limited government

Small Government versus Limited Government?

One of the overriding purposes of the Constitution was to limit government.  The framers were determined to establish the concept of self-government while limiting the power of government over the people.  Their experience with living under the boot heel of a tyrannical British monarch convinced the framers that the power of government should be limited.  Because the size, reach and power of the federal government have grown exponentially since the Constitution was ratified, it has become common to here conservatives talk about the need for “small government.”   Although I understand what is meant when conservatives demand reductions in the size of government, it would be well for them to use the term “limited government” government instead.

Those constitutional conservatives who are concerned about the continual growth of the federal government should be more precise in their terminology because imprecise terminology may lead to solutions they did not envision and do not approve of.  To wit, one of the fastest ways to reduce the size of the federal government would be to simply eliminate or drastically reduce the size of the military.  However, thinking people realize that in a world as dangerous as that of today, eliminating or drastically shrinking the military could be a recipe for disaster.  Such a move would certainly reduce the size of the federal government, but at what cost?

When constitutional conservatives use the term “big government,” they mean or at least should mean unlimited government—government that has grown beyond the boundaries established in the Constitution. When they use the term “small government” they mean government that operates within the constraints established by the framers of the Constitution.  The federal government is too big because it has grown beyond the scope of its Constitutional boundaries.  What was intended by the framers to be a limited federal government that carried out specific enumerated duties has, over time, become an unlimited monstrosity that goes well beyond its enumerated powers and any reasonable interpretation of the powers that were not enumerated.  Hence, the term unlimited government has become synonymous with the term big government.  However, the differences in the two concepts—thought subtle—are important.

The federal government should be as big as is necessary to carry out its enumerated powers and no bigger.  Hence, limit the scope of government and you will limit its size correspondingly.  Conservatives understand this relationship between Constitutional constraints and the size of government.  The problem with using the terms big government and small government is that some liberals think the best way to have “small” government is to cut the military, as was mentioned earlier.  While there is no doubt that massive cuts to the military will shrink the size of government, one must question the veracity of this approach.      

Liberals are now using the language of conservatives to justify drastic military cuts while ignoring those aspects of the federal budget that clearly exceed enumerated Constitutional limits.  Conservatives must take the initiative in redirecting the course of the debate.  The issue is Constitutional limits, not government size per se.  When the debate is properly directed, liberals will have to justify spending billions on such government agencies as the Departments of Education, Commerce, and Labor as well as on regulatory bodies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In addition, liberals and conservatives will have to do the hard work of dealing with out-of-control spending in the federal government’s three biggest entitlement programs—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid/Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

Constitutional conservatives are right to be concerned about the continual growth of the federal government.  But in opposing this growth, it is important to focus on putting the federal government back within the limits prescribed by the Constitution and intended by the framers, not to just shrink the size of government.

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David L. Goetsch

Dr. Goetsch is a retired college Vice-President and professor of business and political science, a business consultant, and a widely-recognized public speaker. He is the author of more than 70 books on leadership, management, business, and political commentary.

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