On Conservatism:
What is Limited Government? (Part I)

In his latest book, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, David Frum relates a story from the 1950s about an ex-Communist who got into an argument with a young man newly infatuated with Marxism. The older man retorted: “Your answer are so old that I’ve forgotten the questions.”
In many ways we conservatives are like the young Marxist. Often we are more familiar with the proper answer than we are with the questions they address. For example, we consider “limited government” to be one of the first principles of political conservatism. But what does the phrase really mean? And what political questions are we addressing when we appeal to limited government?
Before we answer it would be useful to distinguish what we should not mean when we use that phrase. Here are three ways in which I believe we misunderstand the concept of “limited government.”

1. Limited government is not the opposite of big government — Too often we make the error of using the phrases “small government” and “limited government” as if they were interchangeable. But the modifiers “small” and “limited” are not synonymous for, in when applied to governments, one refers to size and the other to function. A governmental body could be large in size and still be limited in function just as it could be unrestricted in function and small in size.
Of course, size does matter. The larger the government the more resources it will command and the more likely it will be to attempt to usurp its proper roles. But we should be careful not make the heuristic error of thinking “Small Government is good, Big Government is bad.”
2. Limited government is not synonymous with federalism — One of the most frustrating confusions in modern conservatism is the belief that federalism is equivalent to limited government. But federalism is neutral; it is neither liberal nor conservative. As Robert Alt once wrote in NRO article that asks, “Is Federalism Conservative?:

Contrary to our liberal friends’ assumption, federalism is not necessarily conservative. Rather, federalism is a series of constitutional rules, and as rules cut against both conservative and liberal positions alike. Yes, federalism will disappoint those who think that the only solution is a national one, but in terms of policy outcomes, federalism proves itself to be a neutral dealer.

One of the primary reasons that conservatives champion federalism is that it has a tendency to limit the power of the federal government. While this is laudable, it is not the same as the conservative view of limited government, a principle that is far more expansive. It is not enough, for example, to limit the tyrannical and illegitimate powers at the federal level if they are merely shifted to the state governments. Federalism can be useful in drawing legitimate lines of Constitutional authority. But when it is allowed to transfer expansive and illegitimate power to the states, the philosophy merely creates 50 separate laboratories of liberalism. Which leads to our final clarification…
3. Limited government is not solely about the federal government — At the time of our country’s founding, the population was roughly 3 million souls. Today, that many people live in the greater Cleveland area. Our founding fathers recognized the threat of a powerful central government and instituted checks and balances in order to limit its affect on individual states. What they may have been unable to foresee, however, was that these state governments would one day grow to a size that would dwarf the governments of other countries (including our own in 1789).
Because the federal government affects all citizens, it is natural that conservatives focus on limiting its scope. However, as populations increase it becomes imperative that we pay attention to the Little Leviathans that arise at the state, and even local, levels of governance.


In the next post we’ll examine the meaning of the phrase “limited government” and consider what political questions are we addressing when we appeal to this principle.

Published by

Joe Carter

Joe Carter founded Evangelical Outpost in 2005. He is the web editor for First Things and an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. A fifteen-year Marine Corps veteran, he previously served as the managing editor for the online magazine Culture11 and The East Texas Tribune. Joe has also served as the Director of Research and Rapid Response for the Mike Huckabee for President campaign and as a director of communications for both the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and Family Research Council. He is the co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicaton.

  • http://www.jemisonthorsby.blogspot.com Jemison Thorsby

    Good point about remembering the “Little Leviathans.” Maybe when people get D.C. out of their hair, they can turn their attention to getting the state governments and local eminent domain fanatics off their back, too. Kind of like getting out of debt: start with the loan that’s hurting you the most, then work your way down. Right now, Uncle Sam is still the Master Leviathan. He needs to be checked first.

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    I’ll give you a B- on the post. You nailed the difference between limited gov’t and small gov’t. You botched Federalism.
    What you are talking about might be better termed ‘states rights’ rather than Federalism…. Federalism is not the idea that the states should make most or all of the decisions. Federalism simply means both the Federal Gov’t and the States have different powers and both should stay within their ‘sphere’. A Federalist, therefore, would equally object to a state that was straying outside its powers….say by trying to negotiate a trade treaty with a foreign power or by prohibiting its citizens to travel to another state to enjoy something that is illegal in their home state (like going to Las Vegas to gamble).
    Federalism therefore is by definition a limit on gov’t. It says there are things the state gov’t cannot do, things the Federal gov’t cannot do and so on.
    Alt’s article is not a good focus because he appears to be centering in on conservative policies. Yes indeed Federalism does mean that you may have to fight for a particular policy in 50 states rather than only once in the Federal gov’t. You can’t have it both ways, if you want limited gov’t then the price is all the things you could have done with an unlimited gov’t. If Joe were dictator for life, for example, he probably wouldn’t have had such a hard time seeing Huckabee’s campaign fail despite his hard work. He could just declare Huckabee President.
    From a real conservative POV, though, that’s a good thing. A real conservative view tries to hold back change and for that Federalism works nicely. A new idea’s impact will be limited to the state that chooses to adopt it. Other states will only follow suit if they see the policy didn’t cause chaos in the original state that adopted it. Change isn’t prohibited, it is just slowed down and made to prove itself more under conservativism.
    The problem is that there is a strong non-conservative strain in the right today. How to name it is hard….perhaps ‘conservative-liberals’. Their idea is that gov’t exists to enact ends. What makes them different from liberals is that they think gov’t exists to enact conservative rather than liberal ends. So instead of eliminating poverty they seek out policies to eliminate divorce. Hence we get so-called conservatives wondering if maybe the gov’t should mandate 20 hours of marriage counselling for anyone trying to get a marriage license.
    The criticism against this is the same criticism conservatives originally had against liberals, namely the limited nature of human intelligence. The objection is not so much as to the ends but as to the ability of individual to craft policies that achieve those ends without making other things worse.

  • http://www.codemonkeyramblings.com MikeT

    But when it is allowed to transfer expansive and illegitimate power to the states, the philosophy merely creates 50 separate laboratories of liberalism. Which leads to our final clarification…

    That doesn’t logically follow because the federal government has no constitutional power to transfer to the states per the 10th amendment. The states, per the 10th amendment, are automatically assumed to have the authority, and it is up to the people of each state to keep their state government in check.
    If the people cannot do that, then they deserve whatever they get.

  • http://inkan.blogspot.com pgepps

    You seem to be making the case that a less-limited government is still limited, which is trivially true but tendentious.
    Any government which has more resources relative to competitors for those same resources is less limited thereby. It becomes less possible to “check” that government.
    The question you have to ask yourself when government is granted power or any of its proxies (like money or collusion with industry) is, “who can actually make them stop?”
    If you can’t answer that credibly and specifically, you are violating the principle of limited government.
    Even totalitarian governments are technically limited.

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