At the time the French conceived a desire for political liberty, they were imbued with a number of notions on the subject of government which were not only difficult to reconcile with liberty, but were almost hostile to it.
In their ideal society there was no aristocracy but that of public functionaries, no authority but the government, sole and all-powerful, director of the state, tutor of individuals. They did not wish to depart from this system in the search for liberty; they tried to conciliate the two.
From Alexis de Tocqueville in The Ancien Regime
The French revolutionaries sought liberty, but gave up control of almost everything to the state. A few democratic controls came – and then passed away – but what really replaced the dictatorship of the monarchy was the dictatorship of the state functionary – not true democracy as an Athenian would understand it. What liberty existed was made private, what power existed was lost to central control.
The same could also be said today of our search for justice. Are we trying to live together in a fair society where each of us shares in the responsibility of ensuring the welfare of all? Or, are we really handing complete responsibility for the achievement of social justice to the state?
Even if it were possible for the state to fulfil its responsibilities properly – and the current governance of the UK provides strong evidence that it cannot be so trusted – is state control of welfare actually reconcilable with the nature of justice?
Justice should include liberty. Our right to live a life that makes sense and is rooted in our own desires, gifts and capacities requires the exercise of personal freedom. The state cannot live our life for us. Nor can it successfully bring up our children, take care of our family, plan for our future or ensure we have good homes. It is not redundant, we need the state, and we need the welfare state. But its competence is limited. There is much that only we can do; and we must be free and enabled to do what is proper responsibility.