In the March 2008 edition of Imprimis (a free journal from Hillsdale College), Charles Kesler writes about the waning of limited government. In the article titled “Limited Government: Are the Good Times Really Over?”, Kesler disagrees with the assertion that “small government conservatism is dead.” He provides seven propositions to butress his argument. After establishing his fourth proposition, that limited government must be constitutional government, he moves on to Proposition Five. Notice not only the liberal view of the “Living” Constitution, but the view of the relationship between the Government and the Governed.
Limited government, in the sense of constitutional government, is opposed to the political assumptions of the modern state, which arose after the New Deal. Those assumptions came largely from the political science of the Progressive era, whose proponents argued that the Founders’ limited government was an 18th century nostrum that was powerless to solve 20th century problems. From this point of view, natural rights were an immature form of genuine right, enshrining egoism and individualism that might have been necessary for frontier farmers but made no sense in an interdependent, industrial society. The Progressives believed that freedom did not come from nature or God, but instead is a product of the state and is realized only in the modern state. The state is the people and the people are the state.
To put the difference more plainly, consider Woodrow Wilson’s insistence that “living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice.” In short, it is not the limited Constitution of the Founders, but the living Constitution, which is the ideal of Progressives and of modern liberal theory and practice. A fixed or limited Constitution would make sense if human rights are fixed and unchanging, as the Declaration affirms. But if human rights are essentially historical or evolutionary, then we should want a Constitution that is free to adapt and evolve along with them. In theory, then, no a priori limitations on government power—whether property rights, speech rights, or even religious freedom—can be allowed to impinge on government’s ability to bring about historical liberation. The old or natural rights have to be sacrificed in order to achieve the new rights of self-fulfillment. Thus for the Progressives—as for Barack Obama and many liberals today—political tyranny is no longer the ever-present threat that it was considered to be by James Madison or Alexander Hamilton. In liberal eyes, the real political threat is not tyrannical government or even the tyranny of the majority, but the well-connected capitalists, the “economic royalists” hiding behind the façade of democracy, who manipulate things to their advantage. Liberals ever since the New Deal have argued that limited government must become unlimited, in order to prevent the few from becoming tyrannical.
A new theory of the Constitution corresponded to this new theory of rights. FDR put it memorably in his 1932 Commonwealth Club Address: Government is a contract under which “rulers were accorded power, and the people consented to that power on consideration that they be accorded certain rights.” According to this view, we give the rulers power and the rulers give us rights. In other words, rights are no longer natural or God-given, but emerge from a bargain struck with the government. And it is up to liberal statesmen or leaders to keep the bargain current, redefining rights constantly—adding new rights and subtracting some of the old ones—in order to keep the living Constitution in tune with the times. Entitlement rights—rights created and funded by government—replace natural rights. Given this new relationship of people and government, we don’t need to keep a jealous eye on government anymore, because the more power we give it, the more rights and benefits it gives us back—Social Security, Medicare, prescription drug benefits, unemployment insurance, and on and on.
Kesler closes the article citing The Okie from Muskogee:
This leads to my seventh and concluding proposition: Limited government is not a lost cause. The subtitle for this talk, “Are the Good Times Really Over?” is inspired by a Merle Haggard country song of that title. It asked the question, “Are we rolling downhill / like a snowball headed for hell?” But after indicting the current situation—it was written late in the era of Jimmy Carter, when there was much to despair about—the song ends in a positive refrain, instructing us, among other things, to “Stand up for the flag / and let’s all ring the Liberty Bell.” That’s good advice, and it’s advice that will help. But the restoration of constitutional government will require a lot more from us. It will require searching political reconsideration as well as profound political prudence, neither of which has been on offer, so far, in the 2008 presidential campaign.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…