Limited government is one of the central tenets of modern libertarianism. However, it is one libertarians share with many of their political opponents. The idea of limited government, although seldom explicitly defended, is in principle one that few will explicitly argue against. Put simply, the notion of limited government implies that political power should be used only for a number of specific or defined purposes and that the scope of government activity and legislation should be limited to what is necessary for those purposes. In other words, government should only be concerned with a specific part of human life while the rest is left to the sphere of private action. Additionally, it commonly includes the idea that the scope of government action should be limited by a basic law or constitution that sets out the “rules of the game” for the political process and is not itself subject to everyday politics. In many cases, this constitution is an actual document—as, for example, in the United States or Germany—but it can be a matter of informal understandings and tradition as much as written text, as in the United Kingdom and Israel. Limited government also is intimately connected to the idea of the rule of law—that political power must be bound and limited by explicit and known rules and can be exercised only in a rule-defined way, rather than an arbitrary and unpredictable one.
However, the concept of limited government says nothing about how extensive the scope of government concern and activity should be, only that it should be limited. Thus, limited government is not necessarily the same as small government, which depends on how tightly the limits are drawn. For libertarians, limited government means small government because it is augmented by a second argument—that the constraints on government activity should be drawn tightly and restrictively. The antithesis of limited government is totalitarian government, where every aspect of human life is, or has the potential to be, the concern of the state and, as such, subject to the process of collective political decision making, rather than personal and private choice. This view of politics was theorized most explicitly by Benito Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile in The Doctrine of Fascism in 1932, but it also is a central feature of communist regimes at least in theory. Libertarians argue that contemporary social democratic regimes, while in theory disavowing this unrestricted view of legitimate government activity, have an inherent tendency in this direction. Just as the notion of limited government is associated with that of the rule of law, so the totalitarian concept of government is linked with the idea of the need for those with political power to have wide or even unlimited discretion and freedom of action and decision.
Historically, the idea of limited government has been formulated independently in a number of times and places, and it appears to be a common response by political thinkers to the reality of political power. In imperial China, Confucian thinkers argued for both natural and legal limits on the scope of politics and government in opposition to the views of the Legalists that all life should be subject to laws and political power. Classical Islamic thinkers argued that the scope of government should be limited by both the demands of piety and a clear distinction between the public and private, that is, with regard to government enforcement of moral rules. The most significant example of limited government, however, both in theory and practice (because of subsequent developments), took place in medieval Europe.
Europe during the Middle Ages saw the development of a theory of the limits to political power and its embodiment in the formal institutions and laws then established. This development was not the product of design or philosophy, but was rather the result of real-life political disputes, above all the conflict between the Holy Roman Empire and papacy over the apparently trivial issue of clerical investiture and in the disputes between monarchs and their more powerful subjects and between aristocrats and associations of peasants and the inhabitants of towns. From the early 13th century onward, a series of documents and political settlements, starting with Magna Carta in 1215, made explicit the idea that the power of rulers was limited and defined. This view was challenged during the 16th and 17th centuries with the rise of the doctrine of political absolutism. However, even theories of absolute monarchy of the kind that appeared in Europe at this time were quite different from modern defenses of totalitarian government, a difference even greater in practice. Rather, the claims associated with absolute monarchy regarding the nature and origin of political power had implications that were dangerous for the idea of limiting the sphere of government. Opponents of the rise of absolutism initially relied on conservative arguments about the need to preserve existing institutions, but were increasingly driven to produce principled arguments based on ideas about the nature and origin of political power, which, it was claimed, ultimately derived from the consent of the governed and implied that government was a delegated power exercised over a specific and delimited area of life.
However, the question that more than anything else led to the explicit articulation of a doctrine of the limited scope of government was that of religious division and the need for toleration. The divisions created in most parts of Europe by the Reformation led to a series of devastating wars and political unrest. The solution that was eventually arrived at was that, although only one denomination was established within each state, religious pluralism should exist in Europe as a whole. A minority argued that the solution to religious dissension was to make religious belief an essentially private matter and so take religious belief and observance out of the public sphere of government responsibility. This view was first formulated in the Dutch Republic and Britain (and in other parts of Europe where absolutism had been fought off) by thinkers such as Baruch Spinoza and John Locke. However, to argue for this position, these thinkers first had to develop a theory about the proper sphere and limits of government and its nature as a necessarily limited activity.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, classical liberals and their progenitors argued the case for limited and rule-bound government. They argued for the primacy, both moral and practical, of personal choice and judgment concerning how we live our lives as opposed to public and collective decisions. This conclusion was grounded in the view that people were, in general, the best judges of their own interests and that truly moral behavior required the person involved to make decisions for themselves, for which they would bear the consequences, for good or ill. This precept implied strict limits on the scope of government. Limited government was thus intimately connected to the concepts of personal development and flourishing and grounded in the belief that only by limiting the scope of government could individual choice and self-development be maximized. This argument had its clearest and purest exposition in the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt in his The Limits of State Action. He maintained that a limited constitutional government also was a government of laws and not of men, the Rechtsstaat as it was known in Germany. The most prominent and historically significant example of a document expressing this view was, of course, the U.S. Constitution. However, it was only one of a number of such documents, the Belgian Constitution of 1830 being another influential example. The American constitution also showed a tactical division among classical liberals over how best to define the limits of government in constitutional rules. One method, found in the main body of the constitution, set out what the specific and enumerated areas of government power and responsibility were. The other, found in the Bill of Rights and looking back to earlier examples such as the Levellers’ Agreement of the People, listed those activities that governments were explicitly excluded from concerning themselves with or doing. Experience suggests that the latter strategy has been more successful.
There were of course divisions among classical liberals over exactly where the limits of government should be drawn. Many were not as strict or rigorous as Humboldt and thus, for example, regarded education as a legitimate area of government responsibility. Thinkers who embraced the views associated with limited government also found themselves having to argue not only against others who wished these limits to be considerably broader, but also against those who rejected the idea of limits entirely. Among the first were advocates of what became known as the Polizeistaat (literally police state, but more accurately general welfare state) who claimed that governments had a responsibility to improve the moral and physical well-being of the public. A wider view of government’s scope also was taken by many traditional conservatives, particularly in the Catholic and Lutheran parts of Europe. The more radical opposition came from followers of Rousseau. For them government was the embodiment of the General Will of society, which, by definition, sought the best interests of society as a whole. As such, providing government was correctly constituted so that it did indeed act in accord with the General Will, there were no theoretical limits to what it might choose to concern itself with. This radical view held that, once governments were freed from dependence on a particular minority, they could become the instrument through which society as a whole acted to achieve its collectively willed ends and, as such, should not be limited. One response to both this and a perceived threat to personal independence and judgment from social, as opposed to government, pressure and action was John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which restated Humboldt’s view of a limited sphere for politics, but placed it on a different foundation.
In the first two-thirds of the 19th century in particular, the classical liberal argument for limited government tended to carry the day. Reviews of Mill’s work were, on the whole, favorable and even went so far as to contend that, because Mill was clearly right, his ideas required no extended argument in their support. However, the latter part of the 19th century saw, first, a decisive shift in the direction of a looser and wider understanding of limited government in the shape of “New Liberal” and social democratic thought, and, second, in the rise of explicitly totalitarian politics. This tendency remained a minority before 1914, but the disruption brought about by World War I paved the way for more totalitarian political philosophies, such as fascism in Italy and Germany and communism in Russia. World War II led to the spread of the communist totalitarian ideologies beyond their original base in the Soviet Union. Faced with this challenge, a de facto alliance emerged during the cold war between the different varieties of politics that espoused some version of limited government against these totalitarian and comprehensive theories of politics. In the latter part of the 20th century, the explicit argument against limited government—of the kind put forward by Mussolini and Gentile—seemed to have been defeated, and the debate now became one between libertarians arguing for a strictly defined and limited government and social democrats and conservatives who put the case for a limited but more extensive one.
In recent years, the debate has begun to move back onto the kind of grounds that it occupied in the later 18th and early 19th centuries. Increasingly, social democracy, the dominant tendency in contemporary democratic politics, has become defined by state intervention not only in the nation’s economic life, but by intervention in many aspects of what were formerly thought to be purely private areas of life, such as diet and personal habits. In other words, we are seeing a revival of the idea of the police power and the associated general welfare state of the kind that was advocated by Prussian cameralists 200 years ago. Currently, the debate increasingly centers on where to draw the division between private matters subject to personal choice and public matters where choice is exercised by some form of collective decision-making process. This notion is clearly relevant to the more general argument of how extensive government should be. Libertarians consistently argue that giving government a large role is bad in and of itself because it reduces the extent of individual autonomy, which is necessary for the practice of virtue; further, it is dangerous because the larger the area of government concern, the more a logic of expansion applies, which will ultimately approach a totalitarian state.
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Originally published .