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Ideology and social policy: lesson overview

A high-level overview of liberal, conservative, and libertarian views on the appropriate role of government in solving social problems. 
How much should the government intervene in order to promote social and economic equality? To what extent should government policies respect personal privacy or promote traditional morality? Is it permissible to restrict individual liberties in order to protect public safety?
How citizens respond to these questions can reveal sharp divides in their opinions on the appropriate role of government in shaping society, known as social policy.

Key terms

TermDefinition
government interventionRegulatory actions taken in order to affect decisions made by individuals, groups, or organizations regarding social and economic matters.
individual libertiesPersonal freedoms that the government cannot abridge, particularly those guarantees found in the Bill of Rights.
right to privacyThe right to be free of government scrutiny into one’s private beliefs and behavior.
social policyPublic policy related to health care, human services, criminal justice, inequality, education, and labor.

How do liberals, conservatives, and libertarians approach social issues?

Derived partly from shared interpretations of core values like equality of opportunity and limited government and partly from responses to historical events, approaches to social policy differ across the ideological spectrum.
Of course, individuals vary in their beliefs, and even someone who identifies strongly with one political party might not endorse every aspect of its platform. Likewise, ideologies are constantly changing and adapting to new political realities. However, political scientists can make some generalizations about the social policy approaches of liberals, conservatives, and libertarians:
Liberal ideologies
Liberals tend to favor more government intervention in order to promote social and economic equality. For example, liberals endorse minimum wage laws, arguing that without government intervention businesses will take advantage of employees and economic inequality will increase. On the other hand, liberals tend to oppose government intervention into areas of private life, such as laws restricting contraception or same-sex marriage.
Conservative ideologies
Conservatives tend to oppose government intervention in order to promote social and economic equality, arguing that the free market will reward individuals according to their talent and hard work. Conservatives also oppose government restrictions on individual liberties protected in the Bill of Rights, such as the right to bear arms. On the other hand, conservatives tend to favor government intervention to promote traditional morality, such as outlawing abortion and marijuana. They also strongly support government spending on the military and national security.
Libertarian ideologies
Libertarians oppose all government intervention in economic and social policy, believing that government exists to protect private property and little else. Libertarians do not believe that government should regulate morality or the free market.

Review questions

Do the liberals and conservatives feel the same way about the role of government in social policy as they do about the role of government in economic policy?
Check your understanding
Drag the policy proposal to the group most likely to support it.

Want to join the conversation?

  • marcimus pink style avatar for user IZH1
    What is the difference between individual liberties and civil liberties? I've heard both mentioned while learning about government, and I can't seem to grasp the difference between them or if there even is one.
    (4 votes)
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    • hopper cool style avatar for user Iron Programming
      The word "civil" relates to the words "civilization" or "society". The word individual specifies that we are only talking about one particular person.

      In most cases, the terms "individual liberties" and "individual rights" are used interchangeably, but civil liberties can be used in a more broader sense, referring to the protection that civilians have as a community against the government, whereas when we say individual liberty we are focusing down on how one specific individual is protected against the government.

      But just to prove how they are used in the same way, we could call the "free exercise clause" (right to religion) an individual liberty or a civil liberty because we could be dealing with a specific individual practicing their religion or a whole group (such as a church) practicing their religion.

      Hope this helps.
      (1 vote)
  • duskpin seedling style avatar for user makenna wilms
    Why do conservatives normally oppose the government?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Olivia Dowell
    what about the moderates?
    (0 votes)
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