Liberalism is a political philosophy based on liberty, the consent of the governed and equality before the law. All liberals agree that the state is ‘necessary’ to avoid disorder and a Hobbesian state of nature. But liberals also agree that the state is a potential problem given that it has the capacity to threaten individual liberty. Liberals therefore agree on a limited state. However, within this broader area of agreement, liberals disagree on the size and role of the state. Classical liberals such as John Locke advocate a minimal and limited state whilst modern liberals such as John Rawls favour an enabling state which can serve as a facilitator of individual development. Therefore, whilst liberals are in agreement over the necessity of a state they disagree on the purpose and extent of it.
One thing that unites all liberals is their belief in the necessity of the state. Despite their optimistic view of human nature liberals still believe that in the state of nature there would have been conflicts between individuals pursuing their own egocentric agendas. John Lock was worried that without the formal structures that only a state can provide the resolution of then these clashes might be brutally resolved. All liberals therefore agree that a state is required to play the role of referee and arbitrate between the competing claims of rational individuals. As Locke said, ‘freedom can only exist under the law, where there is no law, there is no freedom.’ Further, liberals are also united by their concerns regarding an overly powerful state and what could happen if power is unconstrained. This is the case for both modern liberals, who advocate a larger state, and for classical liberals who favour a minimal state. All liberals will tend to agree with Lord Acton that, ‘power tends to corrupt…and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ They therefore favour constitutionalism and a clear seperation of powers to create limited government. As part of this, liberals believe in a contract between the government and the governed that must be consensual. Such belief in constitutional government, designed to clearly set the parameters of the state’s power, is a key element of liberal thinking and one that unites modern and classical liberals.
However, despite these agreements, there is still tension over the extent of state and power how interventionist the state should be in society and the economy. Classical liberals emphasise minimal state intervention as expressed through Isaiah Berlin’s concept of negative freedom. This is a notion of freedom which involves individuals being left alone to pursue their own path with an absence of restraint. Classical liberals believe that freedom is achieved as a result of as little intervention as possible. Other liberal thinkers such as Mary Wollstonecraft expanded this argument by making the point that through restraining female individualism societies were limiting their stock of intelligence, wisdom and morality. She further added that, ‘such arrangements are not conditions where reason and progress may prosper.’ The denial of liberty to an entire gender could lead to an undermining of the spirt of the Enlightenment in which liberals place such great faith. On the other hand, modern liberals favour greater intervention on the part of the state. This is Berlin’s positive freedom. The modern liberal thinker, John Rawls, argued that the foundational equality of classical liberals is not enough to secure a just society and that social and economic equality were also desirable if an individual’s life is to be rich and fulfilled. Rawls argued that this form of equality could only be provided by a significant redistribution of wealth via an enabling state, with extensive public spending and progressive taxation. This is a view shared by Rawls’ fellow modern liberal, TH Green, who believed that there were many barriers facing the individual and that they could not be truly free if they didn’t have the tools to prosper and access their full potential. This concept can also be associated with John Stuart Mill’s developmental individualism. Therefore, whilst classical liberals tend to view the state as a potential obstacle to individual freedom and development, modern liberals view the state as a key facilitator of freedom. This is a major area of disagreement between liberals and an important distinction within liberal thinking.
With regard to the economy classical liberals believe in a non-interventionist state and in laissez-faire economic policy whilst modern liberals advocate a more interventionist state rooted in the principles of Keynesianism. For liberals the debate about the role that the state should play in the economy is linked to the emergence of capitalism in the 18th Century. The free-market system espoused in Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’ allowed the market to regulate itself, encouraging competition. He argued that the ‘invisible hand’ of market forces had a capacity to enrich both the individual and the society. This concept of classical, free-market economics emerged in political form in the governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. They advocated a rolling back of the state which they sought to achieve through policies such as privatisation and lower taxation. The minimal state that is left, is Lockean in nature, and should be restricted to maintaining social order, enforcing contracts and providing defence. But its intervention in economic life should be small. On the other hand, modern liberals believe that the state should be larger and its intervention in the economy much more significant. They support economic management along Keynesian grounds, arguing that the self-regulating free market is a myth, and that government intervention can ensure that market economies deliver sustainable growth with low unemployment. This means that, especially in times of economic recession, the state has an important role to play in stimulating the economy with higher government spending and reduced taxes. This is akin to what has been seen since 2020 with regard to the UK government’s response to the recession caused by the pandemic. In sum liberals do not agree on the role that the state should play in managing the economy with Classical liberals favouring a ‘night-watchman’ state based on minimal intervention and Modern liberals favouring an interventionist, enabling state with a much more tangible economic role.
In conclusion there is agreement between liberals on the fact that the state should exist and also on the nature of it. Unlike anarchists, who are defined by their opposition to the state, liberals embrace it and see it as necessary for supporting individual freedom. Liberals are also united in their fear of power becoming overly concentrated so therefore favour the fragmentation of the state and the separation of powers. This is encapsulated in their support for constitutional government and expressly limiting the powers of the state. However, liberals disagree with each other on the extent of the state’s power, particularly with regard to the levels of intervention in society and the economy. Whereas classical liberals favour a non-interventionist, minimal state which follows a laissez-faire approach to the economy, modern liberals advocate an interventionist, enabling state with Keynesian economic policies. We can therefore conclude that while there is agreement on the basic principles of the state there is significant disagreement on the size of it and the extent of the role it should play in individuals’ lives.
What is good about this response?
It follows the Golden Rule for Ideologies questions that every paragraph compares the different strands of the ideology.
The Key Thinkers are used at not just named.
It develops thematic points which address the question.
It clearly considers the extent or agreement and disagreement within the themes relevant to the question.