[Note: This post is part of the “On Conservatism” series.]
Having cleared away some of the semantic underbrush, we can return to the original questions: What is the meaning of the phrase “limited government” and what political questions are we addressing when we appeal to that principle?
The most complete and illuminating statement addressing this question is found in a recent essay by Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University:
The obligations and purposes of law and government are to protect public health, safety, and morals, and to advance the general welfare–including, preeminently, protecting people’s fundamental rights and basic liberties.
At first blush, this classic formulation (or combination of classic formulations) seems to grand vast and sweeping powers to public authority. Yet, in truth, the general welfare–the common good–requires that government be limited. Government’s responsibility is primary when the questions involve defending the nation from attack and subversion, protecting people from physical assaults and various other forms of depredation, and maintain public order. In other ways, however, its role is subsidiary: to support the work of families, religious communities, and other civil institutions of civil society that shoulder the primary burden of forming upright and decent citizens, caring for those in need, encouraging people to meet their responsibilities to one another while also discouraging them from harming themselves or others.
Governmental respect for individual freedom and the autonomy of nongovernmental spheres of authority is, then, a requirement of political morality. Government must not try to run people’s lives or usurp the roles and responsibilities of families, religious beliefs, and other character-and-culture-forming authoritative communities. The usurpation of the just authority of families, religious communities, and other institutions is unjust in principle, often seriously so, and the record of big government in the twentieth century–even when it has not degenerated into vicious totalitarianism–shows that it does little good in the long run and frequently harms those it seeks to help.
Limited government is a key tenet of classic liberalism–the liberalism of people like Madison and Tocqueville–although today it is regarded as a conservative ideal. In any event, someone who believes in limited government need not embrace libertarianism. The strict libertarian position, it seems to me, goes much too far in depriving government of even its subsidiary role. It underestimates the importance of maintaining a reasonably healthy moral ecology, especially for the rearing of children, and it misses the legitimate role of government in supporting the nongovernmental institutions that shoulder the main burden of assisting those in need.
Still, libertarianism responds to certain truths about big government, especially in government’s bureaucratic and managerial dimensions. Economic freedom cannot guarantee political liberty and the just autonomy of the institutions of civil society, but, in the absence of economic liberty, other honorable personal and institutional freedoms are rarely secure. Moreover, the concentration of economic power in the hands of the government is something every true friend of civil liberties should, by now, have learned to fear.
There is an even deeper truth–one going beyond economics–to which libertarianism responds: Law and government exist to protect human persons and secure their well being. It is not the other way round, as communist and other forms of collectivist ideology suppose. Individuals are not cogs in a social wheel. Stringent norms of political justice forbid persons to be treated as mere servants of instrumentalities of the state. These norms equally exclude the sacrificing of the dignity and rights of persons for the sake of some supposed “greater overall good”
But since we are going back to first principles, we might ask: Why not subordinate the individual to the ends of the collectivity of the state?
Here we see how profound the mistake of supposing that the principle of limited government is rooted in the denial of moral truth or putative requirement of governments to refrain from acting on the basis of judgments about moral truth. For our commitment to limited government is itself the fruit of moral conviction–conviction ultimately founded on truths that our nation’s founders proclaimed as self-evident: namely “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
(From “Law and Moral Purpose,” First Things, January 2008.)
1. The proper role of government is to protect public health, safety, and morals, and to advance the general welfare by protecting people’s fundamental rights and basic liberties.
2. The government fulfills its roles in two ways: (1) directly, by protecting the lives and safety of citizens, and (2) indirectly, by supporting the work of families, religious communities, and other institutions of civil society.
3. Fulfilling the task of advancing the general welfare requires that government be limited in order that it does not infringe on the fundamental rights and basic liberties which it is charged with protecting.
4. The principle of limited government is rooted in the self-evident truth “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”