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Restricting government to its proper functions, defined by law

In political philosophy, limited government is where the government is empowered by law from a starting point of having no power, or where governmental power is restricted by law, usually in a written constitution. It is a key concept in the history of liberalism. The United States Constitution presents an example of the federal government not possessing any power except what is delegated to it by the Constitution — with the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution specifically stating that powers not specifically delegated to the federal government is reserved for the people and the states. The Magna Carta and the United States Constitution also represents important milestones in the limiting of governmental power. The earliest use of the term limited government dates back to King James VI and I in the late 16th century. Limited government put into practice often involves the protection of individual liberty from government intrusion.


Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand, by Edmund A. Opitz, The Freeman, Jun 1976
Explains mercantilism, the rationales for political power, government's proper role, Smith's "invisible hand" metaphor, his concept of "equality, liberty and justice" and how a free society allocates economic goods; from a lecture given 17 Feb 1976
Government always acts with power; in the last resort government uses force to back up its decrees. The government of a society is its police power, and the nature of government remains the same, even when office holders are elected by a vote of the people. And when the police power—government—is limited to keeping the peace of the community by curbing those who disturb the peace—criminals—then there is maximum liberty for peaceful citizens. "The history of liberty," wrote Woodrow Wilson in 1912, "is the history of the limitations placed upon governmental power."
The American Heritage of "Isolationism", by Gregory Bresiger, Freedom Daily, May 2006
Criticizes the use of the word "isolationist" by the media, "internationalists" and other foreign intervention promoters, looking at the heritage of noninterventionism as exemplified by Washington's Farewell Address
[Since the 1950s], the United States accelerated its transformation from a government with at least some of the remaining principles of limited government to one of openly embracing empire abroad and an unlimited welfare state at home ... But an unanswered question is at the heart of any efforts to restore limited government in America. Just what is isolationism or noninterventionism? Is it ... at odds with limited government? Or is it at the heart of limited government, an inescapable component of any government under law or what liberal German philosophers once called the Rechtsstaat?
Ayn Rand on Aristotle, by George H. Smith, 4 Mar 2016
Examines Rand's appreciative view of Aristotle based on his epistemological theories while disregarding his comments on slavery, racism and coercive government laws
In addition, Aristotle's doctrine that the state grows naturally from the family became the major argument of later philosophers who rejected the liberal argument (as found in Locke and many other political individualists) that legitimate governments must be grounded in the consent of the governed. ... Aristotle's political views were the reverse of the theory of limited government defended by liberal individualists.
Related Topics: Aristotle, Epistemology, Ayn Rand
Bad Medicine, by Sheldon Richman, 21 Mar 2003
Discusses the differences between Democrat and Republican policies for government schooling and proposals to add prescription-drug coverage to Medicare
Once people in this country argued over whether government should be big and pushy or small and demure. But those days are gone. Now the argument is over how you like your coercive meddling: direct or indirect ... There are exceptions to this lineup, but roughly it goes like this: the Democrats' program has government providing things to people directly, while the Republicans' program has government subsidizing private companies to provide the same things. This is passes for black and white in the current scene. But as anyone with a moral sense should be able to see, these are colors barely distinguishable from each other.
The Bill of Rights: Unenumerated Rights, by Jacob G. Hornberger, Freedom Daily, Apr 2005
Examines the rationale and history behind the Ninth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, citing both James Madison and Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)
It is important to recognize that not only did the Constitution call the federal government into existence, the type of government it brought into existence was the most unusual in history. Why? Because it was a government of very limited powers—powers that were expressly enumerated within the document itself—and because it was the citizenry who were imposing the limits on their own government officials. To ensure that the federal government did not become a destroyer of people's rights, however, the Framers used the Constitution to expressly limit the powers of the newly formed government.
Bureaucracy and the Civil Service in the United States, by Murray N. Rothbard, The Journal of Libertarian Studies, 1995
Historical examination of the evolution of the United States Civil Service and attempts to reform it, from its beginnings through the early 20th century
The program of at least the dominant libertarian-republican wing of the Founding Fathers consisted of ultra-minimal government: ... separation of government from money, banking, and the economy; allowing neither public debt nor public works; having no standing army but rather relying on popular militia in case of foreign invasion; keeping government revenue and expenditures so low as to be nearly invisible; and generally binding down governmental Power with chains of iron, and watching government like a hawk and with vigilance and deep suspicion, lest it resume its natural tendencies and extend Power beyond its strictest bounds.
Capitalism Saves Us All, by Bernard Chapin, 14 Jun 2004
A review of Thomas J. DiLorenzo's How Capitalism Saved America: The Untold History of Our Country, from the Pilgrims to the Present (2004)
Herbert Hoover, in contrast with his reputation, was in no way a devotee of laissez-faire government ... There were many examples of governmental futility during the administration, such as the Railway Labor Act where he empowered unions over employers ... Hoover believed anti-trade tariffs actually benefited American workers and nowhere was this more the case than with his visible support of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff. He seemed to create "more government" wherever he could as he formed the Bureau of Aeronautics and created a policy distributing licenses to radio broadcasters.
The Case For a Libertarian Political Party, by David Nolan, The Individualist, Aug 1971
A few months before founding the Libertarian Party, Nolan presents his rationale for establishing a new political party, after discussing four other libertarian activist strategies and admitting that "political approaches are inherently coercive"
The second popular argument against a multi-party system—that is produces "chaos"—is, from a libertarian viewpoint, actually an argument in its favor. The prospect of a coalition government, where any of a number of small parties can veto legislation, is far from horrifying to anyone who is inclined toward a limited-government (or no-government) philosophy ... A sixth point in favor of establishing a libertarian party is that by its mere existence, it would put some pressure on the other parties to take a more libertarian stand.
Conscience on the Battlefield, by Leonard E. Read, 1981
Pamphlet written in 1951, during the Korean War, revised edition in 1981; Read recalls the 1918 incident when the troopship he was on was sunk by a German submarine and wonders about his thoughts if he were dying (in 1951) on a Korean battlefield
[Government] is but a name given to an arrangement which consists only of individuals ... Most persons believe some form of government to be necessary as a means of achieving maximum liberty. But unless they succeed in properly limiting government, they will surrender some–or even all–of their personal rights and responsibilities to it. Unless they understand the nature of coercion–its power only to suppress, ... destroy–they will yield to it and lose their ability to act creatively. Government has the necessary and logical function of protecting the property and life of all citizens equally.
The Critical Dilemma Facing Pro-War Libertarians, by Jacob G. Hornberger, 14 Feb 2007
Discusses the contradictions faced by U.S. libertarians and conservatives who endorsed or encouraged imperial and interventionist foreign policies following the attacks of 11 Sep 2001
Everyone is familiar with the standard ... mantra of "free enterprise, private property, and limited government" that conservative organizations have on their stationery, websites, and promotional brochures. But we're also familiar with their support of ... many ... governmental programs that violate [those] principles ... [L]ong ago conservatives threw in the towel with respect to achieving a society based on truly free-market, limited-government principles. For decades, they have committed their lives to big government and to figuring out how to take control of big government.
Crony-in-Chief: Donald Trump epitomizes Ayn Rand's "Aristocracy of Pull", by Steve Simpson, 2 Feb 2017
Examines the issues of "cronyism" or "pull-peddling", suggesting—as Ayn Rand did—that the solution is "to limit government strictly to protecting rights and nothing more"
[W]hy are public parks supposedly in "the public interest"? ... There are no rational answers to any of these questions, because "the public interest" is an inherently irrational standard to guide government action ... [Ayn] Rand's answer is to limit government strictly to protecting rights and nothing more. The principle of rights, for Rand, keeps government connected to the reason we need government in the first place: to protect our ability to live by protecting our freedom to think and produce, cooperate and trade with others, and pursue our own happiness.
The Delusion of Limited Government, by Butler Shaffer, 14 May 2002
Comments on watching the Cato Institute's 25th anniversary dinner in which speakers held up booklets with the U.S. Constitution while complaining that the document had "not restrained the power of the state"
Given that a government, by definition, enjoys a monopoly on the use of force within a particular territory ... what reasoning or ... experience would lead one to the conclusion that people would be disinclined to use the power of the state to advance their interests? ... The "limited government" advocates respond to such questions by invoking the power of words as a restriction on state power ... The arrangement sounds so rational, but fails to take into account one of the fundamental shortcomings in all language: words are abstractions of reality and, in order to be applied to the world, must be interpreted!
Forced Funding vs Freedom, by Chris Lewis, The Free Radical
If ever there were a problem that desperately needs fixing, this is it - and I say that the government really should do something. It should get out of the economy and out of our lives as soon as possible. What would soon follow is such a massive flourishing of the gold medal-winning character virtues ...
"I Have a Plan...", by Ron Paul, Ron Paul's Texas Straight Talk, 18 Oct 2004
Criticizes political ads and speeches that present plans for government to "run" the economy or the country
[W]e are bombarded ... by candidates telling us their great plans for running the country. At the ... presidential debate ... the Democratic nominee recited a litany of supposed cures for nearly everything that ails us, beginning each sentence with the phrase "I have a plan..." The problem is that government is not supposed to plan our lives or run the country; we are supposed to be free. That our public discourse strays so far from this principle is an unhappy sign of our times. Those who believe in limited constitutional government should worry every time a politician says, "I have a plan."
Related Topics: Capitalism, Socialism
In Praise of the Libertarian Party, by Harry Browne, 4 Jun 2004
Discusses the obstacles faced by the Libertarian Party due to the inherently two-party system, as well as the benefits of the LP presidential campaign
It is an America in which the government stays out of your life—and government is so small that you don't pay any income tax at all. An America in which you're completely free from the oppressive and wasteful Social Security tax. An America in which the government doesn't foster gang warfare and violence through an insane War on Drugs. An America at peace because its government isn't threatening foreign countries or stirring up terrorists. An America in which government doesn't interfere in any way with your ability to defend yourself, your family, and your property.
In Search of a Word: Limited Government versus 'Anarchy', by Spencer H. MacCallum, The Voluntaryist, Oct 1996
Contrasts the positions of Hornberger, who endorses "limited government, with that of Baldy Harper, who preferred to hold "the ideal of a 'total alternative' to political government" as a guiding light towards a voluntary society
The 'limited government' concept cannot serve reliably as a guiding star because it is relative; any government at virtually any time or place in the world is limited with respect to some other government, real or imagined, that might be named. So we must ask, limited by comparison with what? The same criticism is often leveled at the label 'conservative.' Conserving what? Neither of those two could serve as a north star to keep us to a true heading toward a totally voluntary society, which heading may or may not be asymptotic. So Baldy Harper was an idealist, for the most practical of reasons.
Limited Government--A Moral Issue, by C. W. Anderson, Feb 1992
Ludwig von Mises and the Justification of the Liberal Order, by William Baumgarth, The Economics of Ludwig von Mises, 15 Nov 1974
Critically examines various Mises' writings on liberalism, democracy, the wisdom of the masses, special-interest politics, equal treatment under the law, anarchism, self-determination and of course economics
Limited government became the explicit political goal of the classical liberals, because the limiting of government simultaneously frees economic transactions in the social sphere. Freeing economic exchange from, say, the shackles imposed by mercantilist forms of monopoly provides society with a social cohesiveness brought about by the mutual interdependence of economic agents ... The meaning of liberalism ... is obscured because its language has been usurped by [those] that wish to substitute an entirely different program for that of limited government and unregulated commercial exchange.
Lysander & Limited Government, by Fred Miller, Reason, May 1976
Argues that Spooner, although critical of the government instituted by the U.S. Constitution, was in favor of a legitimate, limited government, i.e., one that is voluntarily financed
[T]he fact relevant here is ...: "That no government, so called, can reasonably be trusted for a moment, or reasonably be supposed to have honest purposes in view, any longer than it depends wholly upon voluntary support" (p. 22). Spooner is here laying down a necessary condition for legitimate government: it must be voluntarily financed. He is asserting, not that no government is legitimate, but that no government that is financed by extortion is legitimate. Since the possibility of a legitimate government is thus left open, it is clearly consistent with the limited-government libertarian.
Mencken, H. L. (1880-1956), by Rod L. Evans, The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, 15 Aug 2008
Biographical essay
Like Jefferson, Mencken held that, although some government is necessary to preserve peace and perform a few other duties individuals cannot easily perform for themselves, government beyond that minimum would likely be exploiting citizens, advantaging one group by disadvantaging another. In an editorial ... he wrote cynically about persons in favor of an expansive role for government: 'A Progressive is one who is in favor of more taxes instead of less, more bureaus and jobholders, more paternalism and meddling, more regulation of private affairs and less liberty. In general, he would be inclined to regard the repeal of any tax as outrageous.'
Related Topics: H. L. Mencken, Prohibition
The Myth of "Limited Government", by Joseph Sobran, 20 Dec 2001
Discusses some of the concepts in Hans-Hermann Hoppe's Democracy: The God That Failed (2001)
[Hoppe] thinks the state—"a territorial monopoly of compulsion"—is inherently subversive of social health and order, which can thrive only when men are free. As soon as you grant the state anything, [he] argues, you have given it everything. There can be no such thing as "limited government," because there is no way to control an entity that in principle enjoys a monopoly of power (and can simply expand its own power) ... Over time the government claimed the sole authority to interpret the Constitution ... So the Constitution has become an instrument of the very power it was intended to limit!
Related Topics: Democracy, Taxation
Objectivism and the State: An Open Letter to Ayn Rand, by Roy A. Childs, Jr., The Rational Individualist, Aug 1969
Published by the Society for Rational Individualism (later merged into the Society for Individual Liberty); responds to five of Rand's arguments in her essay "The Nature of Government"
There are, by your framework, three alternatives in political organization: statism ...; limited government ...; and anarchy ... You support a limited government, one which does not initiate the use or threat of physical force against others. It is my contention that limited government is a floating abstraction which has never been concretized by anyone; that a limited government must either initiate force or cease being a government; that the very concept of limited government is an unsuccessful attempt to integrate two mutually contradictory elements: statism and voluntarism.
Regime Libertarians, by Lew Rockwell, 12 Jul 2005
Criticizes the "Iraq Exit Strategy: America's Path Forward" proposal, made by the Libertarian National Committee on 29 June 2005, and suggests the name "Regime Libertarians" for those who make that kind of proposals
Some believe that while freedom is a good thing, it has a precondition in good government and state institutions that bring about the core conditions of liberty ... [W]e are not speaking here of merely the belief in limited government, or what is sometimes called "minarchism." There is a difference between believing in the need for government to preserve and protect freedom, and the view that government is the first condition of society, responsible for giving birth to freedom. In one view, some government is unavoidable; in the other view, power is the benefactor of freedom, the force to which all liberty owes its conception.
The Roots of Limited Government, by Alan Barth, Feb 1991
A Sacred Union of Citizens—George Washington's Farewell Address and the American Character, by George Leef, The Freeman, Nov 1997
Review of the 1996 book by Matthew Spalding and Patrick Garrity
Readers ... expecting to find unfailing Washingtonian support for minimalist government will ... be disappointed. The authors note that he favored the establishment of a national university ... not seeing the long-run dangers of allowing the government to become active in the provision of education. He also favored a national bank and held an ambivalent attitude toward foreign trade, maintaining that the nation might develop better if the people produced more of their own goods. Bastiat came along half a century too late to have enlightened our First President on the folly of government involvement in any of these areas.
The Sphere of Government: Nineteenth Century Theories: 1. John Stuart Mill, by Henry Hazlitt, The Freeman, Jan 1980
Critiques John Stuart Mill's ideas on what are the "necessary" and "optional" functions of government
In a later chapter, Mill considers some of the reasons for limiting government power. "There is a part of the life of every person who has come to years of discretion, within which the individuality of that person ought to reign uncontrolled either by any other individual or by the public collectively. ... A second general objection to government agency is that every increase of the functions devolving on the government is an increase in its power"-which may soon become "arbitrary." ... "A third general objection ... rests on the principle of the division of labor ... most things are ill done; much not done at all."
The Spirit of Humility [PDF], by Stanley Kober, Cato Journal, 1997
Discusses the recognition of the limits on human knowledge, which the author claims leads to the title spirit as evidenced in "the American experiment" and its possible lessons for European unification
This recognition of the limits of our knowledge has two implications for civil society. First, it means that government must also be limited. According to the American Founders, democracy did not mean the election of a government that had total power. On the contrary, they were very conscious of the dangers of the tyranny of the majority. In particular, they were hostile to the idea of concentrating power in a single individual, even if elected. As James Madison warned the Constitutional Convention, the United States had to avoid "the Evils of elective Monarchies."
The War of 1812 Was the Health of the State, Part 1, by Sheldon Richman, The Goal Is Freedom, 27 Feb 2015
Examines the sentiments of the United States founding fathers and other leading figures as well as some of the events that led to the War of 1812, and argues that "dangerous precedents were set" that led to imperialism and further wars
Prewar, there were still eminent voices favoring small government and decentralized power ... It's not too much to say that modern America was born in 1812–1815 ... [T]he postwar [Democratic-]Republican Party took on most of the fading Federalist Party's program with respect to the role of government in the American economy. Advocates of smaller, decentralized government (Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, among others) rallied in the decades before the Civil War, but in the end the neomercantilists—advocates of Henry Clay's Hamiltonian American System—triumphed ...
What It Means to Be a Libertarian [PDF], by Randolph J. May, Cato Journal, 1997
Review of Charles Murray's book What It Means to Be a Libertarian (1997), contrasting it with Tocqueville's writings in Democracy in America (1835-1840)
Murray identifies the following federal programs and functions to be eliminated entirely: Social Security, Medicare, welfare, agriculture, housing, training and employment, energy, and the Post Office. He advocates the repeal of most consumer and product safety laws leaving redress to traditional tort and contract remedies. He would also repeal civil rights laws in favor of a constitutional amendment to the effect that (1) no government at any level shall pass any law that requires discrimination ...; and (2) no government shall pass any law limiting freedom of association for private individuals and groups.
Why Limited Representative Government Fails, by Michael S. Rozeff, 17 Apr 2008
Presents a four-element theory of why limited representative government fails, prefaced by numerous examples of how the American version of it has failed
The second element of my theory helps explain why our limited government has failed to stay limited government. The limit in limited government is, practically speaking, almost unlimited. Why is this? ... Once we accept the premise of government, even if it be limited government, we tend to follow out the implication of having others govern us, which is that more government is desirable. The two concepts, limited and government, logically conflict with one another ... This conflict between limited government and simply government has evidently been resolved in favor of dropping the limited part in favor of the government part.
Related Topics: Government, The State, Voting

Cartoons and Comic Strips

Non Sequitur: Federal Dept. of Making Government Smaller, by Wiley Miller, 12 Oct 2004


Leviathan: The Growth of Local Government and the Erosion of Liberty
    by Clint Bolick, 2004
Partial contents: The Curious Evolution of Federalism - Freedom of Commerce and Enterprise - Private Property Rights - The Right to Be Left Alone - Racial Discrimination - The Government School System - Fighting Big Government At The Local Level
More Liberty Means Less Government: Our Founders Knew This Well
    by Walter E. Williams, 1999
Contents: Race and Sex - Government - Education - Environment and Health - International - Law an Society - Potpourri


Is Limited Government an Oxymoron?, by Doug Casey, McCuistion, 18 Oct 2009
Dennis McCuistion interviews Doug Casey and Thomas E. Woods, Jr., on their views about the role of government
Sympathy for the Minarchist..., by Stefan Molyneux, 11 May 2009
Questions for minarchists set to the tune of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil"

The introductory paragraph uses material from the Wikipedia article "Limited government" as of 5 Nov 2018, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.