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Liberalism refers to a broad array of related ideas and theories of government that consider individual liberty to be the most important political goal. Modern liberalism has its roots in the Age of Enlightenment.

Broadly speaking, liberalism emphasizes individual rights and equality of opportunity. Different forms of liberalism may propose very different policies, but they are generally united by their support for a number of principles, including extensive freedom of thought and speech, limitations on the power of governments, the rule of law, the free exchange of ideas, a market or mixed economy, and a transparent system of government. All liberals — as well as some adherents of other political ideologies — support some variant of the form of government known as liberal democracy, with open and fair elections, where all citizens have equal rights by law.

Liberalism rejected many foundational assumptions that dominated most earlier theories of government, such as the Divine Right of Kings, hereditary status, and established religion. Social progressivism, the belief that traditions do not carry any inherent value and social practices ought to be continuously adjusted for the greater benefit of humanity, is a common component of liberal ideology. Liberalism is also strongly associated with the belief that human society should be organized in accordance with certain unchangeable and inviolable rights. Different schools of liberalism are based on different conceptions of human rights, but there are some rights that all liberals support to some extent, including rights to life, liberty, and property.

Within liberalism, there are two major currents of thought. which often compete over the use of the term "liberal" and have been known to clash on many issues, as they differ on their understanding of what constitutes freedom. Classical liberals, believe that the only real freedom is freedom from coercion. As a result they see state intervention in the economy as a coercive power that restricts the economic freedom of individuals and favor laissez-faire economic policy. They oppose the welfare state. Social liberals argue that governments must take an active role in promoting the freedom of citizens. They believe that real freedom can only exist when citizens are healthy, educated, and free from dire poverty. They generally favor the right to an education, the right to health care, and the right to a minimum wage. Some also favor laws against discrimination in housing and employment, laws against pollution of the environment, and the provision of welfare, including unemployment benefit and housing for the homeless, all supported by progressive taxation.

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