Political Arguments

An entirely different outlook sees the state's role as being the (radical) re-distributor of wealth amongst its subjects. For an effective redistribution to be achieved, high taxes are a clear necessity. They must be progressively staggered so as to achieve a more equal outcome. Thus, the view is socialist in its essence. Where a liberal would seek the provision of equal opportunity, an equal outcome, effectively regardless of the means required to provide it, is the primary concern of a socialist. For wealth to be radically redistributed it is necessary for industry to be nationalised – this will ensure equality and prevent exploitation.

The view's roots have obvious connotations with Marx's insistence that we secure the workers the full fruits of their industry and the equitable distribution thereof, but more modern champions of the vision have also offered their own views on the subject. Acknowledging that Public ownership and government attempts to induce private investment in depressed areas have failed4, Benn prescribed a further extension of state ownership, increased industrial democracy, and greater public accountability of nationalised industries.

4 The view is subscribed to by groups with socialism at their cores. Marxists, Democratic Socialists and Social Democrats are examples, each with their own widely publicised views (of varying extremity) on how equality will be achieved. The state as a radical redistributor of wealth, just like most views on state role, appears theoretically sound. However, the spectacular failure of collectivisation in Soviet states has shown that, in the Marxist interpretation at least, radical redistribution has experienced huge difficulties in operating practically.

Furthermore, that leftist parties around Europe; notably the British Labour party, have been forced to the centre in order to survive, has seen a far smaller sense of responsibility for redistribution displayed in recent years. This would suggest that incomes are generally high enough, or at least not so small at the lower end of the scale so as to provide justification for a particularly popular support of a radical redistribution of wealth. A large number of thinkers and groups subscribe to the idea of the state as an arbiter. Although this general concept covers a large number of specific views, I will look at two.

First, that of the state as a Nightwatchman. Rooted in the 17th Century social contract theories of Hobbes and Locke, the view owes more to Locke in its optimistic assertion that human nature only requires a minimal state. It has only three basic tasks to undertake – the minimal state of law and order: a police force; a courts system to uphold voluntary contracts, and an army to protect its citizens from outside forces. Therefore, the state is not bound to provide any welfare, social security or indeed interfere in any way in its citizens' personal lives.

The economic aspects of the Nightwatchman view clearly owe much to Adam Smith – It is in the best interests of everyone to allow people the freedom to make their own choices5. However, laissez faire economics has already been seen to have potentially dangerous flaws. The view is ultimately classic liberal in its utilitarian vision of state intervention. This view was incredibly influential throughout the late 1970s and the 1980s, seen in the neo-liberalism of Thatcher and Reagan. Britain and the U. S.

were ruled almost as a direct reaction to the nanny states of previous years. The appeal of the Nightwatchman view is obvious, and is not blighted by any particularly glaring disasters in its practical examples. However, Thatcherism has its staunch critics, most of whom base their dislike for her view of state role on the shortcomings felt by the working class, and those on low incomes, during her tenure. The lack of any welfare provision is an obvious flaw to the view: history has shown that the poorer end of society simply cannot be ignored in this way.

Thus, with the state still as an arbiter, an alteration to the Nightwatchman view, and one I firmly believe is the most effective role the state could take, is that of the state as a welfare provider. Although still reasonably hands-off in its opinion on state intervention, it is accepted that certain social groups unavoidably require the help of more advantaged groups. This change to liberal thinking can be traced back to the 19th Century, when widespread poverty forced re-thinks of ideology.

Hobhouse defended the alteration, arguing that modern liberals could justify the extension of public control on humane grounds6. By providing welfare, the state is effectively making opportunities more equal. Having observed the damaging long-term consequences of the Nightwatchman role, One Nation Conservatives also agree. Wanting to unite their nation rather than divide it, they agree that the wealthy must help the poor; through welfare provision the natural hierarchy of society that they firmly believe in can come into effect.

Thus, whilst providing society with the undeniable benefits of the Nightwatchman view, such as greater individual freedoms and less unwanted and unnecessary state intervention in our personal lives, by taking the role of welfare provider, the state is also able to address the fundamental problem of the Nightwatchman view – that is; the inequality shown in 1980s Britain under Margaret Thatcher. The free market, as Smith asserted, provides us with more choice and freedom. However, in altering it so as not to put less fortunate citizens in danger, the whole of society can enjoy the benefits of the state as a welfare provider.

Observing western democracies at the start of the 21st Century, it appears that this view is one currently popular with mass electorates. More extreme administrations appear to have subsided, at least for the time being; their views on state role usually discredited as they fell. It is of course difficult not to assess the most popular current view on state role as the 'best'; if an alternative was seen to be 'better', it would presuamably be enforced. It is also important to bear in mind that the world's political climate is never static.

Especially in internationally hostile times such as these, it is not inconceivable that very different outlooks could become dominant very quickly, changing our views on state role just as rapidly. A 'world electorate' of growing incomes could become swiftly disgruntled with state welfarism if economic downturn saw their wealth crippled. Of course, as history has shown, it is precisely this type of event that has necessitated and ensured the transition of state into different roles than before, and will continue to see such transition into the future.