Our Government is Intentionally Limited

Our Constitution and the apparatus that has been constructed around it over more than two centuries define a government carefully and intentionally limited. It is the price of liberty, meant as freedom from government coercion or arbitrary rule. While voting the bums out is a basic limitation imposed by the people, limitations on the operation of government between elections subsist within the structure of government itself. We have two houses of Congress with members elected for significantly different terms with both required to approve laws, a separate executive branch with a more-or-less elected President, an equally separate judicial branch with justices appointed by the President but then serving life terms, and now a host of almost independent agencies that have legislative and judicial powers. The combination collectively passes, implements, and adjudicates laws through a bewildering maze of intended obstacles. The relationships among these branches prevent any one person or any one branch from making critical decisions alone. Alexander Hamilton will declare in Federalist 73 that the system was designed more to avoid bad laws than pass good ones. Every state constitution in America today reflects the same general organization and constraints but with more republican controls—governors directly elected, attorney generals separately elected, the public right to recall, districting proportional to population, often constitutional change by a mere majority of those voting through referenda created by the people.

In the Federalist Papers James Madison lays the direct blame for the necessity of this arrangement to human ambition, controllable by countervailing ambition. He and Alexander Hamilton allude to other reasons. Madison lays an indirect blame on human limitations, of what we can know, even our relative incapacities to find the right words for what we might know. Indeed, he insists that we will never agree with each other in any total fashion: “different opinions will be formed” without the prospect of rational or deliberative means of reconciliation. Polarization is our natural condition. He extends the logic of this observation to explain factions, people of common opinion organizing for political power, often with opposing factions organized around an opposite opinion as competition in an eternal struggle for influence, even control. This is who we are. Only brutal autocracy will press the populace into a common view, the state’s view. We fought and won a war to win freedom from the state’s view. That war is never over, but we keep winning as long as we hold to republicanism, federalism, separation and balance of powers, and popular sovereignty, these stitched together through the rule of law and majority rule. So the Federalist Papers argue. We agree. We will develop these principles herein.

Limited government means reactive government.

With our governments subjected to serious constraints, real changes in governance have only been made when forced from circumstances outside the government itself. Over more than two centuries, the large political changes have been forced by wars, crises such as the Great Depression, technological innovations and the economic growth and income disparities they engendered, and mass movements, the last the spring of abolition of slavery, women’s right to vote, expanded suffrage generally, the civil rights movement and its more general attack on native oppression and discrimination, and the progressive movement authored more than a century ago to combat the native concentration of wealth that issues from unfettered capitalism, the last now a massive apparatus for redistribution and social services that have profited hundreds of millions of people without compromising economic growth or the dazzling rise of America to the world leader in innovations and their concomitant contribution to prosperity.

Other External Forces

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This general picture of change is the one found on the front pages of newspapers and about which myriad books have been written and myriad films produced, fictional and historical. The image of John Lewis being beaten half to death by policemen on the Selma bridge is unforgettable for all those living anywhere near the time; its connection to the Great Society Program is equally indelible. But the people have also fashioned an enormous network of less visible or dramatic efforts to augment or oppose or try to change government action. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Sierra Club, the National Rifle Association, and the Heritage Foundation are fully institutionalized, heavily financed, and actively engaged with our elected leaders and courts in pursuit of clearly defined if opposing agendas. Massively financed but largely hidden organizations funnel billions of dollars into elections on both sides of the political fence. And any city or town in America has dozens or hundreds or thousands of small or not-so-small non-profit organizations and churches devoted to civic improvement as they see it, sometimes through direct engagement with local political leaders, but more often as instruments that help the homeless or those on the economic margins, organize affordable housing, support renters or those from whom people rent, protect neighborhoods from excess development as they see it, or support developers who must work within legal limits for things like parking and affordable housing to build new and necessary dwellings and office buildings within such neighborhoods; this list is almost endless, the tensions within this list inexorable.

We cannot exclude from this list the many conservative organizations that spend their time on limiting taxation among other things. They feed what is likely the most strident and durable reflex of the America political spirit, our hostility to taxation, why we fought the Revolutionary War. It may be the only political issue violating Madison’s principle on different opinions; it is in our political DNA. Indeed, the need for funding our government and our reluctance to provide that funding numbers among the central, ineradicable tensions of American politics. It was the death of our Articles of Confederation and the birth of our Constitution. Its first enumerated power was and remains taxation, for the common defense and general welfare. But you will spend many fruitless hours trying to find anyone who voluntarily adds to his or her tax bill to provide more financial support for our government; at best people supply money to non-profits that reduces their tax burden.