Note: this is a persuasive research paper I wrote for my english course in my first semester of college.
Over the course of history, governments were established for one purpose: to extract the wealth and resources of its subjects (Holcombe 326). Some would argue that governments in the past had other legitimate purposes, such as defending the subjects from outside invasion and inward acts of violence. But these actions, though they were practiced, are not purposes in and of themselves. Instead, they are the means by which government protects its source of income, to further its original purpose. Though this purpose of government has been the historic trend, there has been one notable exception. The government of the United States of America was not established to extract wealth, although that is one of its functions necessary to operate, but to protect and defend the freedom and liberty of her people. This stands in stark contrast with all other governments, and the result of such a government was a prosperous, free, and strong nation.
However, in the last century, the rise of democratic socialism has caused the United States to increase the size and power of government in order to provide for the needs, defined as rights, of the people. This view of government necessitated a shift from the original purpose of the American government, the protection of liberty, to a purpose shared by many governments of the past, the extraction of wealth from the people. This purpose of government does not benefit the American people, but rather limits their happiness, prosperity, and liberty. Therefore, an alternative is proposed: limited government. Limited government is derived from the Constitution of the United States of America, and exercises only the powers necessary to facilitate peace and liberty. As a result, limited government is said to have these benefits: it protects and defends individual liberty, the core element of what it is to be human and the basis of all other benefits; it promotes economic freedom, which can produce the economic prosperity desired by the people; and it is constitutional, and therefore suitable to be exercised in America.
The first and most important advantage of limited government, an advantage which is the starting point of many other benefits too numerous to describe, is enhanced liberty. Charles Fried, Beneficial Professor at the Harvard Law School and former judge, describes the liberty due everyone as “the greatest measure of liberty compatible with a like liberty for all” (59). Liberty is something of an ambiguous concept nowadays, a rhetorical tool used in many political discourses to make a case for one’s cause. However, liberty is much more than that. Indeed, liberty is at the heart of what makes a person human. The following discussion on what liberty is and why it is important is vital in ascertaining the usefulness of a limited government that promotes and protects it.
Liberty is based on the foundation of individuality. Individuals come before any society, nation, or civilization that is made up of them. Individuals are the ones that perceive reality, think upon what has been perceived, and choose a course of action that is judged to be best. It is not societies that make music, create art, or adhere to traditions; it is the individual who does. Only by the action of individuals are societies created and continued. In addition to individuals being first, each individual is responsible for what he chooses, whether it is a belief, judgment, or action. One is responsible for what he chooses because his choices are made by him; he owns them. It is this view of individuality that implicates liberty (Fried 19-22). Liberty, the freedom to choose, is precisely what individuals do on a regular basis. They are not instructed by others to choose their beliefs, their favorite music, or what they judge as art; they do so naturally. This is why liberty is so important: it is the very essence of what it is to be human. Because of this, liberty precedes the state, and is therefore not received from the state.
If liberty is not from the state, why is there a need for a state? If no state exists, would not everyone enjoy liberty unrestricted by government? While unrestricted liberty may at first seem desirable, there are two problems with it. First, government is inevitable. Even if a people throw off their government and declare that they are free from the state, one or more groups, predatory in nature, will impose themselves on the people, creating a government to secure the people’s resources (Holcombe 326). Secondly, without a framework of commonly understood laws that are enforced, liberty breaks down. Consider a road. Although one has the liberty apart from the state to choose where to go, there has to be a commonly known side of the road to travel on in a given direction. If not, then one’s liberty may be abruptly violated when he is restricted from going anywhere, possibly indefinitely, by being crashed into by another (Fried 70-71).
These two problems may be solved by a limited government while still affirming and protecting individual liberty. A limited government established by the people is suitable to protect them against predatory groups seeking to set up an oppressive government without becoming predatory itself (Holcombe 337). And a limited government can provide a framework for its citizens to practice their liberty, protected from those who would violate it by theft or coercion, without infringing on the liberty of others. In this way, limited government grants everyone the maximum amount of liberty that is conducive to the liberty of all.
A common counter-argument against liberty is the argument for equality. Of course, limited government ensures that everyone has equal amounts of liberty, the largest amount that is possible in fact. The counter-argument is not for equality of liberty, but for equality of wealth. Equality may be a desirable goal, but when pursued through the state, it has a costly price. In order for the government to enforce equality of wealth, liberty must necessarily be restricted. It has been shown that liberty is at the heart of every individual, that it is a right apart from the state, but realized and practiced in the fullest within the state. Equality is not such a right. How much wealth a person has should not be determined or enforced by the state, but instead be determined by how people exercise liberty, which is enforced by the state. There are two ways in which equality of wealth may be achieved without the aid of the state and without compromising liberty. One way is through charity, where people choose to give to others. The other somewhat more obvious way is for those who have less wealth to exercise their liberty to increase it. There are cases when this option is not viable, when one has nothing to work with and cannot support themselves through no fault of their own. If charity is not enough for all these cases, then the government may intercede and support such people until they are self-sufficient. While this does result in a small loss of liberty for a society, it is necessary to protect a nation’s well being, and is nothing compared to the loss of liberty if equality were deemed a right and a person’s right to property made void as a result.
The second advantage of limited government is economic freedom and prosperity. To ascertain how a limited government interacts with the economy to produce economic prosperity through economic freedom, one must turn to the document that describes all functions of limited government, the Constitution. The Constitution states that the government has the power “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;” (art. 1 sec. 8). This is all well and good, but what of commerce between individuals? The Constitution does not grant regulatory power over other commerce. Indeed, the tenth amendment to the Constitution states that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people” (“The Bill of Rights” amend. 10). It seems, then, that a limited government does not regulate commerce among individuals, so long as that commerce is lawful. This economic freedom between individuals consists of, as enumerated by the Economic Freedom of the World report, “personal choice, voluntary exchange, freedom to compete, and protection of person and property” (Gwartney et al. 573). Economic freedom can produce economic prosperity and growth in several ways. One way is that the various guarantees it offers, including low taxes, an impartial court system, and defense of individual possessions, provides the opportunity to earn a large amount of wealth through the application of one’s talents (Berggren 196-197).
Many propose that government should regulate and restrict the economy, citing either that it will result in more economic prosperity or that it would bring more equality of wealth. On the first note, it is not likely that government regulations will result in more economic prosperity. Jagdish Bhagwati, University Professor at Columbia University and Senior Fellow in International Economics at the Council on Foreign Relations, discusses whether empirical evidence shows a relationship between economic freedom and economic growth:
It is not difficult to assert that economic freedom is likely to have a favorable effect on economic prosperity, for the simple reason that the last fifty years of international experience more or less confirms the fact that wherever governments used markets more and engaged in more open policies in foreign trade and investment, indeed in more economic freedom of different kinds, their countries have tended to prosper. By contrast, those countries that turned inward and had extensive regulations of all kinds on domestic economic decision-making in production, investment and innovation, are the countries that have really not done too well. (qtd. in Berggren 197)
On the second note, equality of wealth by means of the state has already been discussed as restrictive to liberty and that other means to achieve it apart from the state exist.
The last advantage of a limited government is that it is constitutional, that it affirms and upholds the Constitution of the United States of America and what it stands for. How limited government does this will be discussed, but first the Constitution must be examined and the motivation behind it understood.
The Constitution is the founding document of America’s government. It describes the three branches of government: the legislative branch, the executive branch, and the judicial branch. These branches are formed so that no one part of government exercises too much power. Each branch is granted particular powers, the rest “are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people” (“The Bill of Rights” amend. 10). In addition to this, the Constitution also enumerates the various rights of the people that the government must not infringe upon. The reason the Constitution lays out government in such a way may be found in the preamble to it: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America” (“The Constitution”). These objectives of government were determined by the Founders to be most satisfactorily obtained through the checks and balances of a multi-branch government.
The case for a limited government in America is made all the more legitimate because it is constitutional, that is, it is based on and affirms what is laid out in the Constitution. Of course, like any document whose writer cannot further clarify what has been written, the Constitution is interpreted differently by different people. Many laws and practices claim to be constitutional. The difference between that constitutional claim and the claim that limited government makes is simply one of context. While one piece of legislation may point to a specific clause in the Constitution for its justification and ignore the rest of it, limited government makes the claim that it is constitutional because it affirms every part of the Constitution. Instead of looking for loopholes that allow for an expansion of power, limited government is based on the whole constitutional concept of keeping only the power needed to achieve the goals of government laid out in the Constitution. Because limited government affirms every part of the Constitution, it does not contradict itself in any way, nor does it contradict any part of the Constitution. How could it? For the Constitution is the basis of limited government. One could say that limited government is the Constitution because the Constitution describes how limited government functions.
Can one argue that a government with more power is constitutional? One may, and many do because of the ability to interpret the Constitution. One clause in the Constitution states “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States” (art. 1 sec. 8). This has been interpreted by many to grant the government power to do almost anything as long as it provides for the general welfare of the United States. However, this completely disregards the rest of the Constitution. Thousands of people die every year from car accidents. Would banning cars altogether and forcing people to use public transportation provide for the general welfare of the United States? If so, what of freedom? This is an extreme example, to be sure, but it illustrates the point that focusing on one statement in the Constitution that supports a claim while ignoring the whole text can lead to the degradation of what the Constitution was established for: liberty and freedom.
It has been shown that liberty, the very nature of humanity, can be exercised through limited government in the fullest quantity and quality that can be exercised by all. It has been shown that through economic freedom, limited government affects the desired prosperity of its people. And finally, limited government has been shown to be constitutional by affirming the whole of the Constitution and what it upholds. In light of all this, a course of action is proposed. The power of government, and the extent to which it exercises that power, must be limited if in any way it violates the rights of the people, given by God and set forth in the Constitution of the United States of America. Among these are “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Jefferson, “The Declaration”).
Berggren, Niclas "The Benefits of Economic Freedom." Independent Review 8.2 (2003): 193-211. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 15 Nov. 2009.
“The Bill of Rights: A Transcription” Charters of Freedom. The National Archives. Web. 7 Nov. 2009.
“The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription.” Charters of Freedom. The National Archives. Web. 7 Nov. 2009.
Fried, Charles. Modern Liberty: and the Limits of Government. New York: Norton, 2007. Print.
Gwartney, James D., Robert A. Lawson, and J. R. Clark "Economic Freedom of the World, 2002." Independent Review 9.4 (2005): 573-593. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 2 Nov. 2009.
Holcombe, Randall G. "Government: Unnecessary but Inevitable." Independent Review 8.3 (2004): 325-342. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 2 Nov. 2009.
Jefferson, Thomas. “The Declaration of Independence: A Transcription.” Charters of Freedom. The National Archives. Web. 7 Nov. 2009.