Liberalization (or liberalisation) refers to a relaxation of previous government restrictions, usually in areas of social or economic policy. In some contexts this process or concept is often, but not always, referred to as deregulation. Liberalization of autocratic regimes may precede democratization (or not, as in the case of the Prague Spring).
In the arena of social policy it may refer to a relaxation of laws restricting for example divorce, abortion, homosexuality or drugs. Most often, the term is used to refer to economic liberalization, especially trade liberalization or capital market liberalization.
Although economic liberalization is often associated with privatization, the two can be quite separate processes. For example, the European Union has liberalized gas and electricity markets, instituting a system of competition; but some of the leading European energy companies (such as EDF and Vattenfall) remain partially or completely in government ownership.
Liberalized and privatized public services may be dominated by just a few big companies particularly in sectors with high capital costs, or high such as water, gas and electricity. In some cases they may remain legal monopoly at least for some part of the market (e.g. small consumers).
Liberalization is one of three local points (the others being privatization and stabilization) of the Washington Consensus’s trinity strategy for economic in transition. An example of Liberalization is the “Washington Consensus” which was a set of policies created and used by Argentina.
There is also a concept of hybrid liberalisation as, for instance, in Ghana where cocoa crop can be sold to a variety of competing private companies, but there is a minimum price for which it can be sold and all exports-are controlled by the state.
There is a distinct difference between liberalization and democratization, which are often thought to be the same concept. Liberalization can take place without democratization, and deals with a combination of policy and social change specialized to a certain issue such as the liberalization of government-held property for private purchase, whereas democratization is more politically specialized that can arise from a liberalization, but works in a broader level of government.