Michael Howard has set out his vision of a "British dream" that would allow people to succeed on the basis of their own talents and efforts.
Michael Howard hails the importance of marriage
Citing his family's humble beginnings in this country as immigrants, the Tory leader insisted that "only when the state is small will people be big".
In a speech to the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange, Mr Howard attacked high taxes and regulation.
"Low taxes give people the opportunity to make their own decisions," he said.
"Why do Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians think that spending taxpayers' money is the solution to every problem?"
Morality of low taxes?
He added: "When taxes rise too high, they start to bring people low.
"There is a moral reason for government to take less from people in taxation. If people are highly taxed, they come to believe that their obligations to society and to one another are discharged just by handing money over to the government."
Mr Howard argued the effect of high taxes was "corrosive".
The Conservative leader talked of how his parents had "started with nothing" in Llanelli and ran their own clothes shop.
Many of the themes he touched were key Tory issues: red tape, the role of the state, low taxation.
Mr Howard also espoused family values - but he acknowledged in contemporary society, families did not always conform to the "traditional pattern".
"I continue to believe that the conventional marriage and family is the best environment within which to bring up children," he said.
"But many couples now choose not to marry. And more and more same sex couples want to take on the shared responsibilities of a committed relationship."
He criticised the NHS as "too impersonal, too inflexible, too centralised, too bureaucratic".
"For all the chippings at the edges of monopoly, the state still controls healthcare in Britain - our vision is that control should pass to patients."
Mr Howard acknowledged that reform of the public services would be tough but Conservative principles would be the "compass".
The Tory leader then went on to argue that everyone in the UK should have the same opportunities.
"Discrimination against people because of their origins, their colour, their beliefs or their sexuality must become a thing of the past."
Mr Howard also spoke of his admiration for the US and the American dream although he said the idea that someone born in a log cabin could make it to the White House was "the exception, not the rule".
"In Britain it actually does happen. There are countless examples of people from humble beginnings who make it to the top: who live the British Dream."