What is limited government?

I was reading the National Review’s endorsement of Romney hoping for a laugh. It wasn’t very funny, but one line triggered in my mind a thought I had been meaning to write down for a while. The author at one point references “the traditional American preference for free markets and limited government.”

Whatever one thinks of whether these are really traditional American preferences, it is certainly true that there are a significant number of people who claim to base their politics on a preference for limited government. They will say that they favor this or that policy — generally laissez-faire policies — because they believe in limited government. But does anyone have the slightest idea what “limited government” actually means? Can it be meaningfully defined?

We could just stipulate that “limited government” is simply another way of saying “laissez-faire.” While I suspect that might be the descriptive truth of what is going on, such an explanation for the term “limited government” actually renders most references to the term incoherent. For instance, under such an interpretation, an individual that claimed they support laissez-faire policies because they support limited government would be speaking in circles. That claim would reduce down to the individual saying they support laissez-faire policies because they support laissez-faire policies. If the concept of “limited government” is supposed to be a justifying reason for laissez-faire policies, it cannot just be a different way of saying laissez-faire policies; else it’s redundant.

Trying to piece together a separate definition of limited government that can reasonably animate support for laissez-faire policies also falls down. In a laissez-faire society (or any society that involves the construction of property ownership), government is functionally massive. In such a society, the government violently excludes each individual from every single piece of ground in the country except the ground that each individual owns or rents and public lands that the government allows individuals to access.

Seriously consider the scope of that. Through government-constructed and government-enforced property institutions, the government physically prevents each individual from setting foot on the vast majority of the earth. That is the reality of laissez-faire governance, and it is far away from what I would regard as limited. This is just one institution of a laissez-faire economy, but I could go through dozens of others that involve similar amounts of government action.

Perhaps the supporter of “limited government” could come back and say that they mean the term in a purely relative way. Sure laissez-faire governments involve huge functional government involvement in your life (violently prohibiting you from accessing basically the entire earth), but they are still ever-so-slightly more limited than other governments. It’s very unclear to me how very marginal decreases in government’s “limitedness” would actually motivate someone’s political beliefs (1000000 limitedness vs. 1000001 limitedness doesn’t seem compelling). But even if we ignore that problem, there is still a complication involved in trying to explain how other governments are less limited than laissez-faire governments.

Other governments have different institutions, but not less limited ones (again speaking functionally). So a government might impose tax-and-transfer programs for instance. One might erroneously regard this as less limited than laissez-faire because it involves all the things laissez-faire does plus the tax-and-transfer system. But that’s the wrong way to look at it. The tax-and-transfer government hasn’t added things on top of laissez-faire; it has established institutions other than laissez-faire, including a different system for excluding pieces of the world from individuals (i.e. distributive systems).

In both cases, government institutions are generating the distribution of pieces of the world, and in both cases individuals are being excluded from basically all of the world, just by different amounts. At all points the government’s hand is dictating who gets to access what and who is excluded from what, and is ever-present in enforcing their dictates. The functional scope of the government does not seem any different.

What we are really seeing in references to limited government is our old cultural-ideological friend: the assumption that laissez-faire institutions are somehow natural, default, and don’t involve the government making intentional distributive decisions that require a great deal of resources to enforce. It’s this same clearly false (but ideologically useful) description of laissez-faire economies and governance that is responsible for confusion surrounding redistribution and the objections people make about how they don’t want “their money” spent.