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This article concerns "social liberalism" as a political ideology generally associated with the centre-left, in keeping with the predominantly European usage of the term. The term 'social liberal' is also commonly used in North American contexts to describe those favourable to the preservation or furthering of human rights, social rights, civil rights and civil liberties, in contrast to 'social conservative'. For the latter usage see social progressivism.
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Social liberalism, also called new liberalism [1] [2] (as it was originally termed), radical liberalism[3], modern liberalism[4], is a development of liberalism stemming from the late 19th century, mostly defended in Europe and should not be confused with American liberalism.

It has been a label used by progressive liberal parties in order to differentiate themselves from classical liberal parties, especially when there are two or more liberal parties in a country. Unlike classical liberalism which embraces a strictly laissez-faire philosophy, social liberalism sees a role for the State in providing positive liberty for individuals.

It is a political philosophy that emphasizes mutual collaboration through liberal institutions. Social liberalism, as a branch of liberalism, contends that society must protect liberty and opportunity for all citizens.

In the process, it accepts some restrictions in economic affairs, such as anti-trust laws to combat economic monopolies and regulatory bodies or minimum wage laws intending to secure economic opportunities for all. It also expects legitimate governments to provide a basic level of welfare or workfare, health and education, supported by taxation, intended to enable the best use of the talents of the population, prevent revolution, or simply for the perceived public good.

Rejecting both the most extreme forms of capitalism and the revolutionary elements from the socialist school, social liberalism emphasizes what it calls "positive liberty", seeking to enhance the "positive freedoms" of the poor and disadvantaged in society by means of government regulation.

Like all liberals, social liberals believe in individual freedom as a central objective. However, they are unique in comparison to other liberals in that they believe that lack of economic opportunity, education, health-care, and so on can be considered to be threats to their conception of liberty.[2] Social liberals are strong defenders of human rights and civil liberties. They support a mixed economy of mainly private enterprise with some state provided or guaranteed public services (ex: some social liberals defend obligatory universal health insurance, with the state paying a basic health insurance to the most poor of the society).

The birth of social liberalism[]

In Britain, in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, a group of thinkers known as the New Liberals made a case against laissez-faire classical liberalism and in favour of state intervention in social, economic and cultural life. The New Liberals, who included T.H.Green and L.T.Hobhouse, saw individual liberty as something to be achievable only under favourable social circumstances.

The poverty, squalor and ignorance in which many people lived made it impossible in their view for freedom and individuality to flourish, and the New Liberals believed that these conditions could only be ameliorated through collective action coordinated by a strong welfare-oriented interventionist state. (The Routledge encyclopaedia of philosophy, p.599)

Social liberalism versus social democracy[]


One possible projection of the european political spectrum.

The basic ideological difference between social liberalism and social democracy lies in the role of the State in relation to the individual.

Social liberals value liberty, rights and freedoms, and private property as fundamental to individual happiness, and regard democracy as an instrument to maintain a society where each individual enjoys the greatest amount of liberty possible (subject to the Harm Principle). Hence, democracy and parliamentarianism are mere political systems which legitimize themselves only through the amount of liberty they promote, and are not valued per se. While the State does have an important role in ensuring positive liberty, social liberals tend to trust that individuals are usually capable in deciding their own affairs, and generally do not need deliberate steering towards happiness.

Social democracy, on the other hand, has its roots in socialism, and (especially in democratic socialist forms) typically favours a more community-based view. While social democrats also value individual liberty, they do not believe that real liberty can be achieved for the majority without transforming the nature of the State itself. Having rejected the revolutionary approach of Marxism, and choosing to further their goals through the democratic process instead, social democrats nevertheless retain a strong scepticism for capitalism, which needs to be regulated (or at least "managed") for the greater good. This focus on the greater good may, potentially, make social democrats more ready to step in and steer society in a direction that is deemed to be more equitable.

In practice, however, the differences between the two may be harder to perceive. This is especially the case nowadays as many social democratic parties have shifted towards the centre and adopted one version of Third Way politics or another.[5]

Social liberalism versus neoliberalism[]

Social liberalism (also known as New Liberalism) is very different from the ambiguous term neoliberalism, a name given to various proponents of the free markets and also to some conservative opponents of free markets, such as mercantilistic conservatives, in the late 20th century's global economy. Neoliberalism has been used to describe the liberal economic policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. As a body of thought, neoliberalism advocates positions contrary to many of those taken by social liberals, especially with regard to the former's commitments to free trade and dismantling of government "social" programs.

Social liberalism versus conservative liberalism[]

Both share the concern with the freedom of the individual, but while Social liberalism is appropriate for describing some liberal parties that are left-of-centre on economic issues and support a broad interpretation of democratic rights, Conservative liberalism emphasises economic freedom and tends to be right of centre. For example, Liberal-conservative parties, such as the Dutch VVD and the Belgian liberal parties, adopt an economically conservative agenda, advocating a minimal role for the state in the economy.[3] Some authors, like Merquior, also claim that conservative liberalism is based on the concept of negative liberty - "where there is no law there is no transgression"), moral pluralism, progress, individualism, and accountable government, while social liberalism focuses both on the illegitimacy of a tyrannical government that uses prerogative power and on the social conditions that make such tyrannical government possible.[6]

Classical liberals such as Nozick and others reject social liberalism as a false liberalism. For these authors government has no duty to intervene in society to aid the disadvantaged as this means taking wealth from others (as taxes). They also consider that interfering in the market is destroying freedom and doing this to make people free is self-contradictory.[7]

Social liberalism versus American liberalism[]

Liberalism in the United States when compared with Social Liberalism on Continental Europe is more to the left in terms of economics and state intervention. Typically, for example, European social liberals are against affirmative action programs, progressive taxation systems, heavy labor regulation or heavy government subsidies and consider free trade and open markets as a fundamental aspect of their ideology. European social liberals also have a tradition of anti-clericalism, which doens't exist on the American Democrats who even use on some of their most important internal documents the words "under God" [8] [9].

Social liberal parties[]

Some parties which are arguably social liberal may include:

  • Austria: Social Liberals
  • Belgium: Spirit
  • Brazil: Social Liberal Party
  • Canada: Liberal Party of Canada
  • Chile: Social Democrat Radical Party
  • Colombia: Colombian Liberal Party
  • Croatia: Croatian Social Liberal Party, Croatian People's Party
  • Denmark: Danish Social Liberal Party (Det Radikale Venstre)[3] [10]
  • Estonia: Estonian Centre Party
  • Finland: Swedish People's Party
  • France: Left Radical Party
  • Italy:Italian Radicals (only about moral issues, not economic ones)
  • Italy:Italian Republican Party[3] [10] (only about moral issues, not economic ones)
  • Japan: Democratic Party of Japan
  • Lithuania: New Union (Social Liberals)
  • Luxembourg: Democratic Party [10]
  • Moldova: Social Liberal Party
  • Mozambique: Social Liberal and Democratic Party
  • Netherlands: Democrats 66 [3] [10]
  • Norway: Venstre
  • Poland: Democratic Party
  • Portugal: Movimento Liberal Social
  • Russia: Russian Democratic Party "Yabloko"
  • Serbia: Civic Alliance of Serbia
  • Slovenia: Liberal Democracy of Slovenia
  • Sudan: Sudan Liberal Party
  • Sweden: Centre Party, Liberal People's Party
  • Tunisia: Social Liberal Party
  • United Kingdom: Liberal Democrats[3] [10]

Social liberal thinkers[]

Some notable social liberal thinkers are:

  • Thomas Hill Green[7] [4] (1836–1882)
  • Lujo Brentano[4] (1844–1931)
  • Rob Levin(1992-)
  • Bernard Bosanquet (1848-1923)
  • Pieter Cort van der Linden (1846-1935)
  • John Atkinson Hobson[7] (1858–1940)
  • John Dewey[7] (1859–1952)
  • Friedrich Naumann (1860–1919)
  • Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse[7] [4] (1864–1929)
  • Gerhart von Schulze-Gavernitz[4] (1864-1943)
  • William Beveridge[7] (1879-1963)
  • Hans Kelsen [11] (1881-1973)
  • John Maynard Keynes[7] [11] (1883–1946)
  • Bertil Ohlin (1899–1979)
  • John Hicks (1904–1989)
  • Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997)
  • Norberto Bobbio[11] (1909-2004)
  • Miguel Reale (1910–2005)
  • Pierre Elliot Trudeau (1919-2000)
  • John Rawls[7] (1921-2002)
  • Karl-Hermann Flach (1929–1973)
  • Richard Rorty (1931– )
  • Conrad Russell (1937-2004)
  • Ronald Dworkin (1931– )
  • Amartya Sen (1933- )
  • José G. Merquior[11] (1941–1991)
  • Dirk Verhofstadt (1955– )
  • Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill[7] [4] (1806–1873) offered a seed of social liberalism.
  • Arguably, the late Michel Foucault (1926-1984) can be categorised as one of the social liberals, considering his social philosophy and liberalism.

Views of social liberals today[]

In general, contemporary social liberals support:


  1. Not to be confused with neoliberalism, a very different concept which has a similar name[1].
  2. 2.0 2.1 Check Shaver, Sheila (July 1997). Liberalism, Gender and Social Policy. EconPapers.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 Check Marks, Gary and Wilson, Carole (July 2000). The Past in the Present: A Cleavage Theory of Party Response to European Integration. British Journal of Political Science 30: 433-459.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 Check Richardson, James L. (2001). Contending Liberalisms in World Politics: Ideology and Power, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers. 155587939X.
  5. See, for example, "The overlap between social democracy and social liberalism".[2]
  6. Check Merquior, J.G. (1991). Liberalism Old and New, Boston: Twayne Publishers.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 7.7 7.8 Check Adams, Ian (2001). Political Ideology Today (Politics Today), Manchester: Manchester University Press. 0719060206.
  8. Strong at Home, Respected in the World, Democratic Party, 2004, Archived from the original on October 13, 2004, 
  9. The Charter & The Bylaws of the Democratic Party of the United States of America, Democratic Party, 2005, Archived from the original on June 28, 2006, 
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 Check J. Kirchner, Emil (1988). Liberal parties in Western Europe, Avon: Cambridge University Press. 0-521-32394-0.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 (1996) Liberalism in Modern Times: Essays in Honour of Jose G. Merquior, Budapest: Central European University Press. 185866053X.

See also[]

Template:Social Liberalism