The State: A necessary evil

For liberals, the state is a threat to the individual’s freedom and liberty and therefore there must always be limited government. However, unlike anarchists, liberals understand that the state is always necessary and without it we would live in unsafe, lawless conditions. Liberals believe that human nature is corruptible by power and therefore those in power need strict limits or they will seek to increase and abuse their powers. 

Liberals have developed a wide range of methods to put such limits in place and those methods can be seen in political systems around the world, such as in the USA. The ideas and practices of constitutionalism, consent, checks and balances, bicameralism and separation of powers are some examples of these that will be discussed later. Classical liberals also believe that the state should not interfere with the workings of the free market, and in the nineteenth century they were strongly opposed to protectionism, for example. 

There is division within liberalism over the role of state. Classical liberals argue that the state should act as a ‘night watchman’, its role being to protect individual freedom through law. However, modern liberals go beyond this to call for an enabling state. Linked to their belief in positive freedom, modern liberals argue that the limited state leaves capitalism free to create huge inequalities. This results in many people being unable to achieve their personal goals and potential as they are held back by poverty and debt. The state needs to intervene, to ensure that all individuals have equality of opportunity and positive freedom, and this may require the creation of a welfare state and intervention in the economy to protect the vulnerable from exploitation. 

The liberal attitude to the state, its size, role and limits, is critical to an understanding of the development of liberalism and to the different forms of liberalism that have emerged over three centuries. Study of liberalism and the state, therefore, should be chronological in nature.

The original liberal position concerning the state included the following features:

● As, in a state of nature, there are bound to be conflicts between individuals and groups, the state should exist to reduce conflict.

● The laws established by the state should be based on a liberal conception of natural law — that people should respect each other’s life, liberty and property.

● The state should promote tolerance.

● The liberal state should be democratic.

● The state should promote meritocracy, where those with greatest ability can progress .

● The state should be organised on the basis of rational ideas of government rather than on traditional principles. Thus constitutional government should replace arbitrary government and traditional monarchy. Government should be based on the principle of limited government. The best way of limiting the power of government is to divide power between different branches of government. This is the principle of the separation of powers as expounded by French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755).

The state should be based on the principle of ‘government by consent’. In one way or another, the people should have the opportunity to show their consent to be governed. This can be done through constitutional agreements and by government which is constantly accountable to the people.

● The state should operate the rule of law, whereby all citizens would enjoy foundational equality.

● The state should tolerate and protect the interests of minorities.

The classical liberal state, associated with J.S. Mill, added these principles in the nineteenth century:

● The role of the state should be limited to protecting individuals and groups from each other’s encroachments.

● The state should protect property rights.

● The state’s primary role is to protect the nation from external threat.

● The state should not interfere with economic activity except to regulate monopoly power which might operate against the interests of consumers.

● The government of the state should be based on representative democracy rather than direct, popular democracy. It was feared that popular democracy might lead to the ‘tyranny of the majority’. The mass of the people might support discrimination against minorities. Modern liberals, since the latter part of the nineteenth century and since T.H. Green’s ‘New Liberalism’ movement, added these roles for the state:

● The state should promote equality of opportunity, through education and reductions in the influence of inherited privilege.

● The state should organise welfare to help those unable to defend themselves against deprivation, such as the unemployed, the chronically sick and the elderly. This gave rise to Lloyd George’s welfare reforms in 1918–22 and to Beveridge’s welfare state in the 1940s.

● Contemporary liberals accept that the state may also promote social justice, i.e. reductions in inequality. This is based on the ideas of John Rawls (1921–2002).

Classical liberals took a largely pessimistic and limited view of the role of the state, viewing it more as a ‘necessary evil’ to guarantee basic freedoms than as a positive force for good. They favoured a minimalist and ‘night-watchman’ state, an approach perhaps best summed up as ‘the government that governs best is the government that governs least’, a statement attributed to Thomas Jefferson, a key contributor to drawing up the US Constitution. The legacy of this view can be still be found in some Americans’ approach to state involvement in health care, for example, which they would view as an individual not a state responsibility.

Modern or progressive liberals, by contrast, are much more positive about the potential for the state to improve people’s lives, an attitude that influenced twentieth- century ‘welfare liberals’ such as J. M. Keynes and William Beveridge, who argued that state involvement and expenditure in areas such as health and education were often vital to helping individuals fulfil their individual potential. In summary, classical liberals believed that to climb the ladder of opportunity all you needed was for everyone to start on the same rung; new liberals argued that some people needed ahelping hand, via the state, up the first few rungs.