Etymology and definition
Words such as liberal, liberty, libertarian, and libertine all trace their history to the Latin liber, which means “free”.
One of the first recorded instances of the word liberal occurs in 1375, when it was used to describe the liberal arts in the context of an education desirable for a free-born man. The word’s early connection with the classical education of a medieval university soon gave way to a proliferation of different denotations and connotations. Liberal could refer to “free in bestowing” as early as 1387, “made without stint” in 1433, “freely permitted” in 1530, and “free from restraint”—often as a pejorative remark—in the 16th and the 17th centuries.
In 16th century England, liberal could have positive or negative attributes in referring to someone’s generosity or indiscretion. In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare wrote of “a liberal villaine” who “hath… confest his vile encounters”. With the rise of the Enlightenment, the word acquired decisively more positive undertones, being defined as “free from narrow prejudice” in 1781 and “free from bigotry” in 1823.
In 1815, the first use of the word liberalism appeared in English. In Spain, the liberales, the first group to use the liberal label in a political context, fought for the implementation of the 1812 Constitution for decades. From 1820 to 1823, during the Trienio Liberal, King Ferdinand VII was compelled by the liberales to swear to uphold the Constitution. By the middle of the 19th century, liberal was used as a politicized term for parties and movements all over the world.
Over time, the meaning of the word “liberalism” began to diverge in different parts of the world. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “In the United States, liberalism is associated with the welfare-state policies of the New Deal program of the Democratic administration of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt, whereas in Europe it is more commonly associated with a commitment to limited government and laissez-faire economic policies.” Consequently, in the U.S., the ideas of individualism and laissez-faire economics previously associated with classical liberalism became the basis for the emerging school of libertarian thought.