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Theories of the state: Liberal

The State

A state is a planned political structure that operate under a government. States may be categorized as independent if they are not dependent on, or subject to, any other power or state. States are considered to be subject to external dominion, or hegemony, if their ultimate sovereignty lies in another state. An amalgamated state is a territorial, constitutional community that forms part of a federation. Such states differ from sovereign states, in that they have transferred a portion of their sovereign powers to a federal government.

Most political theories of the state can approximately be grouped into two categories. The first, which includes liberal or conservative theories, treats capitalism as a given, and concentrates on the function of states in a capitalist society. Theories of this variety view the state as a neutral entity distinct from both society and the economy.

Liberalism is a phrase used in several ways in political thought and social science. Liberalism is best characterized as many arguments that have been classified as liberal, and recognized as such by other self-proclaimed liberals, over time and space.

The indispensable characteristic of the liberal theory of the state is the dogma of jurisdiction. That is, the idea that there is such a thing as a limited area of power and authority for the state, a delimitation of its proper sphere, beyond which, it is inadequate for the state to trespass. This principle is essentially the sole preserve of liberals. Only liberals seriously think about it. Revolutionaries discard the state altogether. Socialists are simply not concerned about limits of state power. Modern socialist governments may introduce market based transformations. The stirring factor is that of economic efficiency and not appreciation of the importance of individual liberty and limited government.

The first principle of the liberal theory of the state is that the state is not superior to other institutions. However, the state will generally be substandard to other institutions in the respective fields of special competence of those other institutions. The state is inferior to the church for elaborating moral values or the conduct of ecclesiastical government. The state is simply one social institution amongst many. Each has its proper sphere. The state has its proper sphere. It should not appropriate the spheres of other institutions. This might be described as a rule of internal management: a presumption that each institution is the appropriate authority for the management of those matters which pertain to it.

The second principle of the liberal theory of the state is that the state ought to respect the fault principle. The state ought not to punish or impose any detriment upon any man except on the basis of his fault, strict liability being applicable in exceptional circumstances. The state ought not to recompense those who are responsible for their blameworthiness. The state ought not otherwise promote guilty conduct or attach disincentives to virtuous conduct in any way. If these principles were observed within the welfare sector, that sector would be structured very differently. Welfare would be restricted to the genuinely needy.

The third principle of the liberal theory of the state is the sovereignty of law and adherence to established, proper procedures.

The fourth principle of the liberal theory of the state represent that the power of the state ought to be split and distributed amongst many centers. This principle is founded on the observation expressed in Lord Acton's aphorism that "Power corrupts: absolute power corrupts absolutely". It is by minimizing the concentration of power in any one center and by setting up many alternative, counterbalancing centers of power, that the standard of "everything open and above board" is more nearly attained and opportunities for corruption are minimized.

The positive liberal theory of the state emerged from the problem of the protection of liberty. Liberalism avoids the absolute state, confirming the superior value of individual liberty but it also recognizes the dangers of chaos in the context of a human race which is polluted with evil. The declaration that the human race is fouled with evil, is intended to communicate the awareness that there exist standards of virtue and perfection and the human race as a whole fail on these standards. The liberal philosophy is skeptical of every claim that humanity or human nature can be made to be righteous. It is the very suspicion of evil, and the belief in the unreliability of those who claim to be both virtuous and all-knowing which directly drives liberalism to support the limitation and decentralization of power. Lord Acton's aphorism bears repetition ("Power corrupts: absolute power corrupts absolutely"). Liberalism confirms moral values and opposes relativism. It does not capitulate to the false doctrine of moral neutrality.

The modern state greatly surpasses the liberal model of limited government.

Whether the theory is liberal or conservative that is not major concern. Main concern is that if the state is liberal to what extent and in which style the state adopts liberal methods and processes for the administration and representation of laws. Liberalism means to avoid conservativeness or avoid restrictions in policy making, enactment and administration of state.

It has been presumed that the restrictions or any type of conservativeness adopted by the government will control the liberty and, simultaneously, the spontaneity of the individuals leading to the slow-down of development of man's personality individuality and intrinsic qualities.

Therefore, a liberal state signifies a limited government or limited state. It can also be called a theory of limited state presented by a number of philosophers. The term limited state may be confusing. It exactly means limited functions and role of the state or non-intervention of state.

The notion of liberal state can also be elucidated from another perspective. It has been maintained by a recent opponent that all elements of liberal era converse certain rights and privileges upon persons and these must be protected at any cost. So a liberal state is one which gives importance to the cause of the individuals. In the controversy 'individual vs state' liberal state always favours the interest/cause of individuals.

The liberal state is contradictory to conservative, authoritarian and totalitarian state. The meaning of liberal is respectful and accepting of behaviour or opinions, different from others. A state is liberal when it recognises the opinions, attitudes and behaviour of individuals and does not think these as a hazard to the existence and administration of state.

There are differences among the political theorists and political scientists as to the functions of liberal state, but there is a common element among them all and it is that individuals must have maximum liberty so that their free development does not receive any hindrance due to state policy or action.

Features of the Liberal State:

A liberal state can easily be identified from an authoritarian or totalitarian state and this is because of certain exclusive features of such a state are as under:

1. A liberal state always accepts a liberal approach towards the rights of citizens. The most vital precondition of individual's development is granting of rights and privileges to all individuals justifiably. If any inequality or discrimination is to be followed that must be for the general interest of the body politic and to the least disadvantage of anybody. By resorting to this system, the authority of the liberal state will be in a position to ensure the progress of the individuals. In defined term, liberalism implies what is granted in the forms of rights and privileges to one shall also be granted to others.

2. Liberal state presumes the existence of many groups and organisations and the typical feature of a liberal state is that they are involved in cooperation and conflict among themselves. These groups are termed in various ways such as "power elite" "ruling elite" etc. There are also many interest groups.

Under normal and nonviolent conditions, liberal state does not normally intend to impose restrictions upon their activities. In an authoritarian state, the predominance of such a situation cannot be imagined. Plurality of ideas and organisations is a prohibited fruit in such a state.

3. The liberal state upholds a neutrality among all these groups. Since diversity of groups and organisations and cohabitation among them are the distinguishing features of a liberal state, any conflict of interests can also be regarded as foreseeable consequence. The liberal state maintains utmost neutrality. This is the claim of the votaries of a liberal state. The liberal state generally does not favour any particular class or elite group in the case of conflict. Though the state maintains neutrality the state is quite aware of clash of interests between classes and groups. As a provider of check and stability in the political system, the state espouses reforms so that disruption cannot occur. A liberal state can sensibly be called a reformist state. Through frequent reforms a liberal state brings about changes in the political system. In fact, liberalism or liberal state is strongly related with reforms and in that sense, it is based on reformism. It accepts liberal attitude to improvements.

4. Vital feature of a liberal state is that it is accountable to the people which means that all its activities, decisions and policies are to be accepted by the body politic. The consent and accountability is the matching ideas related with the liberal state. It means that the decision of the state is not final even though it is for the general welfare of the community. It is because what is welfare and what is not, is to be decided for whom it is meant. There is no scope of imposing anything upon the individuals against their will.

5. Liberal state is never a one-idea state. It embraces diversity of ideas, views and existence of numerous groups and parties. This finally indicates a competition among them. Competition involved seizure of political power through constitutional means, legal procedure and democratic ways, competition in views and philosophies. It is believed that the truth will emerge only from this struggle of words and ideas. That is why, in a liberal state, such a competition is always encouraged. J. S. Mill strongly supported for the competition among the different shades of views and ideas.

6. A liberal state always have numerous political parties. In any liberal state, there are number of philosophies of political parties and they struggle to capture power. Here lies a major difference between a liberal state and authoritarian state. A liberal state is occasionally called a pluralist state because of the plurality of ideas and organisations.

A competitive party system is a very important aspect of a liberal state. One party captures power, while the other party or parties sit in the opposition and in this way, the change in power takes place which does not normally occur in dictatorial state. It has been upheld by a critic that modern parties are mass organisations with extra-parliamentary structure.

7. Separation of power is major feature of liberal state. A liberal state means limited state and it again infers the three organs of the state, will discharge this function keeping themselves within the confinement decided by law and constitution. When this is applied, no organ of the government will interfere with the functions and jurisdiction of another organ. But the separation of powers need not be the only requirement of being liberal. For example, Britain is a liberal state but the separation of powers has been unsuccessful to be an integral part of state mechanism. But some forms of separation of power must exist in all liberal states.

8. A liberal state does not sanction the supremacy of a particular philosophy, various opinions or ideologies work and exist side by side. It is a state of multiple ideas, ideals ideologies and views and all of them use opportunities and atmosphere for work. In a non-liberal state, such a situation is unimaginable. In authoritarian governments, the state-sponsored dogma dominates over all other philosophies. Both fascism and communism fall in this category. The citizens are free to select any one idea or ideology and application of force is non-existent.

9. In all liberal states, there are mainly two centres of power, one is economic and the other is political. But economic power-centre controls the political power. Marx highlights this aspect of liberal state. After appraising history, he understood that the owners of the sources of production and the controllers of distribution in all possible means control the political power for the continuance of the interest of the capitalist class. They control parties, pressure groups, send their own persons to represent people, the legislatures enact laws to protect the interests of the dominant class.

10. There is no fixed form of liberal state.

Development of Liberal State:


The notion of liberal state is an ancient. The exact advent of a liberal state cannot be determined which can satisfy one and all. However, many scholars had suggested about the liberal state. This ideology can be found in the literatures of social contract theoretician Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). In his two noted works, De due (1642) and Leviathan (1651), he made definite statements and comments which lay the foundation of liberal thought or about the liberal state. The basis of the state or civil society is the individuals who are free and equal. It suggests that these free and equal individuals without being induced or forced by external authority or power decided to build up a civil society.

The state envisaged by Hobbes is liberal because it is based on the agreement of all the individuals. Hobbes's individuals lived in an imaginary place called state of nature which was considered by insecurity and in order to get rid of it, they laid the foundation of state.

Hobbes also regarded a state which would be based on rules and law. His state is a legitimate one. Today, when people talk of a liberal state, legitimation always occupies a major portion in human mind. Though, Hobbes is normally portrayed as an illiberal intellectual who wanted an authoritarian government, his writings foreshadow a limited government. He said that though the dominance is absolute, he cannot prevent a person from taking food, medicine and take action against any attack.

Sovereign has no power to impose any injury upon any individual. It cannot prevent anybody from practising religious acts and following particular faiths. In simple language, Hobbes thought of a limited state which is a liberal state. His concepts about liberal state or liberalism are different from the present day thinkers.

Locke and Liberal State:

John Locke (1632-1704) is another philosopher who developed theoretical framework for liberal state. In fact, his entire Second Treatise (1690) is full of numerous statements and comments which displayed that he was a great advocate of liberal state.

Important traits of Lock's doctrine:

1. The civil society or body politic is the product of the contract which is based on the consent of all men. The consent is a basic element of any liberal state.

2. The state/body politic/civil society would be administered on the principle of majority opinion and this principle is followed very strictly in any modern liberal state.

3. The councils of the body politic must follow the terms and conditions laid down in the body of the contract and any failure will be followed by the removal of the governors from the authority and this would be done by people.

4. It is the main function of the state to take required action for the protection of life, liberty and property. Today these rights are basic and no responsible government can evade the responsibility.

The defence of these basic rights enforces restrictions upon the governors of state. Locke concluded that people of the state of nature because of the non-existence of proper authority and clear law, could not enjoy the right to life, liberty and property and this stimulated them to form a state.

5. Significant element of liberal state is constitutionalism. It has been demanded by protagonists of liberalism that Locke is the ancestor of constitutionalism. He passionately claimed that the authority of the civil society must discharge its responsibility strictly in agreement with the constitution of law. It is the most influential limitation on state.

6. Locke greatly supported the revolution, bill of right and settlement of 1688. The purpose of all these was to impose constitutional limitations upon the authority of the Crown in England. He sturdily opposed the concept of Leviathan devised by Hobbes. Locke's idea about revolution is different from today's thought. People will revolt if authority fails to act in accordance with, the terms of contract.

7. Locke's state is a fiduciary trust and the core idea of trust is its powers are which very limited by the terms contained in the trust. The persons in charge of the trust have no power to disrupt the rules. It can be said that a liberal state is to some extent a trust which performs certain duties. The state cannot do anything beyond what it has been asked to do. This point has been explained by J. C. McClelland in his History of Western Political Thought.

8. Key component of liberal state is the concept of society vs the state. Locke regarded of a society which was pre-political but not pre-social. Locke's society had no political colours or political function but it possessed all the social features. Some philosophers have concluded that Locke gave priority to society than the state.

Society was prior to state. Society was more important than the state. In such a situation, the state cannot be permitted to supersede the society. Today, all the protectors of liberal state think in such manner. It can be said that Locke offered coherent defence of liberal state (Ruth W. Grant, 2010).

Liberal State and Utilitarian Philosophers:

Utilitarian intellectuals such as Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), James Mill (1773-1836) and J.S. Mill (1806-1873) considered a state whose main function would be to defend the democratic rights of the citizens and guarantee, through the adoption of measures, the free functioning of democracy. It is the function of the state to protect the citizens from all sorts of harassment.

From the functions of different states, it is found that the citizens are subject to different forms of coercion, and tyrannical measures and it is the responsibility of the state to provide maximum protection to all of them. David Held in his noted work Models of Democracy has drawn our attention to this aspect of democracy. A liberal state cannot perform all types of functions; its main duty is to protect the democratic rights.

The utilitarian thinkers persuasively debated that the individual is the ultimate determiner of the policy and decisions of the government. This he will do on the basis of utility which he expects to receive from the policy adopted by the state. The utilitarian theorists stated that all types of law or decision must be judged by its capacity to provide satisfaction. That is, to what extent the law is capable of fulfilling the demand of the citizens. The implication is very simple.

The state authority is underprivileged of the power to do anything or implement any policy. The utility is a criterion which imposes restrictions upon the functions of the state. The utilitarian theorists had no faith on social contract, natural rights and natural law. It is because all these do not deal with the utility or necessity of the individuals.

Bentham, James Mill and John Stuart Mill jointly have provided the basis of liberal democratic state which will create amiable atmosphere to implement democratic rights and liberties and the individuals will have abundant scope to follow their own interests effectively. The utilitarian theorists did not anticipate of separation of powers as per Montesquieu (1689-1755) but they felt that concentration of powers under single person or branch is damaging for the realisation of democratic principle.

In order to establish people's right and the expansion of the scope of participation of all of them vehemently advocated for periodic elections, granting liberty to press and other media, importance of public opinion. Not only the rights and interests of the individuals are to be protected but also the interests of the community in general are to be sustained. Both Bentham and J. S. Mill supposed that the representative form of government could be solution to all problems from which democracy/liberal state suffered. It is observed that liberal state was always active in the minds of the utilitarian thinkers.

Minimum State vs. Limited State:

Most liberals, and all the classical liberals, recognise that the liberal state may have array of service functions, going beyond rights. Protection and the maintenance of justice, and for this reason are not advocates of the minimum state but rather of limited government. Many supporters of liberal state do not argue for the minimal state. The role of the state shifted in the eighties of the nineteenth century. In spite of this J. S. Mill is regarded as the principal advocate of liberal state because he was in favour of limiting the powers of state.

The role or the functions of the liberal state changed drastically. The changes were perceptible during the eighties and nineties of the nineteenth century.

There are several causes to these changes:

1. Due to the industrial revolution that occurred in the second half of the eighteenth century unparalleled growth took place in various sectors, some of which were setting up of new industries, amount of commodities produced, development in the transport sector, foreign trade etc. Manufacturers garnered profit which was unconceivable in earlier periods.

2. Workers migrated from village homes and to crowded cities for jobs and all of a sudden the supply market of the workers increased significantly.

3. The demand for the employees at the initial stages of industrial development was upward moving and there was no problem of joblessness. But later on the demand for labour declined causing the fall in wage rate.

4. Huge gap between demand and supply was fully exploited by the capitalists. They paid less wages to the employees and the latter were forced to accept the terms and conditions set by the capitalists. The scope of employment decreased enormously. The capitalists had already established their stronghold in various sectors of government.

The greater part of the population was effectively underprivileged of benefits and was subject to abject poverty, diseases etc. All the industrialised countries of Europe were the victims of industrial revolution. But the greatest victim perhaps was London. The industrial revolution in Europe seemed as a curse and this brought about a gloom in the minds of many people and particularly the idealist thinkers.

The Role of the State was reassessed during that time. Green and many theorists started to think over the issue seriously. They wanted to save the "underfed denizen of a London Yard" and to take measures against moral deprivation. They thought that stern steps would be taken to solve the issues of poverty, miseries, and diseases, and to check the downward movement of ethics. Without moral development, society cannot develop. Green believed that all these could be done through the bold leadership of the state.

Sabine stated that "Accordingly for Green, politics was essentially an agency for creating social conditions that make moral development possible". Green asserted that the state has a positive role to play in the development of society and the term development includes both moral and physical conditions. The state can never be a stranded onlooker of all incidents that were happening in its presence. If the state fails to do it, it will lose its reliability as a state. T. H. Green restructured the role of the state and also the concept of liberalism.

In the end of the nineteenth century, the liberal state was challenged with crisis of existence and crisis of trustworthiness. Different external and internal forces in Europe were about to challenge the very foundation of several liberal states of Europe. Predominantly, Marxism challenged the policies of liberal state.

The European states were involved among themselves in continuous wars or armed struggle which posed menace to the liberal state. Under such circumstances, the passionate protectors of liberal state were keen to effect a compromise between liberal and "anti-liberal" forces. Anti-liberal in the sense that there arose a strong urge to give more power to the state so that it can fight poverty, inequalities and diseases. But most of the liberal theorists where unwilling to make the state leviathan. This quandary between liberalism and the arguments against it demanded a compromise between the two. It was impossible for many to think of abandoning the liberal philosophy and the same persons thought that the state should do something. This finally resulted in a reformulation of liberal state.

Sabine has observed that the state should perform numerous functions concurrently. These are as follows:

  1. - It will have to do those functions which could help to maintain free society.
  2. - It must see that rights and liberties are properly protected.
  3. - It must encourage the moral development.
  4. - Basic requirements of the citizens are met.
  5. - The state should launch welfare schemes.
  6. - Coercion should be reduced to the minimum.

These functions emphasise that in order to prove its worthiness the state must do all these functions. These will protect the freedom of the individual which is the core concept of liberalism.

Mode of Function:

It is a very significant characteristic of liberal state which can be stated in the following way. There are two ways to do the works. One is democratic or constitutional means such as legal ways, reforms approved by those for whom the reforms are made, and to do everything according to the wishes of the people. Another method is called coercive method. In the case of any slightest reluctance the state, authority will proceed to apply coercive measures. Coercion forces the citizens to do work reluctantly. Coercion is the sine qua non of the government/state. In this respect, a liberal state can reasonably be distinguished from an authoritarian state.

The liberal state always makes sincere attempts to limit the application of forcible measures. Unavoidable circumstances generally include when the state is aggressed upon by an external power or when the political stability is threatened by terrorist forces. In all political systems, there are many classes and liberal state is not an exception. But the authority of a liberal state has taken the existence of classes and the relations among them as the normal manifestation.

Conflict and cooperation among the classes are the usual traits of any class society. A liberal state does not view the class relation in an antagonistic way. Obviously, a liberal state does not think of class struggle or revolution as a means of eliminating the class structure.

A liberal state always emboldens people's participation in the affairs of the state. Only through participation, people can think of transforming their political dreams into a viable reality. In such a state, participation is never limited. For participation the existence of parties, groups and organisations is essential and a liberal state has been found to take care of it. In a real liberal state, there are multiple parties, groups and organisations and the government guarantee their free movement. The institutions, organisations and parties of a liberal state are not isolated islands. All are interdependent and strictly connected with each other. "The political and economic, instead of being distinct areas, are interlaced institutions which are certainly not independent of one another and which ought ideally both to contribute to the ethical purposes of liberal society". It is understandable that a liberal state is not a non-functioning state or an over enthusiastic state in all affairs of the individual. While accomplishing its responsibilities, the liberal state must understand that the spontaneity of the individuals gets reinforcement, morality is improved, rights and liberties are protected, and freedom of the society remains untouched. Conversely, welfare is fully realised, progress is not badly affected. It is the duty of the state to finance compulsory education, health care programmes. The liberal state must indorse law for the better management and greater common good of society.

To summarize, Liberalism highlights that the strong bonds among states have both made it difficult to define national interest and decreased the usefulness of military power. Studies have demonstrated that liberalism developed in the 1970s as some researchers began arguing that realism was obsolete. Liberal state rest on the construction of human beings that exalts their autonomy and aspirations coupled to the assumption that a polity confabulated from such atoms can maximize their economic welfare and secure their freedom (Leonard V. Kaplan, 2010). The heart of liberal theorizing concerns the definition of individual rights and state's role in protecting those rights, analysing such issues depends not only on how one views the source of individual rights but also on how one conceives the state itself.