There was the following statement in Time magazine’s article (June 14) titled, “The geeks who leak”

“Both Edward J. Snowden and Bradley Manning (who leaked massive volume of military and diplomatic secrets in 2010) had come of age online, in chat rooms and virtual communities where this new antiauthority, free-data ideology was hardening. They identified as libertarians, with Manning using the word to describe himself and Snowden sending checks to Ron Paul's presidential campaign.”-


In trying to find the exact definition of ‘libertarians’ they claim, I came across the following statement in an article titled “Are you liberal, a liberal, or a liberalist?” in uproothealthcare.com” - http://www.uproothealthcare.com/politics/are-you-liberal-a-liberal-or-a-liberalist:

“Some political scholars assert that the terms "libertarian" and "libertarianism" are synonymous with anarchism, and some express disapproval of capitalists calling themselves libertarians. Conversely, other academics as well as proponents of the free market perspectives argue that free-market libertarianism has been successfully propagated beyond the U.S. since the 1970s and political parties and that "libertarianism" is increasingly viewed worldwide as a free market position.”

It may require thousands words to explain what are a liberal, a liberalist and a libertarian exactly, but would you provide me with the basic definitions of these three words or key differences among them in a brief and clear way so that a layman like me can easily understand the meanings and distinguish basic differences of the words? Are they akin, or totally different and irelevant creatures each other?

  • 4
    A large problem here is that the word Liberal is used very differently depending on which side of the Atlantic one is sitting on, as well as the specific era to which one refers. Commented Jun 13, 2013 at 21:33
  • 3
    But if you come across both in proximity, you can probably assume liberal relates to the political context, and libertarian relates to the philosophical/sociological context. Commented Jun 13, 2013 at 21:36
  • 2
    @FumbleFingers No, not really. Libertarian in particular is generally a very specific term relating to the ideology of the modern libertarian movement/party. Commented Jun 13, 2013 at 21:41
  • 2
    @LessPop_MoreFizz: OED: libertarian adjective 1. Philos. A person who holds the doctrine that human beings possess free will. 2a. An advocate or defender of liberty (esp. in the political and social spheres). 2b. Polit. (orig. U.S.). An advocate or supporter of libertarianism. All three meanings are also embodied in the corresponding noun usages. We don't really have that 2b sense in the UK, because we haven't let our politicians hijack the word. Commented Jun 13, 2013 at 22:03
  • 5
    @FumbleFingers You're mistaken; Libertarians in the US occupy a peculiar niche, wherein they are right wing on issues of economics and regulation, but quite left wing on matters of social policy. That said, they have, politically, tended to identify more strongly with the right, and favored the expansion of their economic agenda to the exclusion of their social agenda for some time. But that doesn't fundamentally change the definition of the term, which is quite consistent in it's usage globally. Commented Jun 13, 2013 at 22:14

4 Answers 4


In general, when referring to contemporary United States (and to a lesser extent, Canadian) politics, (as well as often, but not always, when foreign politics are discussed by North Americans):

Liberal: refers to left of center politics, largely identified with the Democratic party. You'll often hear the term specifically associated with various issues, such as a 'social liberal', who can be regarded as being in favor of individual freedoms, such as free expression, decriminalization/acceptance of things like drugs, abortion, or homosexuality, and reduction of the influence of religion on the state. Paradoxically, the term 'fiscal liberal' often refers to strong support for the welfare state, high taxes, strong interventionist government regulation of industry and commerce, and robust legal protection of minority classes. With respect to foreign policy, liberals are often divided between pacifist/isolationist views, and strong interventionist views with an aim at the protection and expansion of human rights.

Libertarians: by contrast, are much more clearly defined, as being strongly pro-individual freedom in every aspect of governance. A libertarian would be a 'social liberal' as described above, but generally a 'fiscal conservative,' favoring greatly reduced governmental interference in commerce. Libertarians are generally distinguished from Anarchists by their strong support of a Capitalist philosophy towards economics. Extreme libertarians are often referred to as 'anarcho-capitalists' by their critics for this reason. You may also see the terms neoliberal or objectivist used as rough synonyms, though those two terms imply a stronger ideological relationship to the work of Hayek and Rand respectively.

Liberalist is not a term that is generally used. The article you link specifically defines it as a term it is using for clarity.

Note that the term liberal is also often sometimes used to refer to what many call classical liberalism, which more closely mirrors modern libertarianism. This reflects the shift in the definition of 'liberal' in the 20th century, to include a more Marxist emphasis on equality, often at the expense of classical liberalisms emphasis on freedom. In general, the European definition of liberal more closely reflects the classical definition, though over the past century, it too has shifted to a stronger emphasis on equality than it has had in the past. The definition of Libertarian, by contrast, can generally be considered to be consistent worldwide.

One additional notable construction is Civil Libertarian, which specifically, and exclusively refers to one who is strongly concerned with the protection of civil rights such as free speech and freedom from unreasonable searches, particularly in the political sphere. As a rule, Libertarians are by definition civil libertarians, but not necessarily vice-versa.

  • I totally agree with what you said. However, I do have a question. Do you know why the word "liberalist" is not generally used? How is liberal used as a non. instead of liberalist?
    – Feng Jiang
    Commented Jan 21, 2014 at 1:33
  • In the US, at least, "liberal" is often used as an insult, and the (perceived) meaning is strongly dependent on the political stance of the speaker.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 22:42

Just to add a British addendum to the answer from @LessPop_MoreFizz:

For much of the 20th century, and back into at least the 19th century, one of the British political parties was named the Liberal Party. Historically, it was, at one time, one of the two major political parties.

In more recent times, it became quite small, and has variously split and and re-merged to become what is now the Liberal Democratic Party (commonly referred to as the LibDems, but sometimes loosely as the Liberals), which forms part of the current UK coalition government.

I mention this just to make it clear that the term Liberal (with a capital L) in UK politics should not be confused with the general description liberal (small l), as discussed elsewhere in this question.


I find it useful to limit the discussion in this case to nouns, and thus avoid the political connotations (and complications) of the adjectives.

liberal, n. : someone who accepts many different opinions or ways of behaving and tends to be sympathetic to other people

a. someone who believes that social and political changes should be made gradually if most people want them

Sub-definition (a) is particularly germane to the OP's question.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged lists the noun form of liberalist as simply being a variant of the noun form of liberal.

libertarian, n. : someone who believes that people should be allowed to do and think what they want

To borrow a famous software quote, liberal and libertarian are similar like car and carpet are similar.

  • -1 for selectively omitting one of the two definitions of liberal from your linked source (and notably, the more broadly useful, accurate, and applicable one.) Commented Jun 14, 2013 at 0:25
  • @LessPop_MoreFizz I felt that the sub-definition was more germane to the OP's question. Given the focus of your own answer, I'm somewhat surprised that you would express the stance in your comment. I have, however, expanded my answer with the full definition.
    – Gnawme
    Commented Jun 14, 2013 at 15:43
  • @Gnawme. What does “Liberal and libertarian is similar like car and carpet” mean? Does it mean they are different though it sounds similar, or they are just the same antinomy to communism or despotism in different words? Commented Jun 14, 2013 at 20:16
  • @YoichiOishi No, it means that the liberal and libertarian have nothing to do with each other, despite their both starting with liber-.
    – Gnawme
    Commented Jun 16, 2013 at 3:53

Most of these answers relate to the political parties as opposed to the ideas they actually represent. Allow me to highlight the differences using my own definitions from my understanding of it. At least liberalism (I don't know about libertarianism) was an English philosophy which existed before the United States did. Which is why the constitution is inspired by the Magna Carta.

Liberal (liberalism) - someone who is tolerant of other beliefs, and whose main priorities are not infringing on - through their own suggestions or government policy - other individuals' rights. LIBERALISM IS AN INDIVIDUALIST IDEA! This means there were no "women's rights" "POC rights" etc. There are human rights that are applied to everyone equally, so nothing you would consider a "woman's right" would be lost, it would simply apply to everybody. The main importance here, is these rights are to be enforced by the government.

Libertarians (Libertarianism) - similarly to liberalism, the priority is rights of the individual. The main difference is the belief that these rights shouldn't be enforced with as little government intervention as possible, which has had this group compared with anarchists. They also as a secondary priority will attempt to minimise government involvement with individuals, leading to them being compared with the term "live and let live".

Liberalist - whilst I know of no political ideas that stem from this name, there is a group. Coined by Carl Benjamin (Sargon of Akkad), the Liberalists are a political activist organisation that tackles relevant political ideas of the time through a Liberalist lens. They adhere to 7 principles:


The Liberalists are of the LIBERAL idea set.

Hope this helps you understand more 😊 a final emphasis as it is being questioned in modern day politics, you cannot fit ANY of these definitions if you support hate speech laws, as freedom of speech is a fundamental right that these laws infringe on. Inciting violence is not included in freedom of speech.

  • This is a reasonable summary of how the word 'liberal' originated (though different authors have different ideas), but unfortunately, like most current political labels (democratic, progressive, socialist etc.) it has been co-opted to serve the interests of different political movements in different places. Many members of the 'liberal consensus' see no contradiction in banning or imprisoning those with illiberal ideas. Commented Aug 14, 2018 at 11:14
  • 1
    Hi Adam, welcome to English Language & Usage. If you plan to post future questions or answers (and I hope you do!), I recommend that you put some effort into basic spelling and punctuation - e.g. capitalising the pronoun "I" and proper names, and using apostrophes - as some users regard this as a matter of respect for the language. You might also find it useful to read the help page on How to Answer and to take the Tour. :-) Commented Aug 14, 2018 at 12:14

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.