Liberalism (from the Latin liberalis) is the belief in the importance of liberty and equal rights. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally liberals support ideas such as constitutionalism, liberal democracy, free and fair elections, human rights, capitalism, and freedom of religion. These ideas are widely accepted, even by political groups that do not openly profess a liberal ideological orientation.
Liberalism first became a powerful force in the Age of Enlightenment, rejecting several foundational assumptions that dominated most earlier theories of government, such as nobility, established religion, absolute monarchy, and the Divine Right of Kings. The early liberal thinker John Locke, who is often credited for the creation of liberalism as a distinct philosophical tradition, employed the concept of natural rights and the social contract to argue that the rule of law should replace absolutism in government, that rulers were subject to the consent of the governed, and that private individuals had a fundamental right to life, liberty, and property.
The revolutionaries in the American Revolution and the French Revolution used liberal philosophy to justify the armed overthrow of tyrannical rule. The nineteenth century saw liberal governments established in nations across Europe, Latin America, and North America. Liberal ideas spread even further in the twentieth century, when liberal democracies triumphed in two world wars and survived major ideological challenges from fascism and communism. Today, liberalism in its many forms remains as a political force to varying degrees of power and influence on all major continents.
A twenty-first century development is an emerging new liberalism that is centred on the concept of timeless freedom (ensuring the freedom of future generations through proactive action taken today). This is an idea that has been endorsed by the President of Liberal International Hans van Baalen.
In North America, unlike in Europe, the word liberalism almost exclusively refers to centre-left or social liberalism in contemporary politics. The dominant Canadian and American parties, the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party, are frequently identified as being modern liberal or center-left organizations in the academic literature.
In Canada, the long-dominant Liberal Party, colloquially known as the Grits, ruled the country for nearly 70 years during the 20th century. In the United States, modern liberalism traces its history to the popular presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who initiated the New Deal in response to the Great Depression and won an unprecedented four elections.
The New Deal coalition established by Franklin Roosevelt left a decisive legacy and influenced many future American presidents, including John F. Kennedy, a self-described liberal who defined a liberal as “someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions…someone who cares about the welfare of the people”.
The nineteenth century classical liberals spoke out for freedom and progress. They opposed protectionism as a form of crony capitalism which kept prices higher for working families. They believed in freedom and local decisionmaking
In New Zealand, the Liberals of the nineteenth century – such as Ballance and Seddon – helped speak out for working people, women and the unemployed. They pursued humanitarian social reforms such as widows pensions, universal suffrage and education and healthcare which was affordable for all.
Liberals today can still unite in opposition to ill-informed policy, superstition, bigotry and prejudice. However, there is considerable debate between those liberals (usually in North America) who now believe that central government needs to play a wider role in society in order to deliver meaningful freedom for citizens and those Liberals (usually in Britain, Australia and New Zealand) who adhere to the classical liberal perspective that the role of government should be limited – lest it drift towards tyranny.