What is a modern liberal state anyway? From the modern international political history, one can easily glean that there are three minimum, or let’s call them mandatory, responsibilities of an entity to be qualified as a state. They are
1- providing security from outside
2- maintaining law and order inside through policing and dispensing justice
3- and protect the fundamental rights of its citizenry without any prejudices, gender,racial, religious or any other.
Then there are added responsibilities like providing education and health, encouraging business activities and building infrastructure etc. When we talk about what is a modern liberal state, the discussion soon boils down to what a state cannot do instead of what a state can do. In other words, it is more of a discussion of what are state’s limits and not what are state’s responsibilities.
Just as a digression, let me spare a thought about the responsibilities of a state before talking about it’s limits. Nowhere in political science discourse one finds that the state is responsible for patronizing sports and sportsmen, helping out a dwindling film industry, educating people about religion or adjusting general attitudes of its citizenry. State can voluntarily, for the common good of the society, can, at times, get down to such businesses but it cannot be condemned if it doesn’t. These things are not among the responsibilities of a modern liberal state.
The central idea of a modern liberal state is liberalism which in turn has individual liberties as its own central idea. In essence the state has to first and foremost recognize and respect individual liberties when taking administrative or legislative actions. It must also respect the state-society boundaries and never infringe upon it. It cannot dictate the activities of a peaceful, law-abiding group of people. When it comes to individual liberties, state cannot be given any space there. For example, people often argue that if someone is not involved in any wrongdoing, that particular someone shouldn’t object to state’s tapping their phone and listening to their conversations. The argument is flawed because it’s not about someone being involved in wrongdoing or not; it’s about the principles of individual liberties. State, by its nature, is a necessary evil and the history tells us that if you give an inch of your liberties to the state voluntarily, it will occupy a yard against your will. State must have a demonstrable probable cause to look into your personal life.
Critics of the modern liberal state depicts it as somewhat of a hippie state, where pre-marital sex and adultery is rampant, where every other household is having regular dance parties with booze flowing etc. While this depiction is unfairly exaggerated, it is both wrong and right. Wrong in a sense that the modern liberal state doesn’t promote such activities but right in the sense that state has no say in what you do legally inside the confines of your house. At the same time, if you have a peaceful gathering in a legal space to mourn and protest the hanging of a convicted killer, once again, state has no business telling you not to do that. Regulation of individual and societal attitudes and behaviors is outside the sphere of influence of a modern liberal state. In the same vein, a modern liberal state cannot tell you how many dishes can you serve at a wedding reception (please take note Mian sahib). Individual liberties cannot be compromised. If you surrender the individual liberties to make some people behave in a certain way, you have put the state in the driving seat in your personal life which, more than often, leads to state taking your liberties for granted. With apologies to Mr. Aitezaz Ahsan, state behaving like a mother is a good slogan for political rallies but such state is called a “nanny-state” which is against the idea of a modern liberal state.