In speech after speech I have heard my colleagues in the tea party movement speak passionately about the need for limited government. With public enterprises expanding exponentially in the Obama era, this concern is understandable. The Founding Fathers recognized intrusive government as the forerunner of tyranny.
And yet, with some hesitancy, it must be pointed out that limited government — whatever its virtues — must be expandable enough to meet unanticipated necessities that may arise. Government should not be small if it is incapable of doing what must be done. Its size and influence should be calibrated to the conditions that maintain self-government.
Limited government is a term of art related to scope, but not power or energy. A government should actively work to preserve liberty. But if, for example, a government taxes excessively in order to promote its programs, it can undermine the liberty it was fashioned to secure.
The Constitution, as the guardian of the liberty, is not an entirely fixed document; it is open to interpretation and amendment by the people. And as a consequence, can be used in latitudinarian circles to expand government authority. Hence each generation has a responsibility to guard against the usurpation of government influence, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan.
However, a government at war is different from a government at peace. Perhaps that explains why the Constitution has “a necessary and proper” clause. One would hope, as the authors of the Federalist Papers did, that what is necessary has precedence in the Constitution and everything that is necessary is also proper. Alas, that may be a reach.
But the presumption is that the Constitution by its very nature limits government. For one thing, since the Constitution is above ordinary government, it is a check on the potential excesses of legislators. And second, since the Constitution is made by the people, it trumps ordinary law made by the legislature. Moreover, that Constitution can only be altered by recourse to the people.
Governments fashioned in this way are limited because the Constitution itself is the embodiment of human foibles. Federalist 51 notes, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” Averice counteracts averice; greed counteracts greed. As a consequence, the Constitution presupposes, with its reliance on the full panoply of human conditions, that human beings are capable of governing themselves rather than being the helpless victims of historical forces.
To limit is to create boundaries. Our government is limited by a Constitution that restricts certain behavior based on precedent and an understanding of human nature. But when the term-limited government is employed, it is contingent on necessities of the moment, on those factors that can produce security and tranquility.
Emergencies require stringent action, action that the Constitution will in most instances countenance.
The genius of our system is the flexibility inherent in the framing and the parameters that offer direction for action. Constitutional provisions are a balance wheel of restrained can-dos and adaptable limitations. Therefore, limited government has several meanings that should be offered as part of the public debate on the future of government activity.
The glib assertion that we should recall the American application of limits is valid for a generation that often believes government should do everything from paying your mortgage to providing free healthcare.
Our Constitution recognized government as a necessary institution which is neither powerless nor omniscient. That may not be the stuff of bumper-sticker logic, but it is closest to what actually exists in Washington, D.C.
Herbert London is president of the Hudson Institute and author of the book Decline and Revival in Higher Education (Transaction Publishers).
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