Those who advocated or looked favourably upon the extension of state action and regulation were answered by others who, despite the variety of their views, were united in their opposition to the increasing presence of the state in the lives of its citizens. Their variety was such that they were in no historical sense a group. Even so they were frequently related in the problems which they perceived, the solutions they proposed, the sources on which they drew, and the personal and political alliances in which they engaged. These critics of the state believed themselves to be arguing against the drift of things, and this had common implications for the kinds of grounds on which they built their case. They could not rely on the tide-swimming arguments of Fabian positivism, nor on the exhortations to rationalize existing practices and beliefs employed by liberals such as Hobson. Their appeal had to be to principles of human character or society, or to moral or aesthetic values.
Earlier in the century the argument for laissez faire, though never wholly dominant or unqualified by the practices of the state, had enjoyed a broad acceptance. Even those such as T.H. Huxley, who attacked what they saw as an anarchic total laissez faire, sought a balance between security and initiative in a limited state. Some form of libertarianism was taken as the commonsense starting point for much political argument as well as being articulated and defended by writers as varied as Mill, Bentham, Cobden and Smiles. But by the last two decades of the century a change had taken place. The arguments against state action became more urgent and in doing so were frequently made more rigorous and uncompromising.