Liberals defend the need for a state stating that a social covenant (agreement) is needed. Two of the earliest liberal thinkers mentioned this during the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Despite an important difference between the political arguments of Hobbes and Locke, both of their work imagined life in the early stages when no government existed – they described this as the ‘natural state’. A striking description of the nature of this life was given by Hobbes. Although there would be no formal obstacles to individual freedom in the natural state, day-to-day life would be very uncertain without a body to keep order, and there would always be conflict. In the words of Hobbes, such a life would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.' The picture painted by Locke of life in the natural state was much less dark. Nevertheless, he stated that there would be permanent uncertainty and without any higher authority, it would be impossible to resolve any disagreement between individuals. Due to this insecurity, Hobbes and Locke agreed that reasonable individuals would want a social covenant that would lead to establishing a state to keep order. Everyone would accept that they would have to give up a little freedom to create a political and legal regime, which would be able to safeguard their rights and property.
Hobbes and Locke are not the only liberals who mentioned the social covenant. There is a similar theme in the work of Immanuel Kant during the 18th century and more recently in the work of John Rawls during the last decades of the 20th century. The social covenant covers two points central to the way in which liberals of every kind have interpreted the nature of the state.
First, this idea suggests that individuals have created the state for themselves and that its purpose is to safeguard their welfare and needs. The state is therefore an agreement between members of society. As a result, liberals believe that the authority of the state arises from the people – from the bottom up. Liberals therefore believe that individuals do not have to obey the state laws absolutely every time. As Locke stated, as the state has been established through people’s agreement, those people can protest and refuse to comply. They can do this if they feel that the state has gone too far and is taking too much of their basic rights and freedom.
Secondly, in emphasising that the state is a legal agreement among the people, a social covenant is considered an entity fair to all. Liberals have consequently refused the Marxist argument, namely that the state operates for the benefit of some advantaged classes within society. Liberals rather consider the state to be an entity for maintaining order and ensuring that all within society behave within the law and treat each other fairly. Simply, the state is as a referee in a game of football.
While liberals accept that a state is a necessity, they also know that modern states are very powerful. Liberals therefore want to ensure that the power of the state is not abused in order to interfere too much with individual freedom. Liberals therefore argue for having political and legal arrangements that will lessen the power of the state – this is the idea of composition.
A composition is a collection of rules noting duties and power of different institutions which are part of the state. One important factor in a liberal composition is that a country’s composition clearly states how laws lessen the power of state. This means having a written composition that clearly notes the role of state, but also notes where the state should not have power. The first example of a composition was the Composition of the United States of America (USA) written in 1787. Following that, many written compositions were established in liberal-democratic states.
Only Israel, New Zealand and the United Kingdom are now without written composition. Written compositions usually state where the state should not intervene, through several basic rights. For example, the Bill of Rights in America, namely the first ten clauses of that state’s composition.
A liberal composition not only limits the state but wishes to ensure that different bodies share political power. The Frenchman from the 18th century, Montesquieu, argues for ‘sharing power'. He believed there should be clear divisions between the operational, legislative and judicial functions within any regime. This would make sure that political power is kept from the hands of an individual or small group of people. Once again, the United States of America are a good example of Montesquieu’s argument, with a definite division between President, Congress and High Court. Another way of sharing political power in liberal-democratic states is through devolution or federal arrangements. Power is shared between different layers of government representing areas within the state, with every layer of government responsible for designated fields.
Liberalism and democracy
Democracy simply means ‘control by the people’. By now the principle that ordinary people should be able to shape the political regime impacting their day-to-day lives is accepted by every political party, including the liberals.
But during the first half of the 18th century, many liberals questioned the new democratic ideas that were gaining popularity. Some of the period’s liberal thinkers, such as the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, were concerned that these ideas could impact upon individual freedom. As democracy follows the opinion of the majority, in times of conflict the democratic way of dealing with the problem is asking for the majority’s opinion and then following that path. But perhaps the majority would not choose to follow the liberal path every time. As a result, de Tocqueville worried about the risk that the majority could go against individual freedom and minority group rights.
By the late 19th century and early 20th century, liberals were of a much more positive viewpoint with regards to democracy. To begin with, several liberals had started to connect democracy to the idea of a social covenant of early liberals like John Locke. Also, modern liberals connected democracy to the arguments of J.S. Mill, namely that it is a good thing for people to have an opportunity to publicly discuss the political direction of society.
However, as liberals became much more positive towards democracy, it is important to understand that it was a liberal democracy that they supported. Democratic-liberal systems are ones that merge ‘control by the people’ with the liberal idea of limiting government. Such a system would:
- 1. hold regular elections and give the right to vote to each individual.
- 2. place formal restrictions upon government, usually through written composition, and ensure that basic individual freedom is safeguarded by legal rights.
Democratic-liberal systems can generally be described as ones where most day-to-day matters can be discussed openly, and a decision made based on a simple majority. But there are also some things so important to some individuals’ welfare that they should not be interfered with, even if the majority so wishes. For example, in a democratic-liberal system, even if the majority wanted to have one official religion across the state, the law would warrant freedom for every individual to worship as they wished, therefore the state would not be able to grant the majority’s wish.
Although liberals emphasise the freedom of everyone, they accept that no peaceful, tolerant society with equality for all would be possible with absolute freedom. Without any political or legal regime for keeping order, individuals could use their freedom to abuse or gain advantage over others. This would cause a situation where each member of society would be able to threaten others or be threatened by others. It is therefore apparent that all our freedom depends on ensuring that individuals will not threaten each other. For this reason, liberals accept that a state needs to be created for everyone to have a fair chance.