One rather drastic and very important change that modern liberalism has made in the ideology that was called "liberalism" in the nineteenth century is well known and often commented on. The liberal economists, moralists and philosophers of the nineteenth century tended toward a doctrine of laissez-faire* that set strict boundaries to the field of government.
The older liberalism believed, thus, in a limited state. In particular, the positive or "substantive" tasks assigned to government were very few: besides defense against foreign agression and domestic violence, perhaps the provision of a small number of essential public services. For the rest, the government duties as defined by the older liberalism were largely negative: to prevent the kind of fraud, coercion or monopoly practices that blocked the exercise of civil liberties and the processes of the free market. Even with respect to civil rights and liberties, the function of government was thought of as negative: not to bring about or compel the substantive enjoyment of the liberties, much less to create them, but merely to prevent coercive interference with their enjoyment by citizens who might choose to exercise them.
Modern liberalism has shifted to a belief in one or another degree of what may properly be called in a general sense, statism. It has an always critical and sometimes wholly negative attitude toward private economic enterprise.
[...] Liberals accept and advocate a multiplication of the substantive activities of government in nearly all social dimensions, extensive government controls over the economy, and at least some measure of government ownership and operation. Modern liberalism insists that the entry of government into nearly every phase of social life except religion aids rather than hinders the attainment of the good life and the good society.
It is evident that in thus changing, in fact very nearly reversing, the inherited doctrine of the relation between state and society, modern liberalism has absorbed an important segment of the ideology of socialism. Liberalism does not, it is true, share the total demand of orthodox marxian socialism: for nationalization of all major means of production, transport and distribution; and we have noted that the non-communist socialists parties in most Western nations have also dropped this extreme position during the course of the past decade or so. The ideological movement has gone both ways: just as liberalism shifted toward socialism in its doctrine of the state and its economics, so has the reformist or democratic wing of traditional socialism shifted toward liberalism. The two have come close to meeting in the concept of what has come to be called "the Welfare State"; and there they meet up also with still other currents from radicalism, Christian socialism and even "modern", as it is sometimes designated, conservatism.
Undoubtely liberals differ a good deal among themselves in the degree of their statism. Some incline more toward Marx, some toward John Maynard Keynes, and there are still perhaps a few who have an occasional hankering after John Stuart Mill. But all modern liberals agree that government has a positive duty to make sure that the citizens have jobs, food, clothing, housing, education, medical care, security against sickness, unemployment and old age; and that these should be ever more abundantly provided. In fact, a government's duty in these respects, if sufficient resources are at its disposition, is not only to its own citizens but to all humanity. Contemporary American liberals are probably unanimous, for example, in accepting an obligation—to be implemented at least in part through government—to help feed and succor the hungry of the underdeveloped regions, and to aid them in improving their material condition.
The leap from the concept of the limited state to that of the Welfare State is a wide one. In affective terms, it means a reversal of emotive priorities, with the impulse toward social reform, always present in liberalism but formerly in second rank, taking precedence over the libertarian impulse. Logically, the leap has not been achieved without a good deal of doctrinal acrobatics, even, perhaps, some signs of a strained backbone. The gap has been bridged, if precariously, with the help of the theory and practice of political democracy.
If we consider the problem historically, we will recall that for the eighteenth- and the nineteenth-century liberal ancestors, "the state" meant a non-democratic regime in which such conservative and reactionary forces (according to their listing in the liberal lexicon) as landlords, a hereditary aristocracy, a hereditary monarch, the army and the church had weight much beyond their numerical proportion. This was true of the regime as a whole, and to a large extent even of the parliaments within the regime, which were elected on a limited, manipulated franchise, and wielded in any case only portions of the power. Such a "state" was obviously not a very promising instrument for bringing about the liberties, reforms and general prosperity which the pre-liberals sought; in fact, the active intervention of government coud be expected to push, much of the time, in the opposite direction.
With the gradual extension of the franchise toward universality and the transfer of sovereignty more and more fully into the hands of elective assemblies and officials, the state could be thought of as changing its character from Bad to Good or at least promising Angel. The "state" came to seem to express more and more, at least more than other institutions, the popular or general will. It was no longer outlandish for liberals to expect their democratic state to do liberalism's work.
* En français dans le texte
James Burnham, Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism (1964), chap. V, « Equality and Welfare », pp. 89-95.