Examples of limited government include the separation of powers, bills of rights, the requirement of majority consent, and powers of popular recall elections.
There are many ways to conceptualize a government that is limited in power. Classical liberals, conservatives, and libertarians often argue in favor of limitations on government.
Many anarchists take this to the extreme and argue for the abolition of government. Strictly speaking, a limited government is any government that is somehow limited in power.
A limited government is limited in its powers by laws. The limitations typically take the form of a written constitution, democratic elections, the separation of powers, and a strong judicial system.
Under such a government, political authority is effectively restrained (Angle, 2017).
Advocates of limited government assert that government is a human convention, an instrument whose authority derives from the consent of the governed population (Hancock, 1988).
Checks to governmental power may include:
- limitations on areas in which the government can interfere
- limitations on the amount of money a government can collect
- limitations on the types or number of people it can conscript to an army
- limitations on the authority it can delegate
- and so on.
The idea of a limited government is closely linked to constitutionalism.
Constitutionalism is most commonly associated with the political theories of John Locke and the founders of the American republic. It holds that government should be legally limited in its powers (Waluchow & Kyritsis, 2022).
- Life, Liberty, and Possessions: According to John Locke, no one has absolute arbitrary power over themselves or others. Therefore, no government can use its power to arbitrarily take away the life, liberty, or possessions of its subjects (Locke, 1689/1821, §135).
- Limitation to Public Good: According to John Locke, the government is limited to the public good of society. It has obligations to preserve the public good. It cannot, therefore, destroy, enslave, or impoverish the subjects (Locke, 1689/1821, §135).
- Requirement for Majority Consent: The government must have the consent of the majority for it to have the right to levy taxes (Locke, 1689/1821, §140).
- Inability to Transfer Powers: The legislative authority cannot transfer its power to make laws to any other entity (Locke, 1689/1821, §141). According to Locke, the people decide who makes laws, and the makers of laws cannot replace themselves without the consent of the people.
- No Rule by Decree: The legislative or supreme authority cannot rule by arbitrary decrees (Locke, 1689/1821, §136). It is bound to decide the rights of the subjects through standing laws and authorized judges.
- The separation of powers: The division of government powers so that each branch (executive, legislative, legal) acts as a check on the power of the others dates back to Montesquieu and the founders (Montesquieu, 1989).
- Independent courts: Strong, independent, and impartial courts are required in a limited government in order to restrain the government from acting outside of its purview.
- Preservation of Property: The supreme power cannot take away anyone’s property without consent (Locke, 1689/1821, §138). The preservation of property is, according to Locke, one of the ends of a government.
- The US Tenth Amendment: The tenth amendment clarifies separation of powers between states and the federal government, ensuring that the federal government’s powers are limited. If the federal government hasn’t been granted powers, then those powers are held by the states (with the exception of implied powers).
- Freedom of Speech: Freedom of speech is an implied and limited right in many nations. However, in the United States, it is codified in the US constitution. An example of freedom of speech is the right to protest against the government.
- McCullock vs Maryland: McCullock vs Maryland was a landmark supreme court case that restricted the powers of states in the USA. It held that the states could not tax federal government institutions that were operational in order to fulfil their constitutional duties.
- State vs Federal Laws: The separation of legal powers is an important principle in most federated nations. Canada, Australia, and the USA, for example, have states and provinces who have powers such as the power to administer education and healthcare, that federal governments are not usually allowed to intervene upon.
- Lifetime Supreme Court Appointments: Lifetime appointments to supreme courts are another way government’s powers are curtailed. By having a lifetime appointment, a judge is supposed to be able to pass judgments with less coercion and not worry about the government getting upset with them.
- Brown vs Board of Education: Brown vs Board of Education was a US supreme court ruling that limited government powers. It found that the Kansas public school couldn’t provide educational institutions that were segregated because it was discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional.
- Marriage Laws: On several occasions, US supreme court rulings have found that government cannot prevent people – including interracial and same-sex couples – from getting married.
- Recall elections: Another way in which governments can be limited is by trigger laws that enable recall elections if a government is highly unpopular. A recent example is the direct democracy recall election into governor Gavin Newsom in California, which ultimately failed.
- Referenda: A government in a constitutional democracy cannot alter a constitution without direct consent of the people, in the form of a referendum that will lead to a constitutional amendment.
Pros of Limited Government
- A limited government cannot take away anyone’s property. As Locke writes in his second treatise, one of the most important limitations of governmental power restricts its ability to take away the private property of its subjects (Locke, 1689/1821, §138).
- A limited government does not rule the population arbitrarily. If there are set laws that genuinely and effectively restrict what the government can do, it becomes more and more difficult for a tyrannical ruler to enforce arbitrary decisions.
- A limited government is harder to corrupt. It is easy to end up with one corrupt sovereign in a hereditary monarchy. It is also easy to end up with one corrupt branch of government. But the separation of powers makes it more difficult to end up with an entirely corrupt government. For example, even if the president of the US is corrupt, the judiciary and legislative branches of government can limit the power of the president.
- A limited government must take the interests of its people into account. A limited government derives its political authority from the consent of the governed. It is, therefore, vital that it listens to what the people want. This is why limited governments are more democratic than absolute ones.
- A limited government protects individual rights. Individual rights are very often broken not by other people, but by governments. Placing limits on the government, therefore, is a way to protect individual rights.
- It is harder for a limited government to unnecessarily go to war. Constitutions often define when it is justified to go to war and when it is not. Because a limited government requires popular support, it is harder for it to start a war for personal or unnecessary reasons.
The idea of placing limits on government power through laws is becoming more and more popular, but it has no shortage of critics.
- Strong governments can protect the people: Some critics of limited government claim that rights-protective constitutions, despite what they claim to do, cannot effectively defend individuals from the oppressive forces of governments (Unger, 2015).
- Governments control judges so the limitations are just a facade: The judges who ultimately decide constitutional cases are very often appointed by the government. Therefore, the judges who supposedly curtail government powers are often just lackies for the government of the day, undermining the concept of limited government overall.
- Powerful judges is undemocratic and leads to bad outcomes: Appointing elite judges who decide on constitutional cases might often lead to the suppression of interests of minority groups, women, the poor, and so on because such judges are often affiliated with dominant ideologies which might be oppressive to marginalized groups.
According to the critics of limited government, the law has historically been used by powerful groups to secure and maintain their superior status. As Waluchow and Kyritsis (2022) argue:
“To sum up, according to hard critics, a constitution is anything but the protection from unwarranted government power that its champions have heralded over the centuries. What is taken to be the obvious meaning of a key term like ‘equal before the law’ is what the dominant group understands or claims it to be” (Waluchow & Kyritsis, 2022).
Limited Government and Constitutionality
Limited government is associated with constitutions. Usually, the constitution is what defines the limits of such a government.
The US Constitution of 1789 and the French Constitution of 1793 both affirm limited government.
The US Constitution affirms the principles of limited government through a separation of powers between different branches of government.
These branches are the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary.
Another separation is between the powers of the federal government and the powers of the state government.
1. US Constitution
James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51: “… the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others” (Madison, 1788).
2. French Constitution
The French constitution was based on the idea that limited government was best achieved through rational democratic self-government. The protection and enforcement of the general will were thought of as antithetical to tyrannical rule (Rosenfeld, 1994, p. 11).
A limited government is limited in its powers by law, a written constitution, or some other mechanism. It originates from the theories of John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, and the American founders. The idea of placing limits on the government through law has many supporters but is still a matter of controversy for many.
Angle, S. C. (2017). Confucian Justification of Limited Government: Comments on Joseph Chan’s “Confucian Perfectionism.” Philosophy East and West, 67(1), 15–24.
Hancock, R. C. (1988). Religion and the Limits of Limited Government. The Review of Politics, 50(4), 682–703.
Hunt, A. (1986). The Theory of Critical Legal Studies. Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, 6(1), 1–45.
Locke, J. (1821). Two Treatises of Government. Whitmore and Fenn and C. Brown. (Original work published 1689)
Madison, J. (1788). The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments. New York Packet. https://guides.loc.gov/federalist-papers/text-51-60#s-lg-box-wrapper-25493427
Montesquieu, C. de. (1989). Montesquieu: The Spirit of the Laws. Cambridge University Press.
Rosenfeld, M. (1994). Modern Constitutionalism as Interplay Between Identity and Diversity. In Constitutionalism, Identity, Difference, and Legitimacy: Theoretical Perspectives. Duke University Press.
Unger, R. M. (2015). The Critical Legal Studies Movement: Another Time, A Greater Task. Verso Books. Waluchow, W., & Kyritsis, D. (2022). Constitutionalism. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2022). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2022/entries/constitutionalism/