The Theory of Limited Government

The 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.

One 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.

From 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.

It 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.

As 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.

Since 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.)

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Even 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.

But 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.

As 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.

But 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.

The 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.

This 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).

If 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.

Given 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.

Government 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.

Some 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.

The 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 history.

The 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 failure.

No 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.

February 11, 2005