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.

Constitutionally Limited Government Key Takeaways

  • The term “limited government” refers to any central government in which that government’s powers over the people are limited by a written or otherwise agreed to constitution or overriding rule of law.
  • The doctrine of limited government is the opposite “absolutism” which bestows all power over the people to a single person, such as a king, queen, or similar sovereign.
  • The English Magna Carta of 1512 was the first legally binding written charter of rights to encompass the concept of limited government.
  • The central government of the United States of America is 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.

As the institutional authorities that justly rule communities of people, free-world governments exist to maintain order and stability so that people can live safely, productively, and happily. In a democracy, the source of a government’s authority is the people—the collective body of citizens by and for whom the government is established.

All democratically established governments exercise three main functions: making laws, implementing laws, and interpreting laws. In the United States and most other democracies, these functions correspond to the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the government. In a traditional representative democracy, the government is both constitutional and limited. A constitution of the people, written by their representatives and approved directly or indirectly by the people, restrains the powers of government to make sure they are used only to secure the freedom and common good of the people.

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

The Constitution limits the government by enumerating or listing its powers. The government may not apply powers that are not enumerated or implicitly granted to it.

The Constitution separates the powers of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. Different officials and agencies within the government have responsibility for different functions and are granted constitutional authority to check and balance the exercise of power by others to prevent any person or agency from abusing its power. The power of the independent judicial branch to declare null and void acts of the government it deems contrary to the Constitution is an especially important tool for preventing the illegal use of power by government officials. The legislative branch can use its powers of investigation and oversight to prevent excessive or corrupt actions by executive officials and agencies.

The Constitution provides for a system of federalism, which enables the sharing of powers by the national and state governments. James Madison once explained that the national and state governments “are in fact but different agents and trustees of the people, constituted with different powers.”

The Constitution allows the people to limit the power of government by holding their representatives accountable through periodic elections, which are conducted freely, fairly, and competitively. In addition, the people can use their constitutionally protected rights of free speech, press, and assembly to rally the force of public opinion against elected or appointed officials who abusively or irresponsibly exercise the power of their government.

Finally, the Constitution prohibits the government from denying the people a wide range of civil rights and liberties. In addition to political rights such as voting and expressing opinions through the media, the Constitution guarantee rights to personal privacy, equal protection of the law, and trial by jury, among others.

Limited Government and Taxes

As in most governments, everything the U.S. federal government does is paid for by taxes imposed in individuals and for-profit businesses. In countries with limited governments, the tax burden on individuals and businesses tends to remain relatively low. This means that the people and businesses will have more money to save, invest, and spend, all of which keep the economy growing. Services like highways, public schools, and law enforcement, usually paid for by taxes, will be provided by the private sector if adequate demand exists. Limited government also results in fewer often costly to enforce government regulations.  

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.

Sources and Further Reference 

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Longley, Robert. "What Is a Constitutionally Limited Government?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 16, 2022, thoughtco.com/constitutionally-limited-government-4121219. Longley, Robert. (2022, April 16). What Is a Constitutionally Limited Government? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/constitutionally-limited-government-4121219 Longley, Robert. "What Is a Constitutionally Limited Government?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/constitutionally-limited-government-4121219 (accessed June 10, 2023).