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Study notes

The State (Liberalism)

  • Levels: A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel

The principal enemy of liberalism is the state.

All liberals fear that the state may act in an arbitrary manner to persecute certain groups. Even a moderate form of paternalism is inconsistent with liberal ideology. As such, the role of the state must be limited via constitutionalism, an independent judiciary and the rule of law. It is imperative that the state remains a minimal influence in our lives due to its discernible habit of encroaching upon the private lives of its citizens. In the realm of the economy, the state should facilitate laissez-faire economics. The state must also enable full religious expression, a notion that finds its most obvious example within the United States. The framers of the American constitution included a religious test clause which stipulates that no-one may be denied public office due to their religious affiliation. The constitution also insists upon a wall of separation between the church and state.

Unlike conservatism, liberalism is built upon a positive view of human nature. Liberals are resolutely optimistic about the capacity for human achievement and self-improvement. True to this mindset, liberals believe that we should place our faith firmly on the shoulders of the individual. In the words of John Stuart Mill; an individual is the best judge of their own interests and no authority (such as religious institutions) can claim superior knowledge. This positive view of human nature also shines through any number of theoretical contributors ranging from the Rawlsian difference principle to utilitarianism.

Having said this, all liberals accept the need for state involvement within society and the economy. This marks a fundamental point of departure between liberals and anarchists. Whilst both ideologies share a sunny outlook on human nature, liberalism specifies a limited role for the government. There are several case studies to consider, although the most illuminating is surely that of the Lockean social contract.

John Locke depicted the social contract as binding on everyone. He added that “every man, by consenting with others to make one body politic under one government, puts himself under an obligation to everyone of that society to submit to the determination of the majority.” Under this contract, the existence of government is justified upon the basis of consent. Crucially, the people have periodic opportunities to renew the government’s mandate or elect an alternative. The government also agrees to operate in accordance with natural law and to uphold our rights whilst the people accept the government’s authority. Furthermore, the people may also consent to some curtailment of their civil liberties provided they retain the option of reclaiming such rights.

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