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There’s an old Cold War-era joke about an ex-Communist who gets into an argument with a young man newly infatuated with Marxism. After the youth repeatedly attempts to explain why Marx and Lenin had all the right solutions, the exasperated old man finally retorts, “Son, your answers are so old that I’ve forgotten the questions.”

In many ways we conservatives are like the young Marxist. We tend to be more familiar with conservative solutions than we are with the questions they were meant to address. A prime example is our invocation and praise of limited government. Despite being a shibboleth of political conservatism, it is unclear exactly what the phrase means. What political questions are we addressing when we appeal to the virtues of limited government?

Our failure to address questions like this one leads us to our toleration of politicians who merely mouth accepted platitudes but who are unable to implement corresponding policies. How can we expect them to know what we mean by the term when we aren’t so sure ourselves?

Perhaps what is needed is to set some boundary definitions, marking the outer limits of what we mean by limited government.

Our first marker should delineate the border between limited government and small government. Too often we make the error of using the phrases interchangeably. The modifiers “small” and “limited” are not synonymous; when applied to governments, one refers to size and the other to function . A governmental body can be large in size and still be limited in function just as it can be unrestricted in function and small in size.

Size does matter, of course, since the larger the government,
the more resources it will command and the more likely it is to usurp authority that is outside its proper roles. But we should be careful not make the heuristic error of sloganeering that “Small Government is good, Big Government is bad.”

Next, we should separate the lines of limited government from the concept of federalism. One of the most frustrating confusions in modern conservatism is the belief that federalism is equivalent to limited government. If this were so then the European Union would be our ideal model since it provides one of the most effective examples of a federalist system.

Despite being a politically neutral concept, federalism has”at least the in U.S.”become associated with conservatism. American conservatives champion federalism because of its tendency to limit the power of our federal government. While laudable, this is not identical to the conservative view of limited government”a principle far more robust and 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 it can also be used to justify the transfer of expansive and illegitimate power to the states.

For this reason our concept of limited government is inadequate if it includes only the federal branch of government. Our founding fathers recognized the threat of a powerful central government and instituted checks and balances in order to limit its effect on individual states. However, at the time of our country’s founding, the population was roughly three million souls. Today, that many people live in the greater Cleveland area. What the crafters of our system were unable to foresee was that the state governments they cherished would one day grow to a size that would dwarf the governments of other countries (including our own in 1789).

The conservative focus on the federal government is understandable, considering the way it affects all citizens. But as the population increases, it becomes imperative that we pay equal attention to the Little Leviathans that arise at the state and even local levels of governance.

Limited government, then, is best construed as the principle that all levels of governance should be limited to their proper role, scope, and function.

As the political philosopher Robert P. George has argued, 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. The government fulfills its roles in two ways: directly, by protecting the lives and safety of citizens, and indirectly, by supporting the work of families, religious communities, and other mediating institutions of civil society.

Fulfilling the task of advancing the general welfare requires that government be limited in order not to infringe on the fundamental rights and basic liberties that it is charged with protecting. Limited government is therefore not a goal but an instrumental good. As such, our advocacy for governmental limitation must be subordinated to our defense of the “permanent things” that command our true allegiance. We can’t forget that like many other conservative concepts, answers can only be judged to be right when we understand the questions they are answering.

Joe Carter is Web Editor of First Things and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator . His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here .


Robert P. George, Law and Moral Purpose

Joe Carter, The Lives Federalists Won’t Save

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