Since its emergence in the 19th century, classical liberalism has principally advocated that every individual has the natural rights to life, liberty, and property, and that the function of government is to protect these rights. As the result of their belief in Lockean natural rights, classical liberals have been strong proponents of individual liberty in the political, social, and economic spheres.

In the economic realm, classical liberals advocate the free market economy, because, as noted by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “unless people are free to make contracts and to sell their labour, or unless they are free to save their incomes and then invest them as they see fit, or unless they are free to run enterprises when they have obtained the capital, they are not really free.” In the political and social realms, classical liberals have been the greatest advocates of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and so on.

In contrast, progressive liberalism principally advocates egalitarianism and ‘social justice.’ Progressive liberals believe themselves to be defenders of minorities and the downtrodden. They seek to eliminate society of political, social, and economic inequalities. Seemingly, this is a distinction without a difference, as one can advocate both liberty and equality simultaneously. However, there is a substantive difference between classical and progressive liberals, and it comes down to what they believe the role of government is.

By definition, the state is effectively a legal monopoly on the use of force. No private individual, business, or organization can compel anyone to do anything against their will, but the state can. Classical liberals consequently see the state as, at best, a necessary evil whose coercive powers should be utilized as infrequently as possible. In stark contrast, progressive liberals believe in utilizing the state frequently and extensively as a means to force society to change in accordance with egalitarian principles.

The differences between classical and progressive liberals can be illustrated through how they believe the government should respond to a number of socioeconomic issues. Consider income inequality. A classical liberal who wishes for a more equitable income distribution would encourage the wealthy to donate their money to those in need.

On the other hand, a progressive will use the state to forcefully confiscate, via confiscatory taxation, money away from the wealthy individuals who earned it and then redistribute to the poor while congratulating themselves on their selflessness and castigating the person they stole from as greedy if they raised any objections.

Also consider social welfare schemes like social security, a program devised by progressives which all workers are forced, by the government, to pay a considerable percentage of their income to in order to ensure all said workers are able to retiree when they are older. Progressives love this system so much that they are adamantly opposed to the classical liberal proposition of allowing workers to opt out of it so that they can manage their own money as they see fit.

When Christian bakers in Oregon refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple because it violated their religious beliefs, they were sued and forced to pay $135,000 in compensation to the couple for discrimination. Classical liberals lamented this outcome, as they don’t believe that people should be forced, by law, to associate with others against their will, with rare exceptions. But progressive liberals, on the other hand, celebrated. In their minds, forcing people to act in accordance with their social justice ideology is perfectly fine, and not doing so actually constitutes a crime.

Lastly, consider freedom of speech. While classical liberals will denounce racists but nonetheless support their right to speak, progressives have become increasingly supportive of using the government to censor opinions they disapprove of. The majority of democrats, for example, now support a law which would make hate speech a punishable crime and 35% of them think that statements which are offensive to minorities should be censored by the government (compared to 18% of Republicans.)

In nearly every case, progressive liberals are more likely to support using the coercive power of the state to force society to be structured according to their will, and yet somehow they see themselves as good and just for doing so.

Most classical liberals personally hold all the values progressives do. They believe that racism and sexism are terrible and wish them to be banished from society. They wish for an end to inequality, and so on. But they do not believe that just because they personally think a rich man should give his money to the poor, he must be compelled to do so under penalty of lawful retribution. Nor do they believe that Christian bakers should be forced to serve gay couples, against their will. Nor do they believe racists should have their speech censored, even though what they say is toxic.

Classical liberals believe that society should avoid using coercive institutions, like the state, in order to change itself for the better. Instead, open debate, social pressures, and other voluntary means should be used to promote societal progress. A free society should utilize coercion as little as possible. Classical liberals believe that is the morally just position, not the one taken by many progressives.