In today’s times with increasing importance granted to the interventionist measures of the states, the study of the origins and role of the state becomes necessary in order to facilitate the understanding of the reasons and of the consequences of such measures through the opinions of some of the most important philosophers and economists about the formation and the role of the state in the life of individuals.
Political thought has been defined as 'thought about the state, its structure, its nature, and its purpose'. Several political thinkers and schools of thought have developed ideas about the nature and purpose of the state according to different points of view. When new ideas appeared, old ideas were criticized or modified. In the realm of political philosophy, it is not necessary that old ideas be dead before the new ideas become acceptable. Unlike the principles of natural sciences, the old and new principles of political theory exist simultaneously, claiming their rightful place.
The liberal state focuses on individual rights and freedom. It also argues for a neutral and minimal state. It replaces the divine right theory* of the state and argues that a legitimate rule must be based on the consent of the people.
States work for the common good of the society and its major activity is understood as to be maintaining law and order and ensuring that everyone is treated with equality without any discrimination. In other words, a liberal state regards individuals as moral and rational agents. State’s role is seen as providing them with the conducive conditions for growth and prosperity.
Its origin and growth can be traced back to the political struggles that took place in England and France with the rise and growth of capitalism which had led to a free market economy. These struggles focused on individual dignity, self-respect, private property and, power and status particularly of the emerging middle class of the society.
With the coming of the liberal state, there were some significant changes occurring in the political organisation of the society like representative and constitutional forms of government, rule of law, and governments based on the consent of the ruled. It stressed on a new discourse on rights, to uphold the natural and basic human-like rights - to life, property, freedom, justice and so on. For example, Adam Smith, a liberal thinker, emphasized on the individual urge to maximise economic interest or to achieve material gains and thereby improve their living standards or fortunes.
Smith argued that if a state provides the condition of freedom to individuals to make material and moral decisions concerning his/her life, the resulting society would be a free and prosperous society. He talks about a free market economy and less interference by the state. He said that the role of the state should be like an ‘invisible hand’. For liberals in general, commerce and trade would create a good and welfare-oriented government.
For liberals, the role of the state is to carry out a legal framework under which the market can function well. And, it should also maximise the opportunity and prosperity of everyone. State should thus focus more on adjudicative and legal roles. Liberals also argue that citizens have the right to overthrow a government if it does not fulfil the desired roles and functions such as creating conditions for human happiness and well-being. .