Are You As Liberal As You Think?

What Does “Liberal” Really Mean, Anyway?

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
Whose Side Are You On?
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As Election Day approaches, political commercials are tossing out labels like hand grenades. The word "liberal" is uttered in the same tone of voice as "leper." "Conservative" is used to imply a total detachment from modern times. But what do these divisive labels really mean? Are you voting Republican because you think "liberal" is a dirty word? Are you pulling a straight Democratic lever in the voting booth because you don’t want to be labeled "conservative"? Maybe you should find out exactly what those words mean.

First of all, liberal and conservative have different definitions in different countries. (Throughout much of southern Europe, for example, "liberalism" grew out of 19
th -century radicalism, which was aimed at abolishing monarchies, supporting universal male suffrage and arguing for a republican form of government. In modern-day France, "liberal" is often used to describe proponents of minimal statism or limited government libertarianism, which are much closer to the thinking of America’s Republican Party.) Second, these labels are largely separate from today’s political parties. There has always been a disconnect between philosophical ideas and political realities. There are conservative Democrats just as surely as there are liberal Republicans. Political parties are made up of individual "planks," or issues, which may change from election cycle to election cycle. (Keep in mind it was Republicans who originally opposed slavery and campaigned against free trade.)

The Test

Perhaps the quickest way to take your own personal political temperature is with a standardized quiz, many of which abound on the Internet. There are actually far more than two political philosophies. In 1970, David Nolan (who went on to found the Libertarian Party) proposed a two-dimensional diamond-shaped chart, breaking people into four categories (left-wing, right-wing, Populist and Libertarian) along axes of economic and social freedoms. The Nolan Chart remains the standard for judging basic political and social affiliation. You can take the original 10-question Nolan Chart test at A modified version of the chart, known as The World’s Smallest Political Quiz, can be taken at It also consists of 10 questions but allows a little more freedom in the answers and breaks results into five more modern categories (Liberal, Conservative, Libertarian, Statist and Centrist). Political Compass ( is an even more detailed quiz. The six pages’ worth of questions are helpful, but if you’re not prepared to clarify your position on "economic globalism," this might be too in-depth for you. Take any (or all) of these quizzes. Odds are they’ll all place you in largely the same position on the philosophical diamond.

The Definitions

Liberal (Left)

Philosophically, liberals advocate personal freedom of the individual, democratic forms of government and gradual reform of political and social institutions. Liberals usually embrace freedom of choice in personal matters (religious, sexual and cognitive) but tend to support significant government control over the economy. They generally support a government-funded "safety net" (Social Security, Medicaid) to help the disadvantaged, advocate strict oversight of business and favor strong environmental regulations. Liberals tend to defend universal human rights, advocating for civil liberties, religious freedom and the right of free expression. They support government action to promote equality and tolerate diverse lifestyles. They prefer transparency in government and oppose the establishment of a state religion. Bottom line: Much personal freedom, less economic freedom.

Conservative (Right)

In simplest terms, conservatives oppose change in institutions, methods or traditions (cultural, religious or otherwise). Conservatives usually support a strong military and strong law enforcement, elevate states’ rights over those of a large central government, oppose bureaucracy and high taxes and seek to have the teachings of particular ideologies (in America’s case, fundamentalist Christian teachings) given the force of law. Conservatives tend to favor an unregulated "free market" economy but frequently support laws to restrict personal behavior that violates what they see as "traditional values." In other words: They oppose excessive government control of business, while endorsing government action to defend morality and the traditional family structure. Bottom line: Much economic freedom, less personal freedom.

Libertarian (Anarchist)

Libertarians believe in "self-ownership," supporting maximum liberty in both personal and economic matters. They advocate a much smaller government (in some cases even seeking to abolish the state), believing the only duty of the government is to protect individuals from coercion and violence. Libertarians tend to embrace individual responsibility, oppose government bureaucracy and taxes, promote private charity over any form of welfare, tolerate diverse lifestyles, support the free market and defend civil liberties. They oppose laws that restrict adult consensual sexual relationships or drug use and laws that impose religious views, practices or compulsory military service. They believe in laissez-faire economics and place total faith in our capitalist system, opposing all forms of government intervention. Bottom line: Total personal freedom, total economic freedom.

Centrist (Moderate)

Centrists espouse a "middle ground" regarding government control of the economy and personal behavior. Depending on the issue, they sometimes favor government intervention and sometimes support individual freedom of choice. Centrists pride themselves on keeping an open mind, tend to oppose "political extremes" and emphasize what they describe as "practical" solutions to problems. Bottom line: Moderate personal freedom, moderate economic freedom.

Statist (Totalitarian, Populist, Communist)

Statism is the doctrine of vesting significant control over personal, social and economic matters with a centralized state government. Statists want government to have total power over the economy and individual behavior. They frequently doubt whether economic liberty and individual freedom are practical options in today’s world. Statists tend to distrust the free market, support high taxes and centralized planning of the economy, oppose diverse lifestyles and question the importance of civil liberties. Bottom line: Little personal freedom, little economic freedom.
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