While there are undeniable similarities between classical and modern conceptions of liberalism the differences between the two appear to be more significant than any commonalities. This paper will briefly discuss the historical and philosophical roots of each form of liberalism and conclude by arguing for the greater importance of their differences.
Classical liberalism evolved in response to certain changes in society, such as the industrial revolution, as well as out of a recognition of the defects of monarchies and autocratic systems of government. The key idea is that individuals should have basic liberties or freedoms. This idea is inconsistent with the traditional forms of government mentioned. It bears emphasising that while classical liberalism acknowledged the necessity of a state the latter was viewed as a necessary evil. The state should ensure public safety and the protection of private property. However, it should do little else.
Liberalism of the classical variety also tended to have a picture of humankind as egoistic and selfish. Thus, Hobbes appears to have thought that without a sovereign people would simply kill each other, steal their property, and so forth. It should be noted that this was not merely a descriptive claim on the part of classical liberalism. It also had a normative component in the sense in which it was judged that there is nothing morally wrong with members of humankind looking out solely for their own interests. This point will be important later in the paper when we come to discuss the fundamental difference between classical and modern liberalism.
Modern liberalism shares the view, of course, that people ought to be protected from violence and theft. However, it goes well beyond classical liberalism in its view of the proper role of the state. The crucial difference here is well-illustrated by Isiah Berlin’s distinction between negative and positive freedom. The classical liberal would emphasise the need for negative freedom—the freedom from constraint and the protection of one’s person and property. As indicated, modern liberalism accepts the necessity of negative freedom. It also holds that positive freedom is important, however. Positive freedom is more difficult to define but one might say that it is the freedom and ability to pursue one’s life-projects. Notice that positive freedom does not follow from negative freedom. For one could be kept safe by a government, and one’s property protected, even if one were so poor as to have no ability to pursue one’s life-projects. The key respect in which modern liberalism differs from classical liberalism is in the former’s recognition that negative freedom does not ensure that all, or even many, people will be provided with what they need in order to have good lives.
The fundamental philosophical underpinning of classical liberalism is something like Herbert Spencer’s notion of the survival of the fittest. On this view, while there are wealthy people in the world and poor people, the poor are simply not doing what is necessary to be successful and happy. This might be due to laziness or to some genetic defect. In either case, nature is operating as it should through rewarding those who work hard and achieve success, and (effectively) punishing everyone else.
Two final points are crucial to note. First, ‘classical’ liberalism is alive and well today, and remains quite distinct from ‘modern’ liberalism. Today it is called ‘neoliberalism’, or (more radically) ‘libertarianism’. Second, the modern liberal has an effective response to the argument of the previous paragraph. Social science has shown conclusively that a person’s ability to succeed is largely determined by factors the individual has no control over. Therefore, on this view, it is both false and morally repugnant to ‘explain’ wealth inequality by appeal to social Darwinism.
In democratic or mostly democratic societies classical liberals differ from modern liberals on the relation between liberty and democracy. A libertarian is apt to argue that taxation violates liberty because through it a person is forced to pay for something that he or she may not want or support. A modern liberal will, in turn, point out that without taxation and entitlement programs we will be left with a society in which there are only the very wealthy, and the very poor—with no one in the middle; and the poor will greatly outnumber the wealthy.