What Is a Constitutionally Limited Government?

Preamble to American Constitution
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In a “limited government,” the power of the government to intervene in the lives and activities of the people is limited by constitutional law. While some people argue that it is not limited enough, the United States government is an example of a constitutionally limited government.

Limited government is typically considered to be the ideological opposite of the doctrines of “absolutism” or the Divine Right of Kings, which grant a single person unlimited sovereignty over the people.

The history of limited government in Western civilization dates back to the English Magna Carta of 1512. While the Magna Carta’s limits on the powers of the king protected only a small sector or the English people, it did grant the king’s barons certain limited rights they could apply in opposition to the king’s policies. The English Bill of Rights, arising from the Glorious Revolution of 1688, further limited the powers of the royal sovereignty.

In contrast to the Magna Carta and English Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution establishes a central government limited by the document itself through a system of three branches of government with limits over each other’s powers, and the right of the people to freely elect the president and members of Congress.

Limited Government in the United States

The Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781, embodied a limited government. However, by failing to provide any way for the national government to raise money to pay its staggering Revolutionary War debt, or to defend itself against foreign aggression, the document left the nation in financial chaos.

Thus, the third incarnation of the Continental Congress convened the Constitutional Convention from 1787 to 1789 to replace the Articles of Confederation with the U.S. Constitution.

After great debate, the delegates of the Constitutional Convention conceived a doctrine of limited government based on a constitutionally required system of separation of powers with checks and balances as explained by James Madison in the Federalist Papers, No. 45.

Madison’s concept of limited government maintained that the powers of the new government should be limited internally by the Constitution itself and externally by the American people through the representative electoral process. Madison also stressed the need for an understanding that the limitations placed on the government, as well as the U.S. Constitution itself, must provide the flexibility needed to allow the government to change as required over the years.

Today, the Bill of Rights – the first 10 amendments -- forms a vital part of the Constitution. While the first eight amendments spell out the rights and protections retained by the people, the Ninth Amendment and the Tenth Amendment define the process of limited government as practiced in the United States.

Together, the Ninth and Tenth Amendments spell out the difference between the “enumerated” rights expressly granted to the people through the Constitution and the implied or “natural” rights granted to all people by nature or God. In addition, the Tenth Amendment defines the individual and shared powers of the U.S. government and the state governments forming the American version of federalism.

How is the Power of U.S. Government Limited?

While it never mentions the term “limited government,” the Constitution limits the power of the federal government in at least three key ways:

  • As expressed largely in the First Amendment and throughout the rest of the Bill of Rights, the government is prohibited from directly interfering in certain areas of the lives of the people, such as religion, speech and expression, and association.
  • Certain powers forbidden to the federal government are granted exclusively to the state and local governments.
  • Powers and rights not reserved by either the federal or state governments are retained by the people.

In Practice, Limited or ‘Limitless’ Government?

Today, many people question whether the restrictions in the Bill of Rights ever have or ever can adequately limit the growth of the government or the extent to which it intervenes in the affairs of the people.

Even while complying with the spirit of the Bill of Rights, the government’s reach of control in controversial areas such as religion in schools, gun control, reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, and gender identity, have stretched the abilities of Congress and the federal courts to justly interpret and apply the letter of the Constitution.

In the thousands of federal regulations created annually by dozens of [link]independent federal agencies, boards, and commissions[link], we see further evidence of how greatly the government’s realm of influence has grown over the years.

However, it is important to remember that in almost all cases, the people themselves have demanded that the government create and enforce these laws and regulations. For example, laws intended to ensure things not covered by the Constitution, like clean water and air, safe workplaces, consumer protection, and many more have been demanded by the people over the years.