Liberalism – Features, Characteristics of Classical Liberalism

By BYJU'S Exam Prep

Updated on: November 14th, 2023

Liberalism is a social, moral, and political philosophy that places the individual at the heart of society. Individualism and liberty are the two critical ideas of Liberalism as a political and moral philosophy. Liberals argue that the most meaningful social order is where the individual is free. The article furnishes a detailed and whole cognizance of liberalism, its features, origin, and types. The features of liberalism focus on equality and providing equal access to all individuals.

The concept of liberalism also emphasizes on “laissez-faire. The goal of society is to enable people to attain their maximum potential if they so desire, and education is the most effective means of doing so. It is to allow individuals as much freedom as possible. Therefore, limiting the powers of the State and the free flow of information to aid individuals in making rational choices are integral to liberalism.

What is Liberalism?

There are numerous ways to define liberalism such as classical liberalism and modern liberalism. The features of liberalism have been highlighted herein. All tenants of liberal thought- from individualism, tolerance, social contract, and constitutionalism to democracy, rationality, reason, and free market emphasize individual liberty.

Liberalism UPSC PDF

  • Individualism is the central concept of liberalism. It holds that individual rights shall take precedence over all other principles and beliefs.
  • Individuals are equal, intelligent, moral, and autonomous, capable of establishing their sense of what is good, according to liberals.
  • According to Immanuel Kant, individuals are “ends in themselves, not merely means to another’s will.”
  • Liberalism rejects unfettered and arbitrary power. God’s divine might, charisma, or historical needs do not provide authority. The goal of authority is to assist the political entity in achieving its objectives.

Characteristics of Liberalism

Major liberal thinkers are Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Charles de Montesquieu, Thomas Gordon, Voltaire, Adam Smith, and Immanuel Kant, among many others.

  • The fall of feudalism marked the beginning of the era of liberalism. While the feudal period saw greater control of the Church, the post-feudal era tried to limit the role of the Church and the State.
  • Enlightenment contributed to the emergence of liberalism. Intellectuals were vociferous in their advocacy for the logical rebuilding of society so individuals can enjoy sufficient freedom.
  • The Magna Carta (1215), Glorious Revolution (1688), Declaration of American Independence (1776), French Revolution (1789), and the Declaration of the Rights of the Man (1789) further fueled the growth of liberalism.

Features of Liberalism

Liberals care about religious tolerance and freedom of conscience. They are against religious monopolies. The sacred and the secular, according to John Locke, are two distinct realms. The features of liberalism have been elaborated here-

  • Liberalism regards each individual as equal and unique. Therefore, liberalism promotes diversity, tolerance, and multiculturalism.
  • As a product of the Enlightenment, liberalism believes in the concept of “the age of reason,” highlighting the liberation of humankind from superstition and ignorance.
  • Just as the King is Law in absolute governments, the Law should be King in free countries, and there should be no other,” according to Thomas Paine.
  • Liberals see the State as a threat to individual liberty. Hence, they believe in limiting its powers through a constitution, the rule of law, and the separation of powers. The government that governs the least is the best.
  • They believe in a free-market economy. Classical liberals even believe in a “laissez-faire” economy.

To sum up, liberalism, they would say that it is a political philosophy built upon the idea of liberty.

Types of Liberalism

The liberal theory focuses on individuals safeguarding their moral and human rights. In accordance with this theory, the State must provide a conducive environment for prospering of the human rights and not intervene. There are different types of liberalism such as positive liberalism, negative liberalism, and neoliberalism.

Positive Liberalism

It focuses on the factors such as the impeccable balance between liberty, equality, and economic freedom is to be focused. The State must not be considered a “necessary evil” but an institution established for the welfare of the public. It reinstates the essentiality of moral freedom, Public good and distributive justice etc.

Negative Liberalism

It focuses on the factors such as the State being a “necessary evil”. It also establishes the concept of a self-centered individual. It also focuses on “Laissez-faire” as a medium of economic prosperity.


It reinstates the meaning of liberty as the restraint from coercion. Economic liberty also involves and comprises political liberty. Neoliberalism does not establish any relationship between liberty, justice, and equality.

Liberalism In India

Liberalism in India has been nurtured through numerous developmental stages such as through the ancient theory that emphasized Earthly life. This theory also laid emphasis on materialism. Liberalism in India has made its way through numerous social reforms. It focuses on and emphasizes social and economic growth through minimal Government interference.

The idea of liberalism is based on restraining the Government from exhibiting uncontrolled power. It advances to promote individualism and equality.

Theory of Classical Liberalism

The theory of classical liberalism is being incorporated into a doctrine of politics after the French Revolution in the 16th to 18th centuries. This theory lays its emphasis on restricting and constraining the powers of the States.

  • It focuses on egotism, self-reliance, and self-accountable. It reinstates that the interference of the State is needless and harmful.
  • The doctrine of classical liberalism emphasizes the self-operating market.
  • Classical liberalism highlights the non-interference of the State in human rights to safeguard them from political breaches.

Theory of Modern Liberalism

The lack of equal accessibility led to the creation of a wide disparity between the poor and the riches. The open market economy brought forth more profit for the States and a depleted economy for the poor. The enormous supply surplus and no consumption lead to the fall of the economy. Modern liberalism is another way to define liberalism. It focuses on the following factors-

  • Equal accessibility and chances for all individuals regardless of their gender, identity, race.
  • The State’s interference must be channelized and restricted to promote equality and accessibility for all individuals.
  • It also reinstates the essentiality of individualism and not egotism.
  • Providing freedom of speech and expression.

Liberalism As A Revolutionary Idea

The revolutionary ideas of liberalism led to significant political and social changes throughout Europe and other parts of the world. As a political doctrine and ideology, liberalism emphasized individual freedom, equality, and democracy.

Hence, it was a revolutionary idea that challenged the traditional social and political hierarchies. In Europe, the rise of liberalism happened around the 18th and 19th centuries as a response to the feudal system of government, which was based on hereditary power and aristocratic privilege.

Liberalism challenged the traditional social hierarchy and argued for the establishment of civil and political rights for all citizens. This included the right to vote, the right to free speech, and the right to own property.

Liberalism Ideology

Liberalism was an ideology or philosophy that defied the traditional social structures and way of thinking. It is based on the idea that citizens should be free to pursue their own goals and interests without interference from the state or other individuals. Liberalism also stresses the importance of protecting individual rights and liberties, including freedom of speech, religion, and the press.

As an economic ideology, it favors a market where individuals and businesses are free to engage in trade and commerce without government intervention. Overall, liberalism seeks to create a society that is based on individual liberty, equal treatment, and democratic participation.

Liberalism for UPSC

The aspirants must be in possession of an in-depth comprehension of the essential topic for the exam. Liberalism is a pivotal topic that and the core concepts must be catered to at regular intervals. The aspirants who are preparing for the IAS exam can have an elaborate cognizance of all the factors and pertinents. You must delve into the fundamentals and know how to define liberalism, its meaning and numerous other factors

UPSC Notes
John Rawls Theory of Justice Continental Drift Theory
Big Bang Theory Extremist Phase
Jainism Fundamental Rights
Contitution of India Difference Between Extremists and Moderates
Our Apps Playstore
SSC and Bank
Other Exams
GradeStack Learning Pvt. Ltd.Windsor IT Park, Tower - A, 2nd Floor, Sector 125, Noida, Uttar Pradesh 201303
Home Practice Test Series Premium