James Madison wrote in Federalist 48, “It will not be denied that power is of an encroaching nature and that it ought to be effectually restrained from passing the limits assigned to it.”
The United States was founded on the principle of limited government. Our Constitution and Bill of Rights clearly illustrate this. My purpose in this post is to examine the “why” behind this truth. Why did our founding fathers feel that government should be limited and design the government of the United States in accordance with this conviction?
Our founders realized that, “Government is not reason. It is not eloquence. It is force. Like fire, it can be a dangerous servant or a fearful master.” – George Washington
They further realized, as Lawrence Reed of The Heritage Foundation pointed out, that “Government has nothing to give anybody except what it first takes from somebody, and a government that is big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you’ve got.” This is a serious and extremely important warning for us to remember.
So what does limited government mean?
1) A limited government only has the rights and authority given to it by the people. Furthermore, a limited government has legal limits on its power. This means that any law which effects the personal liberties of the people can only be passed with their consent. This is why our country is governed by a system of checks and balances – so that we the people can have a say and make a difference. However, this means that for a limited government to work correctly, those governed have to take an active interest in it in order to keep it properly controlled or “limited.” Therefore, the less interest we take in making sure our government works the way our founders intended, the more our freedoms will suffer encroachment.
2) Limiting government safeguards individual freedom. It protects the freedom of speech, freedom to act, freedom of opportunity, enterprise and creativity. As Lawrence Reed further points out, “It gives individuals the freedom to go as far as their talents, ambitions, and industry can take them.” Limited government promotes ingenuity which in turn produces nations that will have the most impact for good on the world. It’s when people are free to think, work, speak, act, worship, and do a million other things, as they choose, that they in turn are the most motivated to make a positive impact on society. A government should remain dependent upon the people. History is full of examples of what happens when people become dependent on a government. Just look at socialistic countries – people dependent on the government will be less motivated to work or advance.
I had the amazing opportunity to spend some time in Europe with my family a few years ago. While in Europe, we visited Poland and we were able to strike up a conversation with one of the locals. We asked this middle-aged woman what Poland was like when it was still a part of the Soviet Union and if the change since then has been good. Her answer was very telling: many of the people have lost their motivation to work. They had gotten so used to being on food cards and having things done for them, that they would rather give up personal liberty than have the freedom of enterprise. Sadly, we see the same mindset slowly taking root in our own country today. There is only one direction for a nation like this – backwards. Progress needs freedom and enterprise to flourish – it needs limited government and a people motivated to keep it that way.
3) I want to touch just briefly on the danger of government that is too limited. As a post on reference.com points out:
“limiting the power of government can also limit the government’s ability to take action on behalf of its citizens. For instance, if the government is too weak because of constitutional limitations, there is a potential risk of citizens having their freedom violated by non-governmental concentrations of power.”
This basically means that if the government is too limited, it may not have the constitutional power to protect the people against the encroachment of liberties from outside entities or people. This is why balance is so important and why our founders took great pains in setting up our governmental system. It is important we don’t allow the pendulum to swing too far in either direction. Currently though, the issue of our government being too limited appears to be the least of our concerns!
Mercy Warren, a patriot and writer around the time of the American War for Independence, issued a good reminder:
“It is necessary for every American, with becoming energy to endeavor to stop the dissemination of principles evidently destructive of the cause for which they have bled. It must be the combined virtue of the rulers and of the people to do this, and to rescue and save their civil and religious rights from the outstretched arm of tyranny, which may appear under any mode or form of government.”
I hope this has helped to give you a better understanding of the importance of limited government and the blessings we’ve been given in it. We must do our duty to maintain it!