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  • Tuhina Anoop

Do Classical and Modern Liberals Share A Similar View of The Ideal State?

Both classical and modern liberals support an idea of a minimal state where the state has a minimal breadth of function and is bound by the rule of law in order to protect individual freedom. However, classical and modern liberals differ on the amount of state intervention that should be accepted in within society.

All liberals believe the state should be based on the idea of consent and the individual's right to withdraw this consent. John Stuart Locke's Social Contract theory presents the notion that the state should be based on a theoretical voluntary agreement where the people agree to give up some of their freedom in exchange for protection from the state. This differs significantly from what the state should look like according to other ideologies. For example, Thomas Hobbes believed that the people should obey an unaccountable sovereign state in order to combat socio-political insecurity. This contrasts with the liberalism's rationalistic view of humanity as Locke believed it would be irrational to submit to a state as it gives up natural rights. This comparison shows the level of unity between classical and modern liberals and their view on the foundation of the state as they both believe in a government formed by consent and a government their upholds people's natural rights.

While all liberals believe in a state based on consent of the governed, classical and modern liberals differ significantly on the type of government they support. For example, classical liberals tend to support an elite democracy which does not encompass full democratic representation while modern liberals favour universal suffrage. Classical liberals like Wollstonecraft favour a democracy where the Establishment holds the real power, resulting in an unequal vote. This notably differs from the modern liberal view that 'supremacy of the people' should mean that every adult has the vote. This signifies the disagreement among liberals on the nature of state they favour.

The primal belief that unites all liberals is the protection of freedom which is why most liberals favour a limited government. All liberals agree that the state should be bound by the rule of law and have a minimal breadth of function so that it cannot interfere with individual liberty. They also agree that the state should be tolerant of self-regarding actions. According to the harm principle developed by John Stuart Mill, the state should tolerate 'self-regarding' actions which do not affect other people's freedoms and should only intervene when dealing with 'other regarding' actions which can cause harm to others. These views are accepted by both classical and modern liberals as a limited government and tolerance in accordance with the harm principle stems from fundamental liberal principles like individualism and liberty, signifying the great level of agreement among liberals on the power of the state.

However, while all liberals support a limited government with minimal power, classical and modern liberals differ on the level of state intervention within society they deem acceptable. This is because classical liberals favour negative freedom and formal equality and hence believe the state should only intervene in order to eliminates legal and political barriers like discrimination. For example, Betty Friedan advocated for legal equality by repealing oppressive legislation that obstructed women from developing a career, allowing for formal equality among men and women in the workplace. However, modern liberals did not believe formal equality was enough to maximise liberty. Modern liberals favour a greater level of state intervention and create positive freedom. John Rawls, for example, believed that social class and wealth can have an important role in determining individual success. He believed negative freedom would only enhance these inequalities and that positive freedom is required to create enabling conditions that allow people to maximise their potential. This shows the level of disagreement between classical and modern liberals on the type and amount of state intervention that should be allowed in a legitimate society.

While classical and modern liberal ideas stem from similar views and goals, they show severe disagreements on how to achieve such goals. For example, while the classical liberal's minimal state intervention and modern liberal's enabling state aims to maximise individualism and liberty, they hold drastically contrasting methods to achieve them. It can hence be concluded that the two branches agree on very little when it comes to the ideal state.


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