Is limited government still a viable method of governance in America?

Obama has stirred a national debate about liberty and the proper role of government – especially the meaning of limited government.
Lurking unaddressed in that debate is a key point about whether limited government, as enshrined in our Constitution, is still a viable method of governance in America.
William Voegeli raises that point in his NR review (available for a fee) of Steven Hayward’s book, The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980–1989:

…Hayward shares, and deftly explicates, Reagan’s belief that opposing Communism abroad and opposing the welfare and regulatory state at home were, in fact, the same fight, the one to protect inherently tenuous liberty from vastly ambitious and, thus, vastly dangerous government. Reagan, says Hayward, insisted on “tracing a linkage between the corruption of Soviet Communism and the weakness of domestic liberalism.” That link, according to the first volume of The Age of Reagan, was “liberalism’s lack of a limiting principle.” Its absence has rendered modern American politics a contest between the adherents of limited and of unlimited government. As Hayward explains: “The premise of the administrative state is that our public problems are complicated, with ‘no easy answers,’ whose remedy requires sophisticated legislation and extensive bureaucratic management. Anyone who says otherwise (like Ronald Reagan) is a ‘simpleton.’ But the creed of the administrative state makes the idea of citizen self-government seem quaint or obsolete, and it causes our government to be remote and esoteric to average citizens.”
Last year, Sean Wilentz wrote: “It should be clear that mistakes and overreaching have hampered liberalism’s evolution.” That proposition is clear. What’s not clear, confirming the lack of a limiting principle, is what liberalism thinks its overreaching has reached over — what constraints, if any, on the government’s capacity and legitimate authority to diagnose and remedy social problems liberals are prepared to acknowledge and respect.

Voegeli continues:

“Tear down this wall,” Reagan said in Berlin in 1987. Two years later, the Communists tore it down. Eliminate the U.S. Department of Education, the Republicans said in their 1980 platform. Two years — and eight years, and 29 years — later, it had only grown larger. “Reagan was more successful in rolling back the Soviet empire than he was in rolling back the domestic government empire,” writes Hayward, “chiefly because the latter is a harder problem” (emphasis in the original). It is, twice over, a startling assessment — first, because the Soviet menace seemed, for long decades, like a immutable fact that could never melt away; second, because it is indeed indisputable that the seemingly less audacious goal of curbing the size and influence of the federal establishment proved much tougher…

Actions have consequences and Obama is certainly stirring a vivid national debate on these issues.
Will liberty – expressed in the form of limited government – regain traction as a fundamental principle in America and triumph in this current debate?

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Robert Balliot
11 years ago

Where is limited government ‘enshrined in our Constitution’? The Constitution was never considered a static document by the founding fathers and it may be physically encased but never ‘enshrined’. In fact, Jefferson advocated a Constitutional Convention be held every 19 years so that each new generation would not be bound by previous generations.

If the Constitution had been ‘enshrined’ it would not include The Bill of Rights, the abolishment of slavery, the right of women to vote, the right to vote for senators, term limits for Presidents or the right of 18 year olds to vote.

Dan
Dan
11 years ago

The Free State Project is the only real chance for limited government and liberty within my lifetime that I have ever seen. The federal government is going to keep growing itself indefinitely, whether there are Republicans or Democrats in charge of it at any given point in time, that much has been proven by recent history. The state governments will continue doing the same to a slightly lesser extent, but it is possible that we can turn around one small area of the country (New Hampshire) from the statists and big-government authoritarians if we concentrate our forces. When there are liberty activists scattered here and there, a few in Rhode Island, a few in Massachusetts, a few in D.C., we will remain hopelessly outnumbered and stand no chance against the tide of nanny-statism and overreaching police authority at all.

Tabetha
Tabetha
11 years ago

Is there no happy medium?
Despite my libertarian leanings, I am ultimately an independent because I cannot agree with such extreme positions such as abolishing public education. An informed and educated populace is less likely to fall prey to dictatorship. However, I do strongly feel that we need to stop the federal government from permeating the minutiae of our everyday lives. I think that more accessible and affordable health care options must be made available, for example, and we shouldn’t have people (especially working people) who are not covered. On the other hand, I would hate to see everyone bound to a public health care program that our Congress people do not want for themselves or their own families. (That alone should give us pause.) I think that overall the federal government’s job should be to maintain the infrastructure and security of the nation. Beyond that, we should proceed with caution. I think that we really need to be careful about how much we allow the federal government to intrude on our day-to-day lives. Is it a matter of public safety, human rights, or ensuring that public institutions are run in a smooth and organized manner? If not, we should be vigilant to ensure that no branch of the government is encroaching on our constitutional rights. I think, if anything, the founders of this nation wanted to ensure that the people were running the government and not the other way around.

Dan
Dan
11 years ago

Tabetha, I think you will find that when you restrict the federal government to the “essentials”, things quickly become framed as essential that you never considered essential before (see: FDA, FCC, DEA, etc.). Not sure what you can do about that sort of mission creep and expansion of authority, except by taking the sort of extreme position you are reluctant to adopt in only using government as an extreme last resort rather than the first thing one runs to to solve the everyday problems people face. As for education, I would just point out what is, in my opinion, a false dichotomy of saying we can either have an educated population OR a privatized school system. In a truly free market, there are inferior but still adequate services and products available to poor people too. It’s not like the public school system isn’t failing a large percentage of its poorer students anyway by graduating them functionally illiterate, and how many times have politicians and bureaucrats tried to “fix” the system as it just continues to get worse and worse? Clearly there are some fundamental problems with an inherently noncompetitive system such as public education.
I would suggest limiting the federal government to truly essential and purely “interstate” matters that simply *cannot* be handled by the state governments and the like as the Constitution originally envisioned. Not that that could possibly be accomplished through political means at this point, mind you, which is why I advocate for the Free State Project as our one realistic chance.
You don’t sound very libertarian to me personally, but then again I’ve been accused here of being a “purist.”

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
11 years ago

Robert Balliot: “If the Constitution had been ‘enshrined’ it would not include The Bill of Rights, the abolishment of slavery, the right of women to vote, the right to vote for senators, term limits for Presidents or the right of 18 year olds to vote.”
Lest we forget, the Bill of Rights was required to assure the states of a limit on Federal power. As to the remaining amendments, it is well to remember that they had to “go to the people” before they were adopted.
Even a gloss of the Federalist Papers will show a strong inclination towards a limited Federal government.
A large federal role was not the product of the thinking of the “Founding Fathers”, it was a product of the Civil War. Although slavery was the tinder, “states rights” was the issue. By the way, the Constitution still does not contain any provision against “secession”.

OldTimeLefty
11 years ago

Warrington,
you might want to expand on what “Going to the people” meant at the time of the adoption of the Bill of Rights. If my history classes serve me right, “The people” did not include women, people of color, and in many instances people without property. In some places Catholics were not permitted to vote.
Thank goodness that “The Constitution was never considered a static document.” Perhaps you could explain this to the most dangerous man in the United States, Justice Scalia.
OldTimeLefty

Tabetha
Tabetha
11 years ago

Dan,
It is true that I am not a purist. If I had to choose a political party that I most closely fit in with, it would be the Libertarian Party, but at the end of the day, my ambivalence leaves me as ultimately an independent. I will check out the Free State Project. Admittedly, I don’t know much about it and you’ve have sparked my interest enough to do a little active research.
I don’t think that there is an easy answer to deciding just what the parameters of the federal government should be. I do think most of us agree that we don’t want the government running our day-to-day lives. Beyond that, I think that continued research and discourse is necessary. I enjoy forums like this one because people do have so many varied opinions and are trying to grapple in a (mostly) civil way with some difficult issues. As I said, I’ll look into the Free State Project a bit. It seems worth some investigation.

George Elbow
George Elbow
11 years ago

OTL,
For the sake of discussion, is it fair to ask whether or not we would have ended up with such a long-lasting document as the Constitution, which is used as a model around the world, had all those people you mentioned been allowed to participate in its crafting?
It certainly wasn’t a very diverse group that created it. But is there a better Constitution somewhere in the world that was created by a more diverse group?
Ok, now I am ducking for cover from all the arrows that will be coming my way for throwing this out there.
Mind you, I don’t for a minute advocate that the folks you mentioned should be shut out or that they aren’t equal or better.
I merely put it out there for discussion, as I often find it rather ironic that we sometimes bash the founding fathers by showing a picture of them and ask “what’s wrong with this picture”, with the obvious answer being there was very little diversity.
Yet, but for this non-diverse group, many wouldn’t have the opportunity to even ask such questions.
But who knows, perhaps a more diverse crowd could have created a better document …or no document at all.

Robert Balliot
11 years ago

‘Warrington Faust’ writes –

A large federal role was not the product of the thinking of the “Founding Fathers”.

So, the Louisianna Purchase and the Louis and Clark Expedition did not qualify as ‘large’? Those were the products of the thinking of Jefferson and greatly expanded the role of and domain of federal government.

The ‘Founding Fathers’ disagreed with each other about government on many, many issues. Adams and Jefferson fought for years over the meaning of government. The notion that the ‘Founding Fathers’ were of one mind is ridiculous.

George Elbow
George Elbow
11 years ago

Robert,
It is one thing for the gov’t to expand it’s reach with respect to the physical boundries of the country, yet a far different thing for the gov’t to expand it’s reach into the personal affairs of it’s citizens.
Clearly, the Founding Fathers had an over-riding concern for too much power (and larger gov’t by definition means more power), hence the balance of powers incorporated into the Constitution.
I think it is fair to say that, on balance, they were more concerned with erring on the side of limited gov’t.
The real problem with a big gov’t is that too few people pay for it.
Roughly 50% of the taxes are paid by less than 10% of the people and there are massive amounts of people who pay nothing or next to nothing.
So when so many pay little to nothing in support of big gov’t, they are all for it. But ultimately, that is a recipe for disastor.
The big gov’t people are the ones going along for the ride while fewer and fewer pull the wagon.
They are not unlike the Republicans who say we have to expand the war in the Middle East, that we HAVE to win, etc., yet they are unwilling to put forth a war-tax to pay for and a draft to staff the effort.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
11 years ago

OldTimeLefty
“Warrington,
you might want to expand on what “Going to the people” meant at the time of the adoption of the Bill of Rights. If my history classes serve me right, “The people” did not include women, people of color, and in many instances people without property. In some places Catholics were not permitted to vote.”
At the time of the Constitution, and up to the present, who could vote was a question to be answered individually by the states. There have been altering amendments concerning who may vote, but these were approved by the state legislatures, or at least 3/4 of them.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
11 years ago

OldTimeLefty
“Warrington,
you might want to expand on what “Going to the people” meant at the time of the adoption of the Bill of Rights. If my history classes serve me right, “The people” did not include women, people of color, and in many instances people without property. In some places Catholics were not permitted to vote.”
What you say is true, however the Constitution left those natters to the states. There have been amendments making some of those “Federal Issues”, but the Federal government obtained sovereignty on those issues by the consent of the state legislatures, or at least 3/4 of them.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
11 years ago

Posted by Robert Balliot at September 16, 2009 10:04 PM ‘Warrington Faust’ writes – A large federal role was not the product of the thinking of the “Founding Fathers”. So, the Louisianna Purchase and the Louis and Clark Expedition did not qualify as ‘large’? Those were the products of the thinking of Jefferson and greatly expanded the role of and domain of federal government. The ‘Founding Fathers’ disagreed with each other about government on many, many issues. Adams and Jefferson fought for years over the meaning of government. The notion that the ‘Founding Fathers’ were of one mind is ridiculous. Increasing the physical area of the United States does not require an expansion of the powers of the Federal Government, to suggest that it does only confuses the issue. Admittedly, the Founding Fathers were of different minds. But, they were able to agree, or at least “reach agreement”. Adams and Jefferson did disagree on many issues. However neither contributed directly to the Federalist Papers and this does not detract from my point. It should be remembered that if history did not occur as it did, does not mean that other historical forces at work would not have produced the same result. About the lack of “diversity” among our Founding Fathers, there is no denying it. Rather than dwell on that, we should be thankful that they existed. How many Constitutions were drawn by people who had read Plato’s Republic in the original Greek, many had read the history of the Roman Empire in the original Latin. A great many had read the Bible in the original Hebrew. Add to this the breadth of experience in business and the law, these people knew the nature of government and the natures of people. Adoption of our Constitution by others has been mentioned.… Read more »

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
11 years ago

“The real problem with a big gov’t is that too few people pay for it.
Roughly 50% of the taxes are paid by less than 10% of the people and there are massive amounts of people who pay nothing or next to nothing.”
————
Thank God we don’t get all of the government we pay for.
“The problem…is that, while big government ideologues take to politics like a duck to water, most principled antiFederalists have things they would rather do than go to Washington and push people around. They have products to manufacture, fields to harvest, sick people to heal – and if they don’t have something to do, they’ll find something. They tend to think that politics is not important, or at least not worthy. In any case, few have enough sense of duty to overcome their distaste for Washingtonians, or the instincts to flourish among them if they do. What this means is that a conservative administration has to fill many of its positions either with the incompetent, who need the work, or with the slimy politicos of the sort that run college student governments.” John Shelton Reed – “Whistling Dixie”

OldTimeLefty
11 years ago

Warrington,
While it may be true that roughly 50% of the taxes are paid by less than 10% of the people, it is also true that 1% of the people possess more wealth than 95% of the people. The former fact bothers you, the latter you turn your back on, an attitude you seem to share with Marie Antoinette.
OldTimeLefty

Monique
Editor
11 years ago

“The real problem with a big gov’t is that too few people pay for it.
Roughly 50% of the taxes are paid by less than 10% of the people and there are massive amounts of people who pay nothing or next to nothing.”
Huh, good point.
Now add to that a new group of people discovered by this Congress to pay for big government: people who haven’t been born yet. Our borrowing has gotten so huge, it will have to be paid for, literally, by generations to come.
Hey, in one big way, it works out great: they’re not here to vote out those who are writing checks on their checking account.

Robert Balliot
11 years ago

‘Warrington Faust’ / Donald Hawthorne writes:

For all of that, why are our Governors still referred to as “his excellency”?

That is a colonial legacy, an inherited provenance. There were already governors when the Constitution was written.

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