Happy 234th Anniversary: On Why Limited Government Doesn’t Mean Sh&*ty Government

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In just a few days, we will be celebrating the 234th anniversary of our republic. To mark the occasion, I thought it would be fun to go back to one of the great acceptance speeches of the past 50 years – Ronald Reagan’s speech at the 1980 Republican convention – and pull out eight important themes for 2010.

I often get tired of supposedly theoretical discussions about limited government—that sort of caricature libertarian who wants anarchy. Dudes, not helpful. Freedom is not simply freedom from government, nor is it simply freedom through government. Freedom in the American context is a balance of those two impulses, much like the balance of several institutional powers inside the frame of constitutional government. What I mean is this: The Founders recognized that human ambition is a fact of life, that ambition can be both good and bad, and that ambitions of all kinds can be harnessed largely for the good through counterweights. Inside the constitutional frame, a government capable of protecting and nurturing freedoms requires institutional bumpers and counterweights—pitting the executive against the legislative against the courts at the federal level, and pitting the federal government against sovereign states (through enumeration of federal powers in the Constitution and later the 10th amendment).

People don’t often think about the Bill of Rights this way, but they are largely protections from government, and in the case of the 9th amendment an explicit protection from government—that is an explicit statement of freedom from government.

So, we are a country that takes institutions of government and the balance among them seriously as a protection of freedoms, but we also recognize that freedom is often freedom from government. In the realm of the former, we want effective government where the rule of law and fairness carry the day over the rule of “great men.” And in the case of the latter, we kind of want to be left alone to pursue happiness in the way we think is best suited to who we are and who we want to become.

Reagan was a great speaker, so he was able to wrap all that studiously serious blather in two sentences.

I pledge to you to restore to the Federal Government the capacity to do the people’s work without dominating their lives. I pledge to you a Government that will not only work well but wisely, its ability to act tempered by prudence, and its willingness to do good balanced by the knowledge that government is never more dangerous than when our desire to have it help us blinds us to its great power to harm us.