The Theory of Limited Government

Email Print

general trend in government during the 20th century,
and presumably before, is the rapid growth in the role that government
plays in society and the powers considered necessary to fulfill
this role. It would seem to any bystander (if there are such) that
most people in modern society agree with the concept of a far-reaching
government with responsibility to take care of people, as well as
to be a moral guide for both society and individuals or provide
support where people lack confidence or ability. Libertarians generally
do not accept this view of the state as a "nanny" or government
as a parent, and there are many reasons for this.

reason is one that the 17th century English philosopher
Thomas Hobbes never realized. He proclaimed that free men in their
natural state, i.e. without government or rule, cannot achieve a
lasting social order. It is bound to inevitably degenerate into
war, terror, and chaos. Man is inherently evil or would at least
choose to forcefully take what can be taken from others rather than
work for it if he has the chance. Thus the only possible state of
free men would be a state of eternal war where the strong will eventually
conquer or kill the weak.

this Hobbes drew the conclusion that men would have (or really had)
chosen to come together in societies for protection, security and
order. In order to enjoy protection of their rights men would have
to first surrender both their rights and their freedoms. This collective
act created a government organization with the power to forcefully
withdraw society from the state of war, and thereby create the security
and order necessary for man to enjoy rights. Thus government is
something good created from the chaos and war of the natural state.

is easy to see how this idea in essence is corrupt. If man is inherently
evil or at least frequently degenerates into thievery, fraud, violence
and murder, how can people rely on a government created and run
by men? The simple answer is they can not. Bad people cannot be
trusted if they are alone, and the same must still be true if they
create a government through which to rule other people.

Lord Acton pointed out, "power corrupts" and the corrupt
people are the ones most likely to seek power. (Other people don't
need to rule others in order to achieve their dreams or lead their
lives as they see fit.) Government is therefore never to the good
of the ruled, but is always, sooner or later, being turned to protect
and maximize the good of the rulers — at the cost of the ruled.

government is inherently evil, libertarians strive to either limit
its size and power or abolish it completely. As I will show, the
concept of limiting the powers of government is corrupt in one or
many ways. There are really only two alternatives compatible with
reality: government or no government. (And as we will see the former
is as controllable by a few men as the latter.)

theories of limited government usually revolve around the idea of
a constitution or contract between the people and the government,
or rather: the ruled and the rulers. The idea of such a contract
is sound and has a long history in political philosophy (see e.g.
John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau about the "social contract").
But the very nature of contract speaks against its use in political
philosophy as legitimization for or limitation of the state.

essence of contract is the voluntary agreement between two equal
parties. This voluntary nature makes the contract the foundation
and essential part of the marketplace, where people come together
to exchange values. The voluntary nature guarantees (because it
rationally leads to) that all parties are better off from every
single contract — or they would choose not to be part of it.

most fundamental part of contract is thus its voluntary nature.
Both parties have to be equal in the face of the contract for it
to be considered a contract. It is not possible to establish contracts
in this sense between unequal parties. (If one party can easily
escape the obligations stated in the contract, or simply annul it,
through the use of coercion or violence against the other party
the contract will be meaningless.) Is it possible to establish a
contract between a government and its subjects? Obviously not, since
the government claims the right to enforce the contract according
to its own interpretations. If there has been a breach of
contract is generally (sooner or later) established in state courts.

under state law it is not considered a valid contract if one of
the parties is coerced against by the other party. "Your signature
or your life" is not how contracts are established in the marketplace.
"Sign this [social] contract or get out of my sight (but leave
your property behind)" is also not a valid contract since it
is based on coercion.

in a Hobbesian sense it is possible to establish a contract between
equal and free men to create a government (when there is
none). Giving up your rights in return for something else, if done
voluntarily, is as valid as any other contract in the marketplace.
The problem arises with the next generation of people living in
the area, who most likely are subject to the same government's laws
but never signed the contract. Either they are forced to subjection
by the government (no contract) or they are free to choose whether
to subject to its rule, which means you can contractually opt in
to (but never opt out of) government rule.

we can see there is a fundamental flaw to the theory of limited
government. Such an agreement between the people and government
cannot be contractual unless every individual is born outside
the realms of government (i.e., in anarchy) and then freely chooses
to "opt in." This is however seldom the case in limited
government theories, where the possibility to escape the guns of
government at best is a theoretical possibility to "opt out,"
which means you are automatically subjected to government rule when
born. There can thus be no contractual limitation to government
according to the nature of contract.

let's look at the practical arguments for limited government. Statist
libertarians do not always claim there needs to be an explicit [voluntary]
contract between the people and government. The purpose of "proper"
government is only to protect everybody's natural rights from being
violated, to uphold justice, to be the final arbiter in conflicts.
According to this argument there is no need for government to establish
individual contracts with everybody subjected to its rule, since
it only protects their rights. No rights are ever violated by this
monopolistic justice services organization (unless you try to supply
the same kind of service), which powers are strictly limited to
acting as agency of [automatically] delegated self-defense and arbiter
in conflicts.

problem of this approach to social engineering in the practical
dimension we are here examining lies in the distinction between
contract and government. The limitations of government
and its powers (constitution) are not limitations in reality, since
there is nothing in reality itself (i.e., without human action)
to limit these powers. And we cannot rely on a god to decide what
government can and cannot do. Government is the creation of men
to protect people from abusive actions of men, and its powers are
and necessarily have to be defined, enforced, and limited by men.

leaves only two alternatives for the supervision and control of
government. Either the powers of government are controlled and interpreted
by government itself or by some power to which government is subjected.
We have already established that government is a structure relying
on force, which is why there can be no contractual basis for its
limitations. There can be no [voluntary] contracts between unequal
parties (in the sense: equal parties of the contract).

government is to interpret its own limitations and protect its subjects
from its own actions (where not within the limits stated) the potential
threat or problem is obvious. As the example of the United States
shows, such a constitutional structure is likely to be used as a
sanction for expanding, not binding, the powers of government.

that a government of men created by men can only be limited through
the actions of men, the actions of government will always be the
actions of the men in government. The reasons for such men not
to increase their own (i.e., government's) power are not many and
not obvious. Even if the founders of government were to be relied
on, it is most likely that corrupt men will aim for and become part
of government at some time in the future.

will in time tend to serve the people acting as government rather
than the people subject to government. Since government is the ultimate
power in society (which, in a sense, is the purpose of government
to begin with), there will be no one having the power to object
to such development. And there will be no one with the power to
force the unleashed government back into its limited shape.

call for democracy and the "will of the people" to serve
as such a power to control the guns of government. This is a version
of the second alternative, where someone or something theoretically
and practically is to monitor the actions and powers of government
so that it will not be allowed to run riot. Such a structure where
a monitor of government is to control that the latter's actions
correspond to the constitution (the restraints) leads to an immediate
problem: who is to monitor the monitors? And then: who is to monitor
the monitors of the monitors? And so on ad infinitum.

solution to this problem, at least in theory, is to create a circle
of monitoring where the monitor monitors power, and power in turn
monitors the monitor. Such a scheme, where the people are subjected
to, but at the same time the monitors of government (usually through
the system of democracy), has been tried in multiple societies through

most sophisticated examples of this approach have realized the vast
powers of the guns of government and tried to divide government
into multiple separate and separated parts to make the people and
government closer to equal parties. Such a scheme is of course more
likely to succeed in restraining government from growing, but history
shows that it is not enough. The United States is again a good example
of how a sophisticated attempt to delimit the powers of government
through a power-dividing scheme has eventually failed. The "perfect"
state of the Roman Empire, as described by Cicero, is another great

matter what scheme is used to make government less powerful compared
to the voting public, the guns of government cannot be stopped from
growing and apprehending roles it was not intended for. The most
important reason for this is in the very nature of government: it
is an organization based upon the use of force and with the sole
purpose to use that force. When force is institutionalized and legitimized
there is no limiting its reach. What one can do is to stay out of
its way or become part of the elite which controls it. Either way
liberty is lost. The alternatives for society compatible with reality
are only: government or no government.

11, 2005

Per Bylund [send him mail]
is a master’s student in political science at Lund University in
southern Sweden. He is the founding editor of The
Swedish Libertarian Forum
and runs

Email Print