Limited Government

The term “limited government” refers to a government whose power is limited by the restrictions set forth in a constitution, or some such other governing authority. An example of a limited government is our own U.S. government. In other words, the U.S. government does not have any power other than that which is granted to it by the U.S. Constitution. To explore this concept, consider the following limited government definition.

Definition of Limited Government


  1. A government that is limited in its power by a constitution or a similar form of authority.



Checks and Balances / Separation of Powers


The system of checks and balances was created to guarantee that none of the three branches of government (the legislative, executive, and judicial branches) would become too powerful. There is in place a separation of powers, which places limits on the control that each branch can enjoy in an attempt to combat tyranny. In fact, U.S. President James Madison famously wrote, in his support of the system of checks and balances, that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

While each branch of government has its own powers, the separation of powers means that the other two branches can check the actions of the third branch to make sure it’s not overstepping its bounds. Consider the following examples of limited government:

  • The President (the executive branch) oversees the military, however only Congress (the legislative branch) can declare war.
  • Congress can pass a bill, but the President can then veto that bill if he doesn’t agree with it. Congress can then vote to override the veto.
  • The Supreme Court (the judicial branch) can make decisions on cases, but Congress can then check those decisions by passing amendments to the Constitution.

Other Countries with Limited Government

In addition to the United States, there are many other countries with limited governments, including:

  • Australia
  • Canada
  • England
  • Germany
  • Japan
  • Mexico

The U.S. is one of the most well-known examples of limited government in the world. Hong Kong, however, is first on the list for having the most limited government in the world. They also have the most economic freedom. Madagascar, on the other hand, is near the bottom for economic freedom. What this means is that, while Madagascar also enjoys a limited government, they have their fair share of problems, including widespread corruption and a high rate of inflation.

How the Constitution Limits Governmental Powers

The Constitution also limits governmental powers by dividing power between the federal and state governments. This way, the federal government does not have too much power, and the states do not feel as if they do not have enough.

Make no mistake that the federal government is still a powerful entity, and it still enjoys superiority over state governments, but the Constitution limits the federal government with regard to what it can and cannot do. The Constitution also dictates that powers not granted to either the federal government or the state governments are instead exercised by the people.

The Constitution also limits governments by preventing them from intruding upon the lives of their citizens. Most of these laws that specifically protect the American people are detailed in the Bill of Rights, which is the collective name given to the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

Bill of Rights

When it comes to the Bill of Rights, many consider the most important to be the First Amendment, which includes, among other freedoms, perhaps its most popular freedom: freedom of speech.

While freedom of speech may be one of the most well-known freedoms, it is also perhaps the most misinterpreted. While the Constitution allows the American people to say what they feel, they are not allowed to do so if what they have to say can hurt someone’s reputation (libel), hurt someone either directly or indirectly, or incites a riot. For example, it is a crime to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater if there is, in fact, no fire. Doing so could cause a panic and a stampede that could result in both physical and emotional trauma, or even death.

Freedom of speech also protects citizens from being reprimanded by the government in the event that they want to voice their disagreement with something someone else has said or done. This is where the big misconception comes in. Freedom of speech does not protect citizens from the backlash they may suffer from their fellow citizens. It only protects them from being punished by the government.

So, if, for instance, Sally wanted to stand in the middle of the street and yell about how much she hates the president, she is protected by the First Amendment, so long as she doesn’t say anything libelous, or try to hurt anyone. However, if one of her neighbors loves the President and wants to throw a tomato at her to shush her, she cannot use the First Amendment as a defense.

The additional amendments in the Bill of Rights that protect the rights of the American people include:

  • The right to own a gun (Second Amendment)
  • The right to not have to house troops during peacetime (Third Amendment)
  • Protection from an illegal search of a person’s property and seizure of his belongings (Fourth Amendment)
  • The right to be believed innocent until proven guilty (Fifth Amendment)
  • The right to a fair and speedy trial (Sixth Amendment)
  • The right to a jury trial (Seventh Amendment)
  • Protection from having to pay unreasonably high bail to be released from prison before a criminal trial (Eighth Amendment)
  • The amendment that states that people are entitled to additional rights not covered in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights (Ninth Amendment)
  • Finally, the Tenth Amendment, which provides protections similar to the Ninth Amendment, applies to the states.

General Welfare Clause

The General Welfare Clause is a clause that is written into the U.S. Constitution which states, in so many words, that the government cannot exercise its powers simply because it feels like it. The exercise of governmental power must always be to the benefit of its people. The individual states have their own General Welfare Clauses as part of their state constitutions as well. For instance, Article VII of the Constitution of Alaska orders the state’s government to “provide for the promotion and protection of public health” and “provide for public welfare.”

One of the more important issues wherein the General Welfare Clause pops up is in the Taxing and Spending Clause of the Constitution. Here, the General Welfare Clause does not grant legislative power per se. Instead, it allows the federal government to spend federal money on matters that pertain to the federal government.

Limited Government Examples Involving a Libel Case

An example of limited government can be found in the case of U.S. v. Hudson, which was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1812. Here, Barzillai Hudson and George Goodwin were brought up on charges of libel against both the President and Congress after accusing both of secretly promising to give Napoleon Bonaparte $2 million in exchange for creating a treaty with Spain.

The federal circuit court in this case was unsure whether it had jurisdiction to hear a libel case, and so the court turned the case over to the U.S. Supreme Court for review. The Court ultimately held that no, federal courts should not preside over cases involving common-law crimes. Justice William Johnson, Jr., who delivered the opinion of the Court, explained that the federal government is one of the limited powers as defined by the U.S. Constitution. Further, he noted, only the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction was clearly defined in Article III.

He continued that, since Congress created the federal courts, then Congress should also be the one to define their jurisdictions. Therefore, the Court ruled that the principles of limited government extend to limiting the federal courts’ jurisdiction as well.

Said the Court:

“The courts of the United States have no common law jurisdiction in cases of libel against the government of the United States.

But they have the power to fine for contempts, to imprison for contumacy, and to enforce the observance of their orders.

Certain implied powers must necessarily result to our courts of justice from the nature of their institution. But jurisdiction of crimes against the state are not among those powers.

To fine for contempt, imprison for contumacy, enforce the observance of orders, etc., are powers which cannot be dispensed with in a court, because they are necessary to the exercise of all others.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Bail – The temporary release of a defendant in a criminal case as he awaits his trial, typically on the condition that a certain amount of money be paid so as to guarantee his future appearance in court.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Libelous – A written or pictorial statement that is defamatory in nature.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.
  • Tyranny – A cruel and unreasonable use of power by an individual in a position of power.