To what extent do modern and classical liberals agree over the role of the state? 24 Marks Edexcel 


Individual liberty is important for all liberals, however liberals disagree about how the state can best ensure individual liberty. Classical liberals are cautious of the state, believing it necessary but ultimately evil. However modern liberals see the state as an enabler for social justice, for this reason they have a much more positive view of the state. Ultimately liberals disagree more than they agree over what the state should be and what powers it should have although they agree that the role of the state is to promote freedom and individualism

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Both types of liberals agree that the State should be limited because they fear a tyrannical state that would infringe on individual rights. John Locke, believed in egotistical individualism, meaning humans are self-seeking, rational and independent. He also believed that individuals are sovereign over their own body and can think for themselves, therefore there is no justification for an excessively large state. Locke went as far as to say that it is completely justifiable for the people to overthrow the State if it removes their natural rights. Similarly, modern liberals believe in government fragmentation and distribution of power, this is also to remove the possibility of the government becoming too powerful and infringing on natural rights. Modern liberals sought to further limits the power of government on the premise that the extension of the franchise brought with it the risk of the tyranny of the majority. 

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Examiner's comment:  It is useful, even in a ‘disagree’ paragraph to reference agreements to begin with, “whilst there is agreement within liberalism on liberty as all liberals believe that… it is clear that the disagreements outweigh the agreements.” This is to ensure greater balance in a 3- paragraph model when there may be 1 agree paragraph and 2 disagree paragraphs. 

Whilst there is general agreement within liberalsim that the state should be limited there are more significant difference over the extent of the state's power. Classical Liberals place great emphasis on negative liberty instead of positive liberty, meaning they believe that to create the most freedom for individuals they must be free from the constraints of the state; in turn it was believed that this would allow society to progress and everyone would be benefited (rising tide lifts all boats). Thus, many classical liberals support the idea of laissez-faire capitalism. However, Modern liberals looked at the world in the 19th century and saw poverty and a huge gap between the rich and poor. They wondered how individuals were meant to develop and reach their full potential with so few opportunities. Therefore, it was believed that it was not good enough to leave individuals to themselves, the state must take an active role to enable positive freedom and equal opportunity. John Rawls used the original position and the veil of ignorance to justify state interference in these circumstances. He claimed that if we had to choose the society where we were to live not knowing whether we would be born rich or poor everyone, (being rational humans) we would design a society where people were more socially and economically equal. This provides the basis for the support of progressive taxation to provide free healthcare, education and housing. This enabling state extends well beyond the night-watchman state advocated by classical liberals. So, Classical liberals would view progressive taxation as an infringement to the natural right of property and would see it as a step too far by the state, whereas modern liberals would support it with the view that enabling development is the priority. In this sense modern liberals see a bigger role for the state instead of a night-watchman they see the need for an enabling state so there is  a significant disagreement. 

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Modern and classical liberals have very different views on the role of the state in economics. Classic liberals believe in the free market, Adam Smith’s wealth of nations set out the “invisible hand” where welfare is maximised by allowing comparative advantage to be harnessed. Modern liberals whilst in principle are in favour of free markets saw that actual experience of the ways markets work tended to create unequal outcomes because of disparities in market power and imperfect information, which prevents each individual, in practise from reaching their individual potential and limits their freedom. All liberals view capitalism as the best way of creating wealth however modern liberals see the need for regulation and therefore see it as one of the responsibilities of the state. This view of the state's role in economics shows a significant difference between classical and modern liberals.

Examiner's comment: Don't leave AO3 judgments for the conclusion- sum up with a mini conclusion at the end of each paragraph. 


 liberals do disagree to a large extent over the role of the state; this is due to their different views on freedom and individualism, whilst they both see the need for a limited state, modern liberals view intervention by the state as absolutely essential in creating equality of opportunity and positive freedom.