The Public Interest

Opinion in the Liberal State

James Piereson

Summer 1982

THE liberal state may be defined as that complex of institutions which permits what is private to control and to define what is public. It places the society in charge of the state, and thereby prevents the state from developing an interest of its own. It narrows the scope of politics because its ethos says that the state is at best a necessary evil and that it should not act except for the most powerful reasons. It defends the individual against the collective, thereby creating rights against the state. It is sometimes called the “negative” state because its function is not to accomplish good but to prevent evil. It is widely vilified in our time, as we know, because one of the “evils” it prevents is a thoroughgoing redistribution of wealth through the agency of the state. It was to prevent this, many say, that the liberal state was organized in the first place.

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