Liberalism Confronts the Welfare State

  • Juliet A. Williams


Since the mid-twentieth century, Anglo-American liberal political philosophy has been dominated by controversy over the question how much government is too much. Spurred by the growth of the welfare state apparatus in the Anglo-American world, liberal political theorists have been entangled in fierce debates over where to draw the line between public power and private rights. Liberal thinkers have always been centrally concerned with delimiting the appropriate scope and reach of legislative power, but in recent decades liberalism’s longstanding philosophical inquiry has assumed a degree of political urgency as the regulatory and redistributive capacities of the federal government in the United States in particular have expanded in historically unprecedented ways, propelled by forces ranging from the social to the technological.1 Responding to the emergence of the modern welfare state, some liberal thinkers have advocated for a position its proponents describe as a return to “classical liberalism,” so-called because of the emphasis placed on protecting individual property rights through the imposition of strict limits on the ability of the government to implement redistributionist public policies. For thinkers in this camp—commonly referred to as libertarians2—it is agreed that a liberal government should adopt a laissez-faire posture toward the regulation of the economy and other aspects of social and personal life, limiting interventions to a few circumscribed tasks, generally those having to do with maintaining law-and-order and protecting national security.


Welfare State Institutional Reform Political Theorist Limited Government Liberal Society 
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© Juliet A. Williams 2005

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  • Juliet A. Williams

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