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.