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Study Notes

Minimal State (Liberalism)

A-Level, IB
AQA, Edexcel, IB

Last updated 3 Jun 2020

All liberals believe vociferously in the rights of the individual and by implication belong on the libertarian axis of the political spectrum.

Both classical and social liberalism would concur with the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s depiction of freedom as “the absence of external constraints upon the individual.” For liberals, history warns us that the biggest threat to individual liberty is the state.

There are a number of significant contributions from classical liberals as to the need for limited government. The eighteenth century Scottish economist Adam Smith argued that a laissez-faire economic system based upon market forces of supply and demand achieves the most efficient allocation of scarce resources. He believed that “we are led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of our intention.” In Smith’s eloquent words; “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” The invisible hand may be contrasted to what liberals call the ‘dead hand’ of a planned economy in which resources are distributed by bureaucrats rather than the interaction of individuals.

The liberal perspective is also hostile to state intervention within the personal realm. A truly liberal society is one that respects our private space and one in which the state does not impose a moral code upon us. As such, liberals believe that we should tolerate any form of sexual conduct between consenting adults. Society has no right whatsoever to impose its morality upon our personal lives. Adults are rational enough to be entrusted with as much freedom as possible, and only those actions that harm others (notably children) should face a legal penalty. Otherwise, the liberal outlook is a permissive one that facilitates the pursuit of personal pleasure.

The liberal stance upon such matters is particularly pertinent to sexual minorities. Liberals rightly fear that the agents of the state are able to exercise their power to persecute minorities. That is why liberals believe that consenting adults must have a personal realm outside the reach of government. Regimes that seek to regulate or ban acts of what official authorities label as sexual deviance are intimately associated with illiberal measures. The morality police used within theocratic regimes are entirely contrary to the liberal theorist Alexis de Tocqueville’s dire warning about the “tyranny of the majority.”

It is important that students can properly differentiate between ideologies that may at first appear to share much common ground. In the case of liberalism and anarchism, both adopt a firmly libertarian stance on issues such as personal freedom and the relationship between the individual and society. However, there is an absolutely fundamental point of departure between these two libertarian ideologies over the existence of the state. Liberals believe that the government should implement a series of legislative measures to uphold our individual freedom. Even classical liberals such as Thomas Jefferson argue “that government which governs best governs least.” In stark contrast, anarchists are implacably opposed to the state. In the words of Henry David Thoreau; “government is best which governs not at all.”

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