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Limited government is a concept in political philosophy in which governmental power is restricted by law, usually in a written constitution. It is a key concept in the history of liberalism. It has roots in Hebraic Law. The Magna Carta and the United States Constitution represent important milestones in the limiting of governmental power. The earliest use of the term limited government dates back to King James VI and I in the late 16th century.
Today, limited government is a common practice throughout Western civilization. It is an important political principle in classical liberalism, libertarianism, and some tendencies of conservatism in the United Kingdom and conservatism in the United States.
Limited government in United States history
Added following the bitter and contentious Constitutional Convention, the Bill of Rights today are a key part of the American Constitution. After enumerating specific rights retained by the people in the first eight amendments, the Ninth Amendment and the Tenth Amendment summarily spelled out the principle of limited government. Together, these two last Amendments clarify the differences between the unenumerated (as well as enumerated) rights of the people versus the expressly codified delegated powers of the federal government. The Ninth Amendment codified that the rights of the people do not have to be expressly written in the Constitution (i.e., do not have to be enumerated) to still be retained by the people. In the reverse, though, the Tenth Amendment codified that any delegated powers of the federal government are only authorized to do be performed so long as such delegated powers are expressly delegated to the federal government specifically by the U.S. Constitution.
The U.S. Constitution is supposed to limit the power of the federal government in five ways. First, it prohibits the government from interfering with certain key areas, such as conscience, expression and association. Secondly, certain forms are established for the dealing of governments with their own citizens: specific actions are forbidden to the government. It was assumed that the Bill of Rights would be largely self-enforcing, and this solution proved to be inadequate to do more than slow the growth of government. Government powers were expanded, even while following the letter of the Bill of Rights, and increasingly, key elements were virtually ignored.
And yet, the term 'limited government' never appears in the United States Constitution. The document came into being because the Articles of Confederation, which actually was dedicated to limited government, left the new country in economic chaos--unable to pay its Revolutionary War debts or defend itself.
So, the Constitution was written to replace it as a much more flexible and pragmatic document.
Many people disagree and the debate about the proper role of government persists to this day. Some issues were resolved by Civil War, some by the Supreme Court, and others may never be resolved.
- "limited government". Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. Retrieved June 27, 2016.