I'll bite the bullet and assert that states have a legitimate authority in shaping the nature of national, religious and cultural identity if the democratic polity so decides; obviously, the decisionmaking process should exercise caution, and the measures taken minimally intrusive where possible, but I think the legitimacy of any resulting relevant legislation here should not be considered invalid on the sole grounds of individual liberty.
To sketch the argument in principle, and I should emphasize that I do not wish to draw any far-fetched analogies here - modern states are complicated institutions that implicitly require that cultural expression fall within certain bounds; capitalism requires a carefully inculcated alienation and submission to private authority, secularism requires a maintained dissonance over how certain your religious convictions really are, welfare requires an moral identification with your poorer brethren, etc. It wasn't so terribly long ago that one's inherited career was a fundamental part of one's identity and self-conception but obviously modern economies would have a great deal of trouble working with this.
I don't think that the examples you use actually have any traction. After all, it is allowed in our society that one might reject the capitalist paradigm and move to a commune, and, further, that is exactly the sort of freedom the liberal writers cherish. It may be the case that were we not to have certain compassion, then we could not sustain a welfare program, but, fortunately, we do have such compassion, and as such we are willing to sustain a welfare program: as such a welfare program is consistent with our autonomous choice. Furthermore, far from family careers being dead and gone, many people do in fact take pride in their careers, and especially in careers that are familial, but this is perfectly consistent with liberalism and personal autonomy. What would be inconsistent with liberalism would be enforcing a caste system wherein labor options are closed off by birth: however, simply allowing people to make their family traditions, including the career, a central part of their lives is most certainly allowable. It is, again, exactly the sort of diversity in modes of life that liberal writers cherish.
There are a number of rationales for why we should have this sort of personal autonomy, and why your expansive view of state power must be wrong. The first, and perhaps most practical, is that people never actually agree on what the good life is, let alone which religion is correct. So if we want to live together in peace and never repeat the bloodbaths of the wars of religion, then we've got to figure out how to live and let live as much as possible. Second, and still rather practical, whatever the good life is, we do not really trust the state to figure it out--this is especially true if the good life varies from person to person. The best way of living possible is better left to the discovery of a marketplace of ideas where radically different conceptions are allowed to freely compete and prove themselves. Finally, perhaps a bit more abstractly, autonomy itself is valuable. Living the very best human life involves making free choices among competing conceptions of the good.
I think that, in fact, all
of these arguments are good. So there is a superabundance of reasons to be a liberal political theorist, and as such, there is a superabundance of reasons to take the state to be limited in its legitimate intrusions into the individual's pursuit of happiness.
To pick an easy example - consider India. It is a deeply embedded cultural practice for families to favor sons; in a background where sons no longer die rapidly to conflict and disease, this is a problem. Infanticide is easy to ban but ultrasounds and sex-selective abortions are harder technologies to seal away. Obviously this doesn't weigh in favor of any imaginable intrusive intervention, but if the democratic government of an Indian state decided to punish sex-selective abortions, subsidize having daughters, or bombard new couples with progressive propaganda, I daresay it has every legitimate authority in doing so. We have some knowledge of what the institutions of a modern liberal state should look like. Why wait?
As far as I see, there are two ways to go for the liberal theorist.
1) The sex imbalance literally threatens the continued ability of the state to provide for the needs of its citizens. If this is so, then certain liberal values may have to give. John Stuart Mill and Rousseau, for instance, both think that there are certain populations which are simply not governable by liberal social systems--they are too conflict-torn, barbaric, intolerant, and ignorant to benefit from a liberal political framework. It may be that the population of India is one such population. That would be the case if the cultural value on having boys were such that it would literally destroy their society were it allowed to go on uninterfered with.
2) Sex-selective abortions should be legal. This, I have to say, strikes me as more plausible.
On the first point - yes, it is acceptable in the liberal developed world to reject the capitalist paradigm; my sense that this acceptability arises from the fact that doing so is resolutely fringe and likely to remain so. But being that our material welfare is dependent on people being amenable toward the capitalist mode of economic production, were this to threaten to become widespread, states that fail to reinforce an inculcated acquiescence would fare much worse than states that do, and I have no doubt that a post hoc popular outlook would condemn the former.
We associate recessions and depressions with great suffering but even very damaging recessions can entail only a few percentage points of national income lost. Normal unemployment is somewhere around 4%, 8% is a political crisis, 12% would be a national emergency - we are, as a society, materially sensitive to failures of modern institutions to deliver. In practice such failures are rare, of course, but this would be because
liberal states have become extremely effective at acculturating their people into accepting the restrictions necessary for this to be the case. The social acceptance of the phenomenon of industrial unemployment and job search is hardly a natural instinct. Neither is alienation of labor. Nor mass compulsory education, at that. We do, in fact, close off some options at birth: you are not allowed to abandon formal education at the age of ten to apprentice yourself to your family career, even if you and your family are unanimous in this desire.
The traditional liberal arguments for compulsory education, actually, are that it increases personal autonomy. An illiterate person, for instance, is extremely limited in their life choices. That is not to say that compulsory education does not close off some options. But the doors it closes must be balanced against the doors it opens, and the doors it opens seem more important to individual self-determination than vice versa. But that is not to say that things can never go in the other direction. You say that we never allow children to drop out of school, regardless of their family or life plans, but since Wisconsin v. Yoder
the Amish have a constitutionally protected right to withdraw their children from school after the 8th grade.
Compulsory education represents a certain sort of balancing: balancing the closing off of certain options against the closing off of others, and trying in the end to leave open the most numerous and most important of them. But there is also balancing across people. Liberal political philosophers typically advocate for the most possible individual autonomy so long as it is consistent with similar autonomy for others.
The autonomy of others present boundaries to the sorts of freedoms consistent with a liberal society. For instance, it is simply not possible for a liberal society to allow a religious order which seeks to punish apostasy with death. There is one sort of autonomy which liberalism does not recognize, and that is the autonomy to coerce and terrorize others.
This restriction explains the cases you raise of segregated neighborhoods and the right to work. The liberty to segregate your neighborhood is inconsistent both with the liberty of others to free movement and the liberty of your neighbors to sell their property to whomever they see fit. The right to hold a particular job is inconsistent with the liberty of the employer. This sort of balancing is often difficult to do at the margins of liberal political theory, and you are right that the boundaries often evolve alongside social attitudes. But that fact does not implicate the liberal political theorist in any form of hypocrisy or self-contradiction: they are thoroughly consistent in their desire to promote individual freedom insofar as is compatible with a scheme that grants equal such freedom to others.
We willingly romanticize the inherited career but when labor demands that economic change halt so that an important element of their personal identity may continue to support their lifestyle - itself likely an element of their personal identity - society collectively shrugs and suggests a job search while on the dole; we may identify with our careers but by societal judgment we are not owed it. Our career is not, in fact, ours. Mass acceptance that one is entitled to an unemployment check but not employment is an engineered result of decades of bitter political strife, not self-evident natural law. We celebrate the historically ethnic neighborhood but when residents demand the right to manage who their new neighbors may acceptably be, we deny them that right, and instead demand that they accept that their neighborhood identity may be irrevocably altered through demographic shift and there is nothing there that is owed to them.
Inculcating the acceptance of all this - that these are things that you may consider yours or your individual perogative or responsibility, and those are not, regardless of their impact on your lifestyle or identity - is very much an artificial practice and the scope of said things has changed before and will probably change again. Don't make the mistake of internalizing this inculcation to the point where you mistake for the state of nature!
On the second - society does not need to be literally destroyed for there to be perceptibly undesirable changes, surely! Societies can tolerate a great deal of suffering before being plausibly said to be destroyed. And states can certainly continue to provide for their citizens despite said suffering simply by diminishing to a minimum level of provision. But if you would tolerate this over submitting to state-led cultural engineering, I daresay your requirement for giving up classical liberalism is too strict. Liberals make good citizens of a classically liberal state, but people are not generally born classically liberal; sometimes you will have to force the issue.
(My own tolerance for such illiberal paternalism is, I admit, probably higher than yours. I do think yours is implausibly low compared to what might be considered reasonable, though. We're both making ambitious extrapolations from some underlying instincts here, albeit in opposite directions)
Liberals typically agree that the state has business in regulating behaviors which cause direct harm to others. So there is no danger that we are going to let looters run wild because that is their autonomous choice. So, if the suffering that you are describing takes the form of harm to others, then there is no problem here.
But, however, if the 'undesirable changes' you describe the state to be undergoing do not
consist in direct harm to others, then no, the state has no business intervening. The ruling coalition may find an increase in homosexuality undesirable; they do not thereby obtain the right to raid gay bars. The ruling coalition may find the spread of a minority religion undesirable; they do not thereby obtain the right to persecute it. The ruling coalition may feel more affinity for business than for labor; they do not thereby obtain the right to assassinate union organizers. Topically, the ruling coalition may find a certain religious mode of dress distasteful, but they do not thereby have the right to levy fines against it.
That you would entrust to the state such broad powers is fairly shocking. I cannot think of a single American president in my lifetime to whom I would entrust the authority to deem harmless activities undesirable and deploy coercive force accordingly. Nor can I think of a time wherein too much liberal tolerance
lead to mass suffering and atrocities, but I can certainly think of times where too little liberal tolerance
did. Even if
our paternalists are well-intentioned, which they rarely are, we still cannot trust them to get it right. Alan Turing was given court-ordered hormone therapy for his own good. Whoever wants to live in such a state? Whoever thinks that is the very best form of state?