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

On Conservatism — By on January 24, 2008 at 1:39 am

[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.)
Summary outline:
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”



  • Commenterlein

    You summary points 2.(2) and 4 make a pretty good case for supporting gay marriage.

  • ucfengr

    You summary points 2.(2) and 4 make a pretty good case for supporting gay marriage.
    This comment reminds me of the old joke about the comedian’s convention. For those who don’t know the set up was that the comedians know the jokes so well that they have assigned them numbers and when together, they don’t tell the jokes, they just say the number. This argument has been made and addressed countless times here and other places; it’s nothing new. Perhaps we could do something similar to the comedians; we could assign this argument Generic Pro-gay Marriage Argument #4. Then we could do the same with rebuttals; I could respond with Generic Pro-gay Marriage Argument Rebuttal #2, for example. We’d all know what we were talking about, and we’d save a lot of time typing.

  • oclarki

    ucfengr,
    I concur. In the entire history of evangelical Outpost, has any regular commenter ever changed or modified his views on a subject due to a challenge or comment from the other side? Yet we still show up and post and argue. There must be some sort of pathology behind it.
    How about it JohnW, Raging Bee, Ludwig, Boonton, Kevin T. Keith and Robert Duquette, would there ever be or has there ever been a case where you changed or modified your view on something based on a comment you read here?

  • Darrell DeLaney

    I suspect that most regular blog posters write with the idea in the back of their mind that they are putting out gems of wisdom that will go overlooked by other posters, but will be persuasive to the unknown lurkers who read but don’t post. I include myself in that. Other times, if it looks possible, I’ll get involved hoping to learn the reasoning behind an opposing viewpoint, and possibly show my opponents that my side is more than an easily pigeonholed stereotype, though the inflammatory nature of anonymous internet debate frequently prevents that.
    But yeah, I think most people who care enough to contribute to an online argument are usually passionate enough about their own position that they’re very unlikely to change that, and certainly not in any short time span. And there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that. If nothing else, it gives you exposure to your opposition so you can refine and improve your arguments for actually persuadable people you meet in real life.

  • http://www.codemonkeyramblings.com MikeT

    How can the government “support” these institutions? I think you make the classic conservative mistake here by forgetting that the state ultimately resolves all of its conflicts with force. This is all well and good in many cases, but in others it is entirely inappropriate.
    Consider most dysfunctional families. There is nothing the state can do to make the parents work better together, but any involvement by the state except in cases of violence or abuse may result in ripping apart the last threads that hold the family together.
    My libertarian perspective on this was shaped by growing up with alcoholic father. What should the state have done when my father was drunk at home, and sometimes belligerent? Taken me away? What good would that have done me, since I would have been taken away from the rest of my family. What should the government have done to him? Arrest him for being the way he was, and thus deny my family the income from his job? This is why I am at a loss as to how exactly, short of socialism to some extent, the government can “support the family.” These questions are the ones that it would be having to answer.
    In practice, we see exactly what having a government that can arbitrate points finer than stopping a parent from beating or abusing their child does to society. Child Protect Services in most parts of the country are some of the most dreaded bureaucrats this side of Tomas De Torquemada. I think most parents would rather have a visit from the IRS than CPS.

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    oclarki
    How about it JohnW, Raging Bee, Ludwig, Boonton, Kevin T. Keith and Robert Duquette, would there ever be or has there ever been a case where you changed or modified your view on something based on a comment you read here?
    I don’t think I can ever say I changed my mind on anything important we discuss here. I can say that I’ve been motivated to research and develop arguments much more fully than I would have otherwise because of my opposition here.
    MikeT
    How can the government “support” these institutions?
    Indeed, Joe has reinvented the wheel except he forgets to actually use it to get anywhere. What exactly are conservatives supposed to disagree with? Just about any policy idea, such as single payer healthcare, can be reframed as supporting those institutions.
    Consider most dysfunctional families. There is nothing the state can do to make the parents work better together, but any involvement by the state except in cases of violence or abuse may result in ripping apart the last threads that hold the family together.
    That’s a bit over the top. State agencies can and do step in to help troubled families before it gets to the point of having to rip kids apart from their parents. There’s plenty of horror stories, of course, but there are also plenty of cases where a family got themselves on a better track because of intervention.
    My libertarian perspective on this was shaped by growing up with alcoholic father. What should the state have done when my father was drunk at home, and sometimes belligerent? Taken me away? What good would that have done me, since I would have been taken away from the rest of my family. What should the government have done to him? Arrest him for being the way he was, and thus deny my family the income from his job? This is why I am at a loss as to how exactly, short of socialism to some extent, the government can “support the family.” These questions are the ones that it would be having to answer.
    That’s hard to say. What do you think? If he was criminally violent then yes he probably should have been arrested. Short of that, though, there is no easy answer. You can’t guarantee everyone a good father, only encourage everyone to be a good father. There are carrots and sticks society puts in front of such people. For example, maybe the crackdown we have had on drunk driving over the last 20 years might have encouraged your father to get drunk a bit less. Likewise perhaps there are some carrots we could set up for alcoholics to get help but no one will ever be perfect. At some level you must accept people for what they are, limits and all. Perhaps your father did the best he could and could have been a lot worse.

  • ucfengr

    I can say that I’ve been motivated to research and develop arguments much more fully than I would have otherwise because of my opposition here.
    That was really the point of my initial comment. The first comment was a generic statement saying that ‘x’ makes the case for ‘y’ without saying why. If you are going to say ‘x’ makes the case for ‘y’, then make the effort and do the research to develop the case; don’t just assume it is self-evident. If you are not going to do that, you may as well “argue by number”.

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    He only argued by number because Joe provided the numbers.

    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.

    Well 2.2 is an argument for gay marriage. That would indirectly support the work of families, religious communities (not all denominations forbid gays) and ‘other institutions’.
    Then again I think I’m right in saying Joe reinvented the wheel but didn’t bother to go anywhere with it. What policy, liberal or conservative, is not presented along the lines that Joe gave us? What’s the point of this again unless Joe is just mounting an argument against strict Ayn Rand type libertarianism and little else?

  • http://www.leanleft.com tgirsch

    I disagree with Jefferson regarding #4. If it were “self-evidently” true that all persons were endowed with “unalienable” rights, then those rights would need no explicit protection, governmental or otherwise, as it would not be possible to infringe upon those rights.
    Protections (both by the government and from the government) are needed precisely because those rights can be and often are infringed.
    But setting that aside, I fail to see how something like, say, Social Security fails to meet these criteria. It doesn’t limit freedom in any meaningful way, and it does protect the general welfare of the society at large. All it does is cost money. Taking some of my money to support social security is less of an infringement upon my rights than, say, taking my money to fund a foreign war I don’t support.

  • jd

    I disagree with Jefferson regarding #4. If it were “self-evidently” true that all persons were endowed with “unalienable” rights, then those rights would need no explicit protection, governmental or otherwise, as it would not be possible to infringe upon those rights.
    Would you care to rephrase that in a way that doesn’t lead me and everyone else here to believe you’re an idiot. Do I not infringe on your self-evident and unalienable rights if I stop you from uttering such stupid statements?

  • Ludwig

    “How about it JohnW, Raging Bee, Ludwig, Boonton, Kevin T. Keith and Robert Duquette, would there ever be or has there ever been a case where you changed or modified your view on something based on a comment you read here?”
    Well…i dont think i ve ever heard an argument made here that ever caused me to believe that God might have something particular against gays that IT doesnt hold against say mountain climbers,tenis players, chess buff and what not. lots of attempt….nothing that comes anywhere near my treshold for chaning my mind about something.

  • http://www.codemonkeyramblings.com MikeT

    Boonton,

    That’s a bit over the top. State agencies can and do step in to help troubled families before it gets to the point of having to rip kids apart from their parents. There’s plenty of horror stories, of course, but there are also plenty of cases where a family got themselves on a better track because of intervention.

    By dysfunctional I mean families teetering on the brink of divorce and things of that nature. The stress of dealing with intrusive government agencies who suspect wrong-doing, as many CPS agencies are known to do, could often be enough to make the stress unbearable. I have personally never heard of a family getting back on track after dealing with these agencies.

    That’s hard to say. What do you think? If he was criminally violent then yes he probably should have been arrested. Short of that, though, there is no easy answer. You can’t guarantee everyone a good father, only encourage everyone to be a good father. There are carrots and sticks society puts in front of such people. For example, maybe the crackdown we have had on drunk driving over the last 20 years might have encouraged your father to get drunk a bit less. Likewise perhaps there are some carrots we could set up for alcoholics to get help but no one will ever be perfect. At some level you must accept people for what they are, limits and all. Perhaps your father did the best he could and could have been a lot worse.

    I don’t deny that he could have been a lot worse. In fact, it would have been a lot worse if I had been raised by a single parent. That wasn’t entirely unlikely, as my parents got a divorce while I was in college, and their marriage started falling apart on its own when I was in high school. Knowing the way that many social workers are, I can imagine my dad getting a lot worse if he had to deal with one of them trying to find something wrong with him that he or she could act on.
    Society really cannot offer carrots to alcoholics because the alcohol is their carrot for behaving. The thing I heard the most growing up, and have heard this from other alcoholics is, “I deserve this after a long day.” Other versions of that obviously exist, but in my experience, the alcohol is the all-sufficient carrot. The only thing you could offer them would be enough money to make them ignore the alcohol, and I don’t see how that would be good for the economy. So then the only recourse the state has is punishment, which is a “solution” that will allow do-gooders to feel good about themselves as they break up families they think are better off being separated from an alcoholic parent.
    One of my best friends growing up had alcoholics for both parents. He would have ended up in foster care if they did a number on his family. The moral of these stories, in my opinion, is that you have to accept the fact that the world has always been this way, and that it always will be this way. A lot of the efforts to “protect the kids” are borderline totalitarian and utopian, and done without regard for the practical consideration of the child’s fate.

  • http://www.dailyduck.blogspot.com Robert Duquette

    The usurpation of the just authority of families, religious communities
    I’m curious as to your view of what the just authority of religious community encompasses. What authority does a religious community exercise over an individual? Are you arguing for some kind of religiously based collectivism? The Constitution does not support that. The only authority that a religion can exercise over an individual is that which the individual voluntarily invests in it. Which isn’t authority at all. With respect to religion, all authority lies with the individual.

  • http://www.dailyduck.blogspot.com Robert Duquette

    How about it JohnW, Raging Bee, Ludwig, Boonton, Kevin T. Keith and Robert Duquette, would there ever be or has there ever been a case where you changed or modified your view on something based on a comment you read here?
    Certainly not my views about God. But I may have changed some of my views about religious people. The more that you engage people with different views, the less you are able to see them as strawmen or stereotypes. From reading the various debates between Christians I’ve given up any fear that the US will become a Christian theocracy, because Christians could never come to any agreement on how to rule. The more I learn about Christians, the more it reinforces my belief that Christianity is one of the most divisive ideologies ever invented.

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    MikeT
    I don’t deny that he could have been a lot worse. In fact, it would have been a lot worse if I had been raised by a single parent. That wasn’t entirely unlikely, as my parents got a divorce while I was in college, and their marriage started falling apart on its own when I was in high school. Knowing the way that many social workers are, I can imagine my dad getting a lot worse if he had to deal with one of them trying to find something wrong with him that he or she could act on.
    That might be but it sounds like your dad was on the borderline. If he had been worse then you would have probably been better off either with a single parent or with the state stepping in and demanding some type of improvement by your dad.
    One of my best friends growing up had alcoholics for both parents. He would have ended up in foster care if they did a number on his family. The moral of these stories, in my opinion, is that you have to accept the fact that the world has always been this way, and that it always will be this way. A lot of the efforts to “protect the kids” are borderline totalitarian and utopian, and done without regard for the practical consideration of the child’s fate.
    I disagree. You’re right that many families fall short but should be left alone by the state because the state has neither the tools or the intelligence to improve them. But you also have families that fail too much and society has to step in and set limits.
    tgirsch
    But setting that aside, I fail to see how something like, say, Social Security fails to meet these criteria. It doesn’t limit freedom in any meaningful way, and it does protect the general welfare of the society at large. All it does is cost money. Taking some of my money to support social security is less of an infringement upon my rights than, say, taking my money to fund a foreign war I don’t support.
    There’s a feedback mechanism here. Many of our basic social safety net policies probably create more wealth than they consume. For example, the existence of things like social security, FDIC protection, bank regulations, unemployment insurance probably make the economy more stable than it otherwise would be. That in turn allows more wealth to be created than would otherwise have been.
    Assuming this is true (and no I don’t assume it for all gov’t programs)….where does the infringement on freedom really begin? If, say, income is $10,000 per person higher because of these ‘infringements’ then what does it mean if someone complains that these infringements cost $6,000 per person?

  • http://www.leanleft.com tgirsch

    jd:
    inalienable (redirected from “unalienable.”) If a right is incapable of being alienated, surrendered, or transferred, then it needs no explicit protection. What could possibly be controversial (or “stupid”) about that statement?

  • jd

    boonton
    There’s a feedback mechanism here. Many of our basic social safety net policies probably create more wealth than they consume. For example, the existence of things like social security, FDIC protection, bank regulations, unemployment insurance probably make the economy more stable than it otherwise would be. That in turn allows more wealth to be created than would otherwise have been.
    Given that what you wrote is true (after a big BWWAAAAA HAAAAA HAAAAAA) I guess it means that for once we can be thankful for the law of unintended consequences.
    tgirsch
    inalienable (redirected from “unalienable.”) If a right is incapable of being alienated, surrendered, or transferred, then it needs no explicit protection. What could possibly be controversial (or “stupid”) about that statement?
    OK. Point taken. It’s not stupid. You are technically correct. So you were just disagreeing with Mr. Jefferson’s word usage? You could have written it better? What’s the point of telling us you disagree with one of the TWO OR THREE MOST IMPORTANT PHRASES IN AMERICAN HISTORY? That’s rather coy of you, mr. girsch. It seems like the wording of that particular sentence may have been rather more important than a little troll-like post on a blog.

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    jd
    Given that what you wrote is true (after a big BWWAAAAA HAAAAA HAAAAAA) I guess it means that for once we can be thankful for the law of unintended consequences.
    Except I don’t think economic stability would be an unindented consequence of policies whose purpose are to enhance economic stability.
    And it isn’t much of a given. There are indeed many cases where we can directly point to gov’t policies being responsible for income and wealth. For example, what would you make of a farmer who complains about income taxes while a substantial portion of his profits are due to crop subsidies or protectionist policies? Or for that matter a stockowner of a defense contractor? Their income can be directly traced to gov’t policies (for better or worse). If tomorrow Ron Paul/Ayn Rand libertarianism was instantly enacted some or all of their income and wealth might disappear. Can they really claim today that they are victims of a theft when what is supposedly being stolen is also being created by the ‘theft’?
    Likewise if it’s obvious that there’s plenty of direct beneficiares of gov’t policies (good and bad) there’s also plenty of indirect ones. You probably haven’t spent much time thinking about the financial quality of your bank because FDIC insurance eliminates the need too. Likewise when you’re buying stocks or mutual funds you don’t sit there and say “how do I know this annual report isn’t all lies? How do I know this company isn’t just a fly by night operation claiming to have $10B in assets and a 20 year business record?” You may ask this if you were investing in China or the Iraqi stock exchange but in the US and most of the developed world you ask to look at their SEC filings.
    And of course we have the historical record. Economic growth has been swifter, faster and less volitile over the last…say…100 years than before that with the big gov’t post WWII era being better than the pre-WWII era. While correlation doesn’t prove causation it would be pretty fantastic to think there was no relationship.

  • http://www.leanleft.com/ tgirsch

    That’s rather coy of you, mr. girsch.
    I wouldn’t say “coy.” I’d say “smart-assed” is more appropriate. :)
    So you were just disagreeing with Mr. Jefferson’s word usage?
    Essentially, yes.
    one of the TWO OR THREE MOST IMPORTANT PHRASES IN AMERICAN HISTORY
    I’m not entirely sure I agree with that. Yes, it’s very important from an historical perspective, but I’m not sure it’s up at the very, very top. After all, the Declaration, while important, is not a governing document. It’s merely a letter of intent (although a particularly effective one).
    Anyway, it was a throwaway aside. Why you (and only you) felt the need to take it seriously and launch into a personal attack on my intelligence (even though I was actually technically correct, as you later conceded) is beyond me.
    The actual meat was in the rest of the comment. You know, the part you ignored.

  • http://www.codemonkeyramblings.com MikeT

    I disagree. You’re right that many families fall short but should be left alone by the state because the state has neither the tools or the intelligence to improve them. But you also have families that fail too much and society has to step in and set limits.

    That’s all well and good until you have the natural tendency to go into mission creep. That doesn’t even count the basic problem of a combination of government bureaucrats run amok, and judges that have neither the sense nor the decency to smack them down for their behavior (a common phenomenon with the police). This behavior is not the norm, but if you are talking about policy, you need to have an effective policy that controls and delegitimizes government behavior when it is outside the parameters of the law and policy. Unfortunately, there is not much of that, and it is a sad fact of politics that fixing the system and putting failsafes into the law doesn’t win elections.

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    I understand MikeT that there might be a temptation to go to far but that in itself is not an argument against anything. To borrow a favorite idea from Joe, there’s plenty of ‘sphere’s of authority’ in society and all of them (including families and individuals) have various temptations to go too far.
    There’s no way around the fact that the state has to step in when families fail beyond a certain point. Perhaps if they had stepped in with your father he would have been worse and the stress would have set him off. But whose responsibility is that? “I’m a functional drunk but if you even look at me I’ll lose it” is not much of a stand IMO and is more of an argument to take the guy OUT of the familiy rather than disband the duty of the state to investigate when it is called for.

  • http://www.codemonkeyramblings.com MikeT

    There’s no way around the fact that the state has to step in when families fail beyond a certain point.

    But what is that point, and how do you define it in the law so that it doesn’t give a lot of unintended authority to would-be overzealous social workers? That is where you and I disagree on. I am a big believer in the law of unintended consequences, and am cautious about government intervention because of that.
    From my perspective, the only time the state should get involved beyond hearing out both sides is when a bright line has been crossed such as some sort of physical abuse or systematic verbal abuse.
    What I find frustrating about policy discussions like this is that they are vague, and I tend to be someone who prefers to quickly move from abstractions to specifics. This is my problem with Joe when he writes against libertarianism on moral and other grounds; he doesn’t actually write any detailed explanations of what conservative policies would be like except in vague terms that are ultimately useless to explain much of anything of significance.

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    From my perspective, the only time the state should get involved beyond hearing out both sides is when a bright line has been crossed such as some sort of physical abuse or systematic verbal abuse.
    I would go along with that. I would also add a serious material shortfall (such as not having proper shelter for the kid, food, medicine etc.). In those cases the best solution might be counseling for the family (getting them on welfare and other aid) if the shortfall is due to financial problems.
    I agree Joe is maddeningly vague with this attempt to write some type of Bible for conservatism. He hates Andrew Sullivan but Sullivan does a much better job navigating the realm between policy wonk and the creation of vague guidelines.