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In political philosophy, limited government is where the government is empowered by law from a starting point of having no power, or where governmental power is restricted by law, usually in a written constitution. It is a key concept in the history of liberalism.
The Constitution of the United States presents an example of the U.S. federal government not possessing any power except what is delegated to it by the Constitution -- with the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution making explicit that powers not specifically delegated to the federal government are reserved for the people and the states.
Magna Carta and the United States Constitution also 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. When limited government is put into practice it often involves the protection of individual liberty from government intrusion.
The original authors of the United States Constitution saw fit to limit the powers of government, as set forth in the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson. Here, Jefferson outlined three basic statements widely adhered to by the people of the American colonies. Supporters of the Declaration believed that these statements were not sufficiently adhered to by or through the English monarchy. In order to prevent this travesty the framers of the constitution made limited government a principle tenet of the constitution. Among the assertions were that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that governments are instituted in order to preserve these rights. It was the colonial experience of many Americans that the English government was not adhering to these premises, and it was for this reason that the colonies saw fit to establish their own government in which all three of these assertions would be respected.
The Preamble to the Constitution serves to communicate the goals sought to be accomplished by specifically enumerating the powers of the United States government--the promotion of "the general Welfare" is one of these goals. The Preamble does not grant any power to the government, rather it serves to explain the limits of the delegated powers listed later in the Constitution. This is to say, in the case of the general welfare clause, that the government is not allowed to exercise its powers on a whim, rather they must be exercised for the general welfare of the country.
With the ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights came a new era of government in which the powers and restrictions of government were both explicitly outlined. The Bill of Rights added to the American Constitution, along with other constitutional amendments, limits the power of government in two ways. First, it restricts the range of governmental authority by prohibiting the government from intruding in certain areas, like religious worship or freedom of speech, and grants the government authority over specifically enumerated aspects of life, like regulating the economy and collecting taxes. Second, it sets certain procedures the government must follow when dealing with the people. Examples of this include the protection from unreasonable search and seizure of property and protection from cruel and unusual punishment for crimes for which one is convicted. The explicit outline of what the government is permitted to do and barred from doing combined with the power of common people to seek repairs for breaches of their constitutional rights is what protects the rights of the people.
The Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution are examples of how the government acknowledges it does not have complete dominion over every facet of the people's lives, and that the federal government is not the only entity with governmental power in the United States. The Ninth Amendment reads "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others held by the people." This shows the federal government does not have the ability to infringe upon the rights of the people in any circumstance, even if the rights are not explicitly protected by the Constitution.
The Tenth Amendment states "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." This limits the authority of the United States government to those powers listed in the Constitution and concedes the premise that individual States retain the powers not granted to the national government but that are also not barred to the States by the Constitution. Also, it grants that the people themselves retain power under this system of government as well. These are key points of the concept of limited government established by the Constitution in the United States because they overtly state the power of the federal government is not unlimited.
Where the government oversteps its authority, the people have the right, as listed in the Constitution, to make their grievances known through petition and through public elections for government office. As 16th President of the United States Abraham Lincoln once said, "Our government rests in public opinion." A principle tenet of the Republican conception of limited government is what Lincoln called self-government, a "sacred right [...] at the foundation of the sense of justice." The rationale behind this is simple: "No man is good enough to govern another man, without that other's consent." It is the adherence to republicanism that allows citizens to perpetuate the idea that the government must not only adhere to the Constitution, it must also listen to the will of the people. If the people disapprove of the actions of those in power and the rules they legislate, they have the ability to put new people in power who will better represent the public interest. Since, under the Constitution, the government is ultimately held accountable by the people, the public always has the opportunity to keep the government's power in check.
The Constitution also partially prevents the government from expanding its own power by creating a system of checks and balances through the separation of powers. Articles One, Two, and Three of the Constitution create three separate branches of government, equal in level power, but different in responsibility, that all control the government. In assuming each branch would want to expand its powers, it was necessary that each have the ability to fend off power grabs from other branches. The three branches--legislative, executive, and judicial-- compete with each other through certain powers that allow them to "check" the others and "balance" the government. Examples of this include the legislative branch's power to override Presidential Vetoes and the judicial branch's power to declare laws created by the legislative branch unconstitutional. James Madison writes in Federalist No. 51 "But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department, the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others." Without the capacity of each branch to check the others, power would concentrate with a small minority and could potentially allow the minority to infringe upon the rights of the people. This would be antithetical to the purpose of the Constitution, hence a system of checks and balances was set in place.