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Liberalism’s (Un)Limited Government

Why is it that today’s liberals have become the most ardent cheerleaders of arbitrary monarchy? Wasn’t liberalism born of the effort to limit arbitrary rule of a single, unelected ruler? No, I’m not suggesting that the Left has suddenly decided that they regret the American Revolution. But, in nearly every leading liberal magazine, newspaper and […]

Why is it that today’s liberals have become the most ardent cheerleaders of arbitrary monarchy? Wasn’t liberalism born of the effort to limit arbitrary rule of a single, unelected ruler?

No, I’m not suggesting that the Left has suddenly decided that they regret the American Revolution. But, in nearly every leading liberal magazine, newspaper and blog, there is a growing excitement and hope that Pope Francis will change the Roman Catholic Church’s “policies” on birth control, male celibate priesthood, homosexuality, gay marriage, divorce and (some, at least, though far fewer) abortion. They have celebrated the appointment of Pope Francis as a sign that the Church is finally going to join the modern world, and fervently hope that he will simply declare that those teachings are no longer valid and embrace today’s accepted orthodoxies. They yearn for executive fiat.

It is striking to witness this palpable longing in juxtaposition of the absence of any real concern on the Left about possible abrogations of the rule of law arising from President Obama’s decision to suspend the “employer mandate” until 2015, and general support of the President’s assertion that in the face of Congressional opposition that he has recourse to the “Pen and the Phone.” And, after a season of accusatory lamentation about Pope Benedict’s authoritarian treatment of the “Nuns on the Bus,” there has been deafening silence from the Left over the Obama administration’s decision to go to court to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to violate their conscience in accepting provision of contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization.

Liberalism was born, the story goes, as a reaction against arbitrary and unlimited rule by monarchs. Yet, today’s liberals seem to adore executive power when it’s used to effect their preferred ends, even hoping that one of the only remaining “monarchs”—the Pope—will single-handedly change the “rules” of the Church. They wish to exchange “fiat” in the sense of “let it be done” to “fiat” in the sense of “do as I say.”

(Of course, “conservatives” don’t escape from this general inclination—they tend also to be ardent supporters of expansive executive power when one of their own is in office, and it is generally conservative intellectuals who have been most interested in developing theories about active executive power.)

What happened to limited government, you might ask? I answer: exactly what liberalism promised. For, liberalism was never about “limited” government, but the pursuit and exercise of potentially limitless power toward seemingly “limited” ends of securing Rights.

The phrase “limited government” rolls off the tongues of Americans with ease, but without much thought or comprehension. Americans assume that “limited government” has something to do with small government or selection of leaders based upon elections. If one turns to the account offered by Wikipedia—if not authoritative, at least reflective of a popular understanding—one finds that limited government seems to mean some combination of the following:

1. Selection of political governors by popular election;

2. Separation of Powers and and Checks and Balances;

3. Limited State activity in citizens’ exercise of civil liberties;

4. Statement or Recognition of inalienable Rights.

Characteristically, “limited government” is contrasted to a government based upon “divine right of Kings,” which Wikipedia describes as a theory in which monarchy allows “unlimited sovereignty over its subjects.”

The first two deal with the form and structure of government; the second two, the ends of government. It should be clear to anyone who gives the matter a modicum of thought that the first two actually do not guarantee a “limited government” at all. Political philosophers dating back to Plato and Aristotle recognized that popular sovereignty was no guarantor of “limited government,” and in fact counted democracy as a defective and even potentially tyrannical form of government. Separation of powers and a system of “checks and balances” were thought to make it more difficult for government to oppress the population, but the Founders understood that these would be ineffectual if a concerted and long-term commitment to oppressive policies became widespread throughout the government.

What many people regard as the obvious ways government can be limited—the form and structure of government—actually represents no inherent limit at all. So what of the ends of modern liberal government—as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men?”

Among the explicit rights articulated by the Declaration are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” for which government is “instituted” in order to “secure.” The ends of liberal government are limited to the securing of rights, thereby allowing a large sphere of liberty in which people can pursue their own conception of the good life—“the pursuit of happiness.”

Thus, liberal government is “limited” by its ends—securing rights, and general non-interference in influencing people’s various “pursuits.” However, it is easy to see how this apparently limited sphere of government activity necessarily becomes expansive. In the first instance, liberal government aims to expand the range of human power—the power over nature in particular. The sphere of government activity will necessarily grow in order to advance achievement of this increase in power—indeed, the power of the government and the project of mastering nature necessarily increase together. The “sphere of liberty” does not remain static, but expands as various forms of mastery increase—mobility, economic prosperity, opportunity. By this understanding, the “ends” of government are in one sense limited—the securing of rights—yet effectively unlimited, inasmuch as the “securing of rights” necessarily involves ever-increasing power.

Once understood in this “positive” sense—as it was from the very outset—we can begin to see that “rights,” and the means by which we secure them, are not inherently limited. Indeed, rights are inherently expansive. A liberal society and its laws are committed to expanding wealth, mobility, opportunity, health, even longevity. If it cannot guarantee equal outcomes, it must nevertheless provide a baseline of support for the “race of life.” This will extend to increasing activity in every realm of life—the rearing of children, the health of the citizenry, the ongoing education of citizens, the expansion of areas where the “conquest of nature” can proceed—eventually, full-throated support for “STEM” and the denigration of impractical activities like “Art History.” The HHS Mandate is but one aspect of this expansion of “securing” of rights—the right to control one’s body, which, according to Locke, we own—as is the State’s claim to be able to define marriage in any way that the expansion of rights demands.

Secondly, not only the nature of rights, but the activity of “securing” rights becomes another way that power and activity necessarily increases. Fortune, contingency, and accident inevitably distributes unequally opportunities by which people can “pursue happiness” or enjoy “liberty,” or expect a reasonably long “life.” Government is required not only “not to interfere,” but from the very outset of liberal theory was understood to have a positive duty to expand its activities to allow for the positive enjoyment of one’s rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Today’s Republican Party, for instance, was born not simply from the conflagration over the Civil War, but out of the commitment to expand the activities of government to extensive “internal improvements”—including not only roads, canals, and railroads, but schools, welfare, and tariff protections for the promotion of domestic industry.

Thus, we should understand the fullest sense in which we live under a “limited government”: liberal government is “limited” inasmuch as it cannot assert or act on behalf of some preferred way of life that it deems to be better for its citizenry. It must take an official stance in which it is “neutral” or indifferent to varying ways of life. (Of course, liberalism does end up supporting a substantive worldview, but that’s a discussion for another time). However, a government premised upon the “securing of rights” will require increasing exercise of power to “secure” a growing demand for the “rights” needed to ever-more fully pursue the variety of ways of life to which the citizenry is entitled. With justification, a citizenry will demand, and the State will claim, increasing powers as necessary means to securing those “limited” (but infinitely expansive) purposes.

But notice a sleight-of-hand here: the very thing that constitues the “limits” of liberal political theory—avoiding preference or support for any particular “way of life”—is in fact the way that liberalism eschews any true limits. By contrast, a polity that is oriented to supporting human flourishing based upon an unchanging standard—such as the natural law—cannot alter that end, under which it is itself governed and limited. Thus—in ways incomprehensible to liberals—the Pope cannot simply decide to change Church “policy”; his position is not that of arbitrary supreme ruler, but defender of the “deposit of faith.” He is not free to act as a President under a liberal regime; he is bound by the limits of a law outside himself.

Liberalism, by contrast, is limited in its “neutrality” about “ends,” but thus becomes committed to the limitless expansion of power that “secures” potentially limitless paths to the “pursuit of happiness.” It’s worth noting that this phrase—“pursuit of happiness”—appears in Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding in a chapter entitled “Of Power,” pointing to the intimate connection between the two.* Liberalism institutionalizes discontent, and accrues growing powers to satisfy that which is implicitly unrealizable. The history of liberalism is always one in which the power of central government unceasingly grows, never decreases; this is not because such growth represents an aberration from its true nature, but its necessary realization.

Once we properly understand what is meant by “limited government,” we see that liberal theory advances the the first theory of legitimate “unlimited”government in the history of the world. This is because the “ends” of government—securing of rights—will inevitably require expansion of powers that cannot be internally limited, inasmuch as claims to perfect enjoyment of expansive rights necessarily grows. Liberal government will rest especially on an active executive, a fact recognized not only by the proto-liberal (social contractarian) Thomas Hobbes—whose “Leviathan” holds more legitimate power than any ancient king—but even the liberal John Locke, who insisted that the executive should enjoy the most extensive use of “Prerogative,” and only be limited in its exercise if it was abused in contradiction to the legitimate ends of securing rights (rule of law is in fact disposable).** That is, the problem lay not in arbitrary power, but in arbitrary power used toward ends that contradicted the securing of rights. From the outset, liberal theory recognized that the legitimate and expansive end of “securing rights” justified nearly limitless exercise of power.

Many conservatives in America today understand our expansive and expanding government as a contradiction of the original design of the Constitution. However, the expansion of government, and the explosive growth of the “Prerogative” powers of the executive, hew exactly to the basic premises of liberalism—expansive growth alongside the increase of power, expanding the enjoyment of rights while simultaneously generating demands for more expansive power for more perfect enjoyment of expanding rights. Increasing power only generates demands for more power, more “securing,” more rights. As the powers of a purportedly “limited government” increase, we should understand this less as a betrayal of original limits than the fulfillment of its aims. Those who wish for a truly limited government need to think more deeply about a government that is limited by ends that it cannot change or alter, much less expand by the ongoing increase of its own powers. Appreciating the “weakness” of Pope Francis in his inability to change what is not in his power to alter—emulating the “fiat” of Mary, rather than becoming cheerleaders for executive “fiat”—is a good place to start.

*”All men seek happiness, but not of the same sort. The mind has a different relish, as well as the palate; and you will as fruitlessly endeavour to delight all men with riches or glory (which yet some men place their happiness in) as you would to satisfy all men’s hunger with cheese or lobsters; which, though very agreeable and delicious fare to some, are to others extremely nauseous and offensive: and many persons would with reason prefer the griping of an hungry belly to those dishes which are a feast to others. Hence it was, I think, that the philosophers of old did in vain inquire, whether summum bonum consisted in riches, or bodily delights, or virtue, or contemplation: and they might have as reasonably disputed, whether the best relish were to be found in apples, plums, or nuts, and have divided themselves into sects upon it. For, as pleasant tastes depend not on the things themselves, but on their agreeableness to this or that particular palate, wherein there is great variety; so the greatest happiness consists in the having those things which produce the greatest pleasure, and in the absence of those which cause any disturbance, any pain. Now these, to different men, are very different things. If, therefore, men in this life only have hope; if in this life only they can enjoy, it is not strange nor unreasonable, that they should seek their happiness by avoiding all things that disease them here, and by pursuing all that delight them; wherein it will be no wonder to find variety and difference. For if there be no prospect beyond the grave, the inference is certainly right- “Let us eat and drink,” let us enjoy what we “for to-morrow we shall die.” This, I think, may serve to show us the reason, why, though all men’s desires tend to happiness, yet they are not moved by the same object. Men may choose different things, and yet all choose right…” John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Part II (“Of Ideas”), ch. 21 (“Of Power”), Para. 56.

“For who is content is happy. But as soon as any new uneasiness comes in, this happiness is disturbed, and we are set afresh on work in the pursuit of happiness.” Ibid, para. 61.

** “Prerogative can be nothing but the people’s permitting their rulers to do several things, of their own free choice, where the law was silent, and sometimes too against the direct letter of the law, for the public good; and their acquiescing in it when so done: for as a good prince, who is mindful of the trust put into his hands, and careful of the good of his people, cannot have too much prerogative, that is, power to do good…” John Locke, Second Treatise on Government, sec. 164.