What is 'Limited Government'?
Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 7:39AM
John W. Simmons

By: John W. Simmons

As Congress debates yet another bill that is several thousand pages long, and which no member of Congress will read thoroughly, I feel the need to examine the purpose of government, and its scope.  In this environment of ever-expanding government, many Americans are calling for more limited government.  This is nothing new. The call for “limited government” has echoed through American political discourse throughout our history.  I add my own voice to that chorus, but these days I’m finding that “limited government” is a term with so many different meanings that it has become nearly useless.  It surely means “NOT the status quo,” but what is the principle we can strive toward?  Are advocates of limited government simply trying to “put on the brakes?”  No!  Are they trying to eviscerate the law, to approach anarchy?  Certainly not!  Yet the range of views on what “limited government” may mean is broad enough to encompass both of these opposites. 

That broad range exposes a fundamental issue: there is a lack of philosophical unity, even on the political right, about what the most basic purpose of government is.  I suggest that we turn to one of America’s favorite literary and philosophical figures, Walt Whitman, for the principle we ought to follow.  The following is from an editorial he wrote for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, from July 26, 1847.

In plain truth, ‘the people expect too much of the government.’  Under a proper organization, (and even to a great extent as things are,) the wealth and happiness of the citizens could hardly be touched by the government—could neither be retarded nor advanced.  Men must be ‘masters unto themselves,’ and not look to Presidents and legislative bodies for aid.  In this wide and naturally rich country, the best government indeed is ‘that which governs least.’

….While mere politicians, in their narrow minds, are sweating and fuming with their complicated statutes, this one single rule, rationally construed and applied, is enough to form the starting point of all that is necessary in government: to make no more laws than those useful for preventing a man or body of men from infringing on the rights of other men. [Italics in original] [1] 

Whitman has outlined the basic principle for us: governments are established not for happiness or wealth, but to protect rights.  Government is not equipped for anything else, or so we claim.  But those on the left will point to the millions of Americans whose livelihood has been salvaged from calamity by government; whose lives are sheltered from the ravages of poverty by Uncle Sam’s purse.  And there we have the crux of the matter:  “limited government,” as Walt Whitman has described it to us, sounds right, but what about all of the good that government does apart from simply defending rights.  Are we to simply throw all of that away? 

That line of reasoning is understandable, but it’s wrong.  The principle that Whitman articulated does not throw the poor to the wolves, but it does reflect the reality of what government is and what government can do.  The nature of government is coercive.  Everything that government does is coercive.  When the government makes a law, it must be followed by everybody, or there will be consequences.  The power of the government to rule is in its ability to use force, in varying degrees, to ensure that its policies take effect. 

Government’s coercive power works best when it is employed against something, rather than for it.  You can use a gun to fight off an intruder, but you’ll have a hard time building a house with it.  Governmental power is like that.  It works when it’s used to stop people from doing bad things to each other, like violence or fraud, because government power is designed to coerce people toward a direction that they don’t necessarily want to go. 

On the other hand, when government tries to employ its power to increase somebody’s happiness or wealth, it can only do so by coercing somebody else.  Governments don’t create anything.  If government wants to give anything to anyone, it has to take it from somebody else by force of law.  When government spends money on benefits, that money is taken from other citizens.  When one business is given preferential access to a market, another business necessarily has its opportunity taken away.  Every one of those programs that seem to do good for some carries with it the unseen negative effects forced upon other citizens.

Many economists tell us that free markets do a better job of eradicating poverty and giving people hope than government programs can ever do, but limiting government is not just about prosperity.  The fact is that if government is not limited to defending rights, as Whitman urged, then it has to force one person down for each one it lifts up.  It has to make distinctions between citizens to decide who deserves the favor of government and whose rights will be forced aside to pay for it.  Government has to treat people unequally to try to achieve its ends.  Then, unintended consequences drive it to enact more laws to correct for new injustices, and government naturally grows and becomes more complex with every new bill Congress passes. 

I find it far more palatable morally for government to limit its actions to defending rights, treating each person equally under the law.  Under such a limited government, distinctions between people are not made arbitrarily or enacted with force.  I’m not suggesting that every public social program be canceled, but we need to be clear about the cost of expanding the role of government.  Citizens, unlike government, can create wealth and happiness.  If they’re going to have an opportunity to do it, though, the law has to get out of their way, and somebody’s going to have to protect their rights.  That is what government is for.  Those who think otherwise, as Whitman pointed out, are expecting too much from government.


[1] Issues of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle may be found by date at http://eagle.brooklynpubliclibrary.org.

Article originally appeared on LastingLiberty.com (http://lastingliberty.com/).
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