalism Defined
  • 1:58 History
  • 4:07 Influence
  • 4:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley
Liberalism is one of the great political traditions of the Western world and the dominant political ideology in the United States. In this lesson, you'll learn about the history of liberalism, its major tenants and its influence.

Liberalism Defined

Donald is a Democrat and a liberal. His neighbor Rick is a Republican and also adheres to a liberal political philosophy. Confused? That's understandable because the term 'liberal' has come to have a different meaning in U.S. politics compared to its technical meaning in political thought. Let's take a look.

Liberalism is a group of political, social and economic theories that centers on the values of individual liberty, equality, economic freedom, limited and democratic government and the rule of law. Let's take a quick look at each of these values in a bit more detail.

  • Liberty is a political concept that refers to freedom from undue or oppressive restraints on a person's actions, thoughts or beliefs imposed by the state. Some important liberties in modern liberal states include freedom of speech, press, religion and association. Liberty is constrained by the harm principle, which states that you have liberty as long as you do not harm others.
  • Liberalism holds that all individuals should have equal treatment before the law regardless of social status, race or sex.
  • Economic freedom is also closely associated with liberalism and involves support for free markets and private property rights.
  • A limited and democratic government is also fundamental to liberalism. A limited government is one constrained by the law. For example, the powers of the United States government are limited to the powers enumerated in the U.S. Constitution. A democratic government exists where government is controlled either directly by citizens or through representatives elected by citizens.
  • Liberalism also holds a commitment to the rule of law, which is essential for a democratic and limited government. The rule of law is a proposition that law should not be arbitrary and must be applied fairly to all.


Liberalism can be traced back to John Locke. Locke was a 17th century English philosopher and political theorist. Locke's the Two Treatises of Government is considered to be the first exposition of liberalism. Locke argues that legitimate political authority only comes from the consent of the governed. The purpose of the government, according to Locke, is to protect citizens' lives, liberty and property. Locke also supported limited government and the idea of a separate executive branch, legislation and the rule of law.

Liberalism's devotion to free markets and capitalism can be traced, in large part, to Adam Smith, an 18th century Scottish moral philosopher who is most famous for his work, The Wealth of Nations. Smith argued that the best way for a society to generate wealth and prosperity is through division of labor and decentralized decision-makers acting in their own interest. In other words, competitive free markets are the best way to create prosperity for all.

The 19th century and the Industrial Revolution brought tension among liberals. The Industrial Revolution resulted in a great deal of poverty and hardships for many but a great amount of wealth for some.

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