DEFINITION: The phrase “limited government” refers to a form of government whose scope for action is legally circumscribed by a constitution which accords it specified and enumerated or otherwise specified powers.
Nations with limited governments possess fewer regulations governing the actions of individuals and businesses.
Unlimited governments have no legal constraints preventing them from treating individuals and businesses in any way they like. Such governments may vary from interventionist to authoritarian to totalitarian.
In practice, the governments of most countries exhibit some mixture of limited and unlimited characteristics.
Even developed Western countries, such as the US, whose governments are nominally constrained by a constitution, have had a tendency to drift towards interventionism and authoritarianism over time, with the constitution eventually becoming mostly a dead letter.
ETYMOLOGY: The phrase “limited government” is apparently first attested in the writings of King James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) in the late sixteenth century.
The English adjective “limited” derives from the verb “to limit,” which is, of course, closely connected to the noun “limit.” The latter, in turn, derives, via Middle English, from Middle French limite, a “limit,” and, ultimately, from Latin līmes, līmitis, a “cross path” or “boundary-line.”
The English noun “government” derives from Middle English governement, which is connected to the Middle French verb governer, and ultimately derives from the Latin noun gubernātor, gubernātoris, meaning “helmsman”or “governor.” The latter is akin to the Greek kubernētēs, kubernētou, also meaning “helmsman.”
USAGE: The idea of limited government (as opposed to the phrase) can be traced back to philosophical discussions of the seventeenth century.
The idea is particularly associated with nineteenth-century discipline of political economy (“classical liberalism”)—most of whose architects advocated laissez-faire and free trade—as well as more-recent schools of thought, such as Austrian economics, libertarianism, and neo-liberalism.
In simplest terms, a limited government focuses on maintaining the rule of law, safeguarding citizens and their property, while imposing only the taxes necessary to fund the services connected to this primary objective.
In other words, within a classical, limited-government framework, the ruling body might impose taxes on its citizens for the provision of police or national defense. However, it would not attempt to directly influence the economy, nor would it involve itself in citizens’ personal conduct or convictions.
An alternative viewpoint defines a limited government as one that confines its activities exclusively to the explicit powers bestowed upon it by a founding constitution.
In the case of the US, this type of constitutional government calls for rival political institutions—specifically, the legislative and judicial branches—to help constrain the potentially dangerous power of the executive branch through a system of separation and balance of power among the three branches of government.
To be sure, this works only so long as the constitution continues to exercise authority over the minds of public servants and citizens alike.
The nineteenth-century classical liberal tradition was a part of the general reaction against European absolute monarchies, in favor of what came to be known as “constitutional monarchies.”
The latter form of government typically involved legal protections for individual rights, including freedom of speech, of assembly, of the press, and so forth.
The rise of classical liberal political economy may usefully be viewed as the extension of individual rights from the political context to economics.
More specifically, classical economic liberalism arose within the English common-law tradition, which embodied personal freedoms—equivalent to limitations on the king’s power—and extended back for centuries to the Magna Carta in 1215.
The US Constitution (1787) and Bill of Rights (1791) were largely based on this English common-law tradition of personal freedom. The American Founding Fathers were mindful of the need to place limitations on executive power, which is the reason why they placed the separation of power among the three branches of government at the heart of the US constitution.
Thus, the notion of limited government has centuries-long roots in the Anglo-American political tradition.