The Impossible Dream of Limited Government


Some interesting musings over on from Butler Shaffer on the wild utopianism of limited government. An excerpt:

Those who criticize me for alleged visionary tendencies are, more often than not, themselves the defenders of the most pervasive of utopian schemes: constitutional democracy. Most Westerners have an unquestioning attachment to the belief that political power can be limited by the scribbling of words on parchment! Most of us have been conditioned in the myth that a so-called "separation of powers" among the various branches of government will generate a competition assuring that governmental authority will not be exceeded. Students of law and political science become rhapsodic over the writings of 18th and 19th century philosophers who were the architects of such air castles!

A belief in constitutional government remains nothing but a collection of undigested reveries. Like the gullible soul who purchases stock in a non-existent gold mine and hangs onto his investment lest he admit to himself that he was bilked, most of us are fearful of confronting the inherent dishonesty of the idea of "limited government."

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  1. “You’re absolutely correct, Mark. When someone tries (rightfully) to get the decision on legalized abortion back to the states, or when someone tries to quash a leftist political rally, the constitution will suddenly be important. Until it’s inconvenient again.”

    In all fairness, I think the conservatives are just a likely as liberals to wrap themselves in the Bill of Rights when it suits there political agenda and damn the rest. For instance, a right-winger will proclaim that the Second Amendment protects his right to own a firearm (which I would agree with him) one minute, but will then proclaim that the First doesn’t protect erotica (i.e. ‘porn), flag burning, or Al Franken.

  2. You’re right. I like to think that that’s the difference between me and the Republicrats.

  3. We do have a constitutional democracy and it does essentially work. It’s not perfect, certainly, but that’s hardly a reason to reprint a few paragraphs from the tinfoil hat brigade.

  4. that’s hardly a left-wing phenomenon. sort of like freedom of speech…hypocritical, bootlicking fuckwits abound.

  5. Ick! I hate it when I make a “there/their/they’re” mistake. Forgive the lousey grammar.

  6. Maybe she just had PMS.

  7. I am not sure to whom the author is referring when he considers those with a belief in constitutional democracy to be Platonian idealists.

    Was it Churchill who said democracy was the worst form of government available, except for all the others? He was a practicial man, with a keen sense of human history and human nature, it seems to me.

    It would seem to me that those who believe a society of human beings can operate with maximum personal liberty and minimum personal interference with one another OUTSIDE the context of a constitutional system are the true idealists, with little insight into what really motivates people.

    Human nature is what it is. We either govern ourselves, or someone must govern us. I prefer to participate in my own self-governance, while supporting a relatively objective body of laws all who choose to live in my society must follow.

    Doesn’t sound too idealistic to me.

  8. I am not sure to whom the author refers when he claims that those who support constitutional democracy are Platonean idealists. Or am I misreading him?

    Seems to me that someone who believes that human beings can operate with minimal coercion/maximum personal freedom outside a coherent body of mutual law to use as a yardstick is an idealist.

    Human nature is what it is. Law, particularly constitutional law, abused as it may be, is a tool to measure, define and protect liberty, not an instrument of oppression. It is a standard by which we judge one another’s actions relative to our rights, civil, human and natural.

    It seems to me these vague forces of “horizontal connectedness” the author touts leave a lot of wiggle room for the ruthless strongman to oppress his fellows.

  9. Limited government is impossible and utopian, hence why we live in a totalitarian state.

    No more utopias! let us try the time-trusted realistic scenerio of Rothbardian anarchy!

  10. I’m with Frank on this one. Just because some of us think that the government has exceeded the bounds of what the constitution literally says does not mean the old document has become meaningless. In fact, the hypocrisy that Mark S. and Matthew lament has an upside: for every hypocrital leftwinger ignoring the 2nd Amendment, there’s a rightwinger defending it, and for every hypocritical rightwinger trashing the 1st Amendment, there’s a leftwinger going to the mat for it.

    So Rejoice! We may not be in Heaven, but neither are we in Hades quite yet!!

  11. Anybody who thinks we live in a totalitarian state hasn’t attended the Iowa Caucuses. A better example of raucous, messy, near-anarchic, community-based politics you have never seen short of a New England town meeting.

    Rothbard, schmothbard!

  12. And, fyodor, pleased to see we are in rough agreement for once.

  13. Yeah, Rothbardian anarchy is really practical.

    I would say constitutional democracy is more practical because there is an example of one: us.

    One of the consequences of our system is a large regulatory bureaucracy.

  14. Yep, no vote-selling going on in Iowa. No sir.

  15. voter trading? In Iowa?


  16. Simply put, humans, as imperfect beings, will succeed only in creating imperfect cultures. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying, though.

    Speaking of imperfect,

    Double posters: Hit the POST button and slowly…back…away…

  17. Jean Bart:
    “Well, I know at least some legal scholars view the notion of “seperation of powers” in the American system as a chimera; and then point to the de facto law-making of the executive branch, etc.”

    Well, part of the separation of powers requires the legislative branch to uphold its constitutional obligations, not by law, but vigilance.

    Alot of regulation is now made by both executive bureaus, agencies, commissions, and even some courts.

    A consequence of democracy infiltrating all areas of government.

    Demand(interest groups interests) outstrips supply(U.S. legislature)

  18. the point is – until rationality is a pervasive human characteristic – ANY government among humans – no matter how limited in writing will always exapnd to meet the needs of those seeking the unearned.

  19. Fyodor: You would hope, for everyone’s sake, that left and right would balance each other out. What really frightens me is the possibility that both sides will give up on their albeit selfish visions of freedom and just work to expand the power of the state. Then again, it’s probably happening now.

  20. Mark, it’s called “bipartisanship”.

  21. Frank —

    Be careful of referring to Butler Shaffer as a member of the “tinfoil hat brigade.” He has been a voice of ‘reason’ and staunch defender of market-based law and politics for many years.

    I suspect he’s suggesting that no system of government instituted by and among people will function well and over the long term unless it reflects (and is somehow based upon) the realities of free will, free markets, and genuine (albeit disciplined) self interest on the part of the citizenry.

  22. Take a look at governments where paying lip service to a constitution and respect for rule of law aren’t even part of the institutional vocabulary. Then get back to me, Mr. Pouty-pants.

    And we do live in a system of checks and balances. It’s just that the lines aren’t drawn where you were told they are in civics class.

    Say what you will, but a myth about limited government is still a whole lot better than the alternative.

  23. so basically we’re held together by the tao of dingbats.

    works for me.

  24. Jeff Clothier,

    Are you sure there aren’t two of you?!? 🙂

    Mark S,

    Well, sure it’s happening right now and has for over 200 years. And for all I know, tyranny may be just around the corner. Vigilance, all! But in the meantime, we have what we have and while it’s not perfect, neither is it a state of affairs that supports the assertions being made.

  25. Sorry about the double posting, gang. Having all sorts of funky troubles behind the keyboard today.

    Heard a great piece on NPR this afternoon that pertains. Seems voluntary “neighborhood associations” (they were loosely defined in the interview are springing up all over the more prosperous regions of the southwest and taking over the more onerous duties of local government, and thus limiting their reach.

    Seems self government isn’t the pipe dream some believe it to be.

  26. Jeff,

    Nice to see the cutting-edge NPR report on a trend Reason talked about a decade ago.

    Who is really “progressive”?

  27. I don’t get the point, or the sarcasm, shanep. I wasn’t in a position to read Reason ten years ago, so it’s news to me. Just sharing what I heard.

  28. Anyone who extols the virtues of a neighborhood association simply has not experienced one run amuck. Paint your shutters the wrong shade of brown and watch the “architectural committee” descend on you like a flight of harpies.

  29. Not to mention they’re so corrupt that they’d make a Mexican police officer blush.

  30. A neighborhood association is just another layer of government.

  31. But Jeff, by pointing out that it was sarcasm, you did in fact get it.

    Get it?

  32. Limited government is impossible, but I’m disappointed that here, of all places, there aren’t more peaceful anarchists.
    Look at the definintion of “government.” It means keeping human imagination and activity within certain limits.
    WHY? WHY? WHY?
    WHY would we want “limited government” that, presumably allows somewhat wider limits?
    The best “order” is the order that comes for free if you can just get jiggy with “Don’t just do something. Stand there.”
    What politician could get elected with that slogan, other than Ron Paul, who’s the exception who proves the rule?
    Again I’ll plug the Santa Fe Institute
    Understand you must drink deeply there to understand what I’m trying to say.

  33. I’m still waiting for the existence proof of a successful anarchy

  34. Arnold Kling,
    David Friedman thinks there may have been one in ancient Iceland, but who cares?
    The blogosphere is no place for the practical pig.
    Reach for the stars, Arnold!

  35. Well, I know at least some legal scholars view the notion of “seperation of powers” in the American system as a chimera; and then point to the de facto law-making of the executive branch, etc.

  36. As much as it burns me, I often feel that that’s true. I was speaking to a friend of mine who is in law school, she’s extremely left-wing and has some very hypocritical, inconsistent and irrational beliefs. When I pointed those things, out, surprisingly, she agreed, saying that she doesn’t have to be rational. She also pointed out that she doesn’t have any respect for the constitution and doesn’t think it is important to abide by it.

    I can honestly say that this conversation made me physically ill. When people like that are involved in the political process, and in this case are going to law school to argue cases in front of courts, how can anyone ever expect any sort of limit on government? How can anyone ever expect any consistency, any deference to the rule of law, or anything other than the politics of the majority at the moment to prevail?

    In order for a constitutional democracy to work, those who make the decisions must have a full understanding of the principles of whatever document the government is based on, and must have the ability to render decisions that they may or may not agree with on a personal level based on what that document allows. Sadly, this is too much to expect from a great many people, and with such a large number of people willing to be consciously irrational and interested only in the end result of their actions for a specific special interest group rather than interested in the process itself, it becomes difficult to envision the government working in any consistent or fair way.

    Perhaps it is a fairy tale, or a dream, or an “air castle”, or what have you. I still feel it’s a valuable ideal that must be fought for on whatever level it’s possible. I may be banging my head against a brick wall (with a big left wing attached), but I don’t know what else to do. Nothing else makes any real sense.

  37. “She also pointed out that she doesn’t have any respect for the constitution and doesn’t think it is important to abide by it.”

    …except when it’s HER constitutional rights that are being violated. Then she squells like a stuck pig and goes running to get a lawyer and beg the high courts for legal protection.

    Funny how that works.

  38. “She also pointed out that she doesn’t have any respect for the constitution and doesn’t think it is important to abide by it.”

    …except when it’s HER constitutional rights that are being violated. Then she squells like a stuck pig and goes running to get a lawyer and beg the high courts for legal protection.

    Funny how that works.

  39. You’re absolutely correct, Mark. When someone tries (rightfully) to get the decision on legalized abortion back to the states, or when someone tries to quash a leftist political rally, the constitution will suddenly be important. Until it’s inconvenient again.

  40. Ruthless: ‘Nother peaceful anarchist, right here.

    God, how I love the “show me an example” argument. I mean, I can refute it with a song title, for crying out loud. (There’s a first time for everything.)

    I also love how the definition of “successful” can change at will. If the rate of murder goes up under anarchy, it’s obviously not successful. However, as long as we get to keep more than half of our money under a constitutional democracy, and can still find a couple of forms of transportation for which we don’t have to show our papers, well, you’ve got yourself a damned successful limited government! So stop your whinin’.

  41. One thing that really gets under my skin is the declarations of the jaded media mavens and beltway insiders, that the Constitution is irrelevant or obsolete — that it just doesn’t matter anymore. They regard respect for the Constitution and belief in the ideals it embodies as somehow quaint and naive.

    I am reminded that we have sent naive kids into battle for a couple of hundred years, and that without them, you can hardly fight, much less win, any important war. So, if we supporters of the Constitution are naive, then we’re in damned fine company. Perhaps we, ourselves, can at least form the nucleus of an army that can defend the Constitution — and the freedom it affirms — through eternal vigilence and constant insistence that, yes, the Constitution is still relevant, it does matter, and if you are a government official and you violate it, you will certainly be fired and maybe even jailed.

    The Constitution doesn’t enforce itself. The press and the people both have crucial roles in understanding that document and the form of government it establishes, as well as keeping an eye on our public servants and disciplining those who do not live up to the letter and spirit of the law. If we don’t, nobody else can or will. It is up to us. You can sit back and scoff, or you can rise to the challenge of citizenship. What will it be?

  42. Jeff: After your done learning Ricardo and Mises, study Proudhon and Bakunin. Then call us.

    Anarchy is not anti-collective chaos, it is elective cooperation in the absence of a coercive state. We’re not all bombthrowers or kids with spraycans.

  43. All of this back and forth, and no one has directly addressed the fact that this article is a strawman argument.

    A proponent of Constitutional Democracy isn’t by default, an utopian idealist, and anyone who has taken Government 101 would know that many of our framers oppossed the idea of a utopia. The abandonment of such an idea helped frame the Constitution

    They accepted mankind as flawed.

    So, the argument isn’t about an absolute result, but about the best result.

    If even Noam Chomsky can freely admit that the United States has granted more freedom to its citizens than any other country, then I think we’re on to something.

  44. Mark Fox, I was gonna say to Jeff Clothier: What a pessimist you are!

    At its deepest level, Reason and Hit and Run are about humans rising above biology and casting off the pecking order.

    Sure, it’s a tall order, but that’s why it’s fun.

  45. Can freedom really be “granted” or is that granting merely a refusal to restrict for the time being? If your freedom can be taken away, then what you have isn’t freedom.

  46. Can we really call our eperiment with “limited government” a success? Has anyone seen the federal budget lately (passed by the “limited government” republicans of course)?

  47. Ruthless – “Limited government is impossible, but I’m disappointed that here, of all places, there aren’t more peaceful anarchists.”

    “Peaceful anarchist” is a contradiction in terms, historically speaking, if you don’t count various utopian communities which inevitably succomb to human nature and organize into a hierarchy just to get anything accomplished, or eventually dissolve.

    Problem is people are social animals. They tend to congregate, and when they do, they tend to organize. When they organize they tend to separate into leaders and followers. When that happens, at some point a loose association becomes a society, a society becomes a principality, a principality becomes a state, and, VOILA, you have a new government to “anarch” against, and the cycle continues.

    Against this inevitability, resentful anarchs almost always end up picking up a gun, or buying fertilizer and fuel oil, or the local equivalent. I read somewhere that an anarchist is someone who wants to lead but can’t persuade anyone to follow.

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