Limited Government

It may seem like Americans are hopelessly divided on almost every issue, but the idea of limited government is something many people support.  But what exactly is limited government, and why is it an essential element of the American system of government?

Limited Government Limited Government

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Contents
Table of contents

    Definition of Limited Government

    The principle of Limited government is the idea that there should be clear restrictions on government and its rulers in order to protect the natural rights of citizens. America’s founders were influenced by Enlightenment philosophers and thinkers, expressly John Locke who built an important philosophy on the foundation of the idea of natural rights.

    Natural rights are those rights that inherently belong to all human beings, and those rights are not dependent on a government.

    The founders of the American government were inspired by Locke’s belief that the purpose of government was to protect an individual citizen’s natural rights.

    Locke argued that there should be two important limits on government. He believed that governments should have standing laws so that citizens were aware of them and that the purpose of government was to preserve personal property

    Hand in hand with the powerful philosophy of natural rights is Locke’s argument that governments must be built upon the consent of the governed.

    Consent of the Governed: The idea that governments get their power and authority from its citizens and that citizens have the right to determine who their rulers will be.

    If the government fails to be responsive to the needs of the people, the people have the right to revolt. Locke’s revolutionary ideas about consent of the governed and natural rights formed the basis for the American system of limited government.

    Meaning of Limited Government

    The meaning of limited government is that certain individual liberties and rights of people are beyond the scope of government control and intervention. This idea was in sharp contrast to thousands of years of governments controlled by authoritarian regimes and monarchies in which a king or queen wielded absolute power over their subjects. Limited government means that the government shouldn’t become too powerful and violate the rights of the people.

    Colonists declared their independence from Great Britain because of King George III's tyrannical and oppressive rule. Because of this, they wanted to create a new government that respected individual liberties. The ideas of limited government form the very backbone of the United States government.

    Examples of Limited Government

    American democracy is a prime example of limited government. Representative democracy, separation of powers and checks and balances, and federalism are all elements that work together to establish and maintain America's system of limited government.

    U.S. House Chamber StudySmarterFig. 1, House of Representatives, Wikipedia

    Representative Democracy

    In American representative democracy, the power rests in the hands of the voting citizens. Americans choose their legislators to represent them and make laws, and citizens also vote for electors that choose the president. If citizens feel like their representatives are not advocating for their best interests, they can vote them out.

    Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances

    American democracy is defined by separation of powers and checks and balances. Government is divided into three branches, the legislative, executive, and the judicial branches. The legislative branch is further divided into two houses: the House of Representatives and the Senate. This intra branch check further ensures that power is divided and checked.

    Federalism

    America is a federal system of government.

    Federalism is defined as a way of organizing a government so that one or more levels of government share power over the same geographic area and the same citizens.

    For example, you may be a citizen of Orlando, Florida and a citizen of the United States of America. There are multiple levels of government that are sharing power: municipal (city), county, state, and federal (national). This federal system serves as another way to make sure no one level of government is becoming too powerful. Federalism also ensures that citizens have a level of government that is more responsive to their needs than the federal government. Local governments know and understand the specific problems and goals of their constituents more than the federal government and can often act more swiftly.

    New York Board of Education Seal StudySmarterFig. 2, Seal of the New York City Board of Education, Wikimedia Commons

    There are many other governments around the world that are examples of limited government. It is a popular system among democratic countries, and some other examples of countries with limited governments include, but are not limited to, the United Kingdom, Canada, Denmark, and Germany.

    The opposite of a limited government would be an authoritarian government in which the government and its rulers wielded absolute power that was unchecked. For example, in an authoritarian system, if the president wanted to declare war on another country and direct troops into combat, there is no other institution in place to check them. In the American system, Congress declares war. As Commander in Chief, the President can order troops, but he is checked by Congress's control of funding, AKA "power of the purse."

    American Limited Government

    The American government is based on the ideas of limited government, including natural rights, republicanism, popular sovereignty, and the social contract.

    Republicanism: A republic is a form of government in which the citizens elect representatives to govern them and create laws.

    Popular Sovereignty: The idea that government is created by and is subject to the will of the people.

    Social Contract: The idea that citizens give up some rights in order to enjoy the benefits of government, such as protection. If the government fails to uphold its promises, the citizens have the right to institute a new government.

    Inspired by these revolutionary ideas, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, which was approved by the colonies in 1776. In this important foundational document, Jefferson claimed the people should rule instead of being ruled. The existence of the government was rooted in certain truths:

    That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. - that to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it…

    Limited Government in the Constitution

    The Constitution enshrines limited government in the United States' political system. It is important for limited governments to have written documents expressly stating the limitations of government and the rights of the people.

    At the forefront of the minds of those in attendance at the Constitutional Convention was establishing a system of limited government that preserved individual liberties. Colonists had declared independence from Great Britain after experiencing a long list of grievances centered around tyranny and abuses on personal liberty. They wanted to create a system that spread power among branches in which those branches restrain each other. The framers also wanted a federal system in which power was shared among levels of government. James Madison’s proposals of separation of powers and checks and balances are a central part of limited government.

    Articles 1-3

    The first three articles of the Constitution outline the organization of a limited government. Article one establishes the legislative branch and sets forth its responsibilities and defines its checks on the other two branches. Article two establishes the Executive Branch, and Article Three outlines the Judicial Branch. These three articles lay out the foundation of separation of powers and checks and balances.

    The Constitution lists the enumerated powers of each of the branches. Enumerated powers are powers of the federal government that are listed explicitly in the Constitution. The government also has certain implied powers that go beyond those enumerated in the Constitution.

    Bill of Rights

    The Bill of Rights is a powerful addition to the Constitution underlining the importance of a limited government. These first ten amendments, or additions to the Constitution, were created in response to some colonists’ beliefs that the newly created Constitution didn’t go far enough in protecting individual liberties. Anti-Federalists argued against a strong federal government and wanted assurances that the new Constitution would protect their liberties. These amendments define basic American liberties such as freedom of speech, religion, assembly, and they guarantee defendant rights.

    Limited Government - Key takeaways

    • Limited government can be defined as the idea that there should be clear restrictions on government and its rulers in order to protect the natural rights of citizens.
    • The Framers of the American system of government were inspired by Enlightenment writers, most notably John Locke who espoused a powerful philosophy of limited government.
    • The founders of an early American form of government were fearful of a tyrannical and oppressive government, therefore it was important to create a government that did not interfere with their individual rights.
    • The articles of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and federalism all create a system of limited government.

    References

    1. Fig. 1, House of Representatives (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_House_of_Representatives#/media/File:United_States_House_of_Representatives_chamber.jpg) by United States House of Representatives, In Public Domain
    2. ig. 2, Seal of the NYC Board of Education (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/29/NYC_Board_of_Education_seal.jpg) by Beyond My Ken (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Beyond_My_Ken) Lincensed by GNU Free Documentation License (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNU_Free_Documentation_License)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Limited Government

    What is an example of limited government?

    An example of limited government is American democracy, in which power rests in the hands of the people. There are clear restrictions on government and its rulers in order to protect the individual liberties of its citizens. The opposite of limited government would be an authoritarian form of government, in which power rests in the hands of one individual and citizens have no voice in government.

    What is the role of limited government?

    The role of limited government is to protect citizens from a too-powerful government. Limited government exists to protect the individual rights of citizens.

    What does limited government mean?

    The meaning of limited government is that certain individual liberties and rights of people are beyond the scope of government control and intervention. This idea was in sharp contrast to thousands of years of governments controlled by authoritarian regimes and monarchies in which a king or queen wielded absolute power over their subjects. Limited government means that the government shouldn’t become too powerful and violate the rights of voters.

    Why is it important to have a limited government?

    It is important to have a limited government so that citizens’ liberties are protected. In a limited government certain individual liberties and rights of people are beyond the scope of government control and intervention. In a limited government, voters rule instead of being ruled.

    What is the most important limit of government?

    The most important limit of government is debatable, but the fact that government can’t take away too many liberties related to how people live their lives is a tremendously important limit. Thanks to the limits set forth in the articles of the Constitution and in the Bill of Rights, Americans enjoy a functional limited government. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What enlightenment thinker inspired the founders of American government with his ideas of natural rights?

    Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?

    What is an example of a limited government?

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