Failure: Conservatives’ Self-Sacrifice at the Alter of Limited Government

Samuel Stone

The conservative movement has lost its way. The movement no longer possesses a correct understanding of the relationship between means and ends when it comes to government. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the question of limited government. Many conservatives today tout limited government as the ultimate good. They treat it as if America would just shrink its government, then all societal ills would be solved. This belief has gone so far that it is almost indistinguishable from the libertarian movement in which the government is basically nonexistent. However, these conservatives have mistaken the ends of government for the means which achieve these ends. Not only is this view harmful to the country, but it stands opposed to many of the founding principles of this country as enumerated by our Founding Fathers and expanded upon by President Abraham Lincoln. These conservatives fail to understand that limited government serves as a means of protecting the rights and liberty of citizens and, if it becomes destructive of these ends, it must be discarded for something better.

The ultimate end of government is to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens. Jefferson notes this fact in the Declaration when he says, “That, to secure these rights (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), governments are instituted among men.” Protecting the rights of citizens is the whole role of government. The conservative movement has forgotten this essential point. For instance, when describing his view of politics, all Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson can say is his principles are a “limited role of government.” This idea of limited government becomes harmful when it does not give the government adequate means to protect the people. Alexander Hamilton points out in Federalist 23 that “the means ought to be proportioned to the end; the person, from whose agency the attainment of any end is expected, ought to possess the means by which it is to be attained.” In other words, the government must possess sufficient power to achieve its end. In framing this government, the Framers gave the government all the powers necessary to protect life, liberty, and property. Therefore, any acts in which one citizen directly harms another’s life, liberty, or property, can, and should be, illegal. Instead, these conservatives have replaced the ultimate purpose of government with a vague view of limited government as an ultimate good. Instead of using the means before them to protect the people, they hide behind claims of government overreach. However, they fail to realize the government is endowed with whatever means necessary to protect the people. By not allowing the government adequate power to act, these men sacrifice all ability to protect life, liberty, and property and thus fail to achieve the ends for which they were elected.

It is true that the form of government plays an important role in the protection of the “inalienable rights,” man possesses, but its role must be properly understood. The form of government is the means through which a people can secure their rights. Abraham Lincoln explains this relationship in talking about the interaction between the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln notes that the Declaration’s principle of “Liberty for all” has become “an ‘apple of gold’ to us.” Meanwhile, “the Union and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it.” Lincoln continues to explain the role of the frame being “not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it.” To put it another way, the Constitution, or form of government, is meant to protect the principles found in the Declaration of Independence. It is the principles—those ends—then, which are unchanging, not the means of seeing them through. Lincoln concludes this point by stating that “the picture was made for the apple—not the apple for the picture.” The form of government was made to protect the principles, not the principles made to protect the form. The frame might need to be repaired and restored in order to protect the apple inside. Limited government is the frame of silver protecting the more important apple of life, liberty, and property. Conservatives would rather maintain the frame in such a manner that the apple within is destroyed.

Such a view of government also discards the first duty of government elucidated by James Madison in Federalist 51. Madison explains that in framing a government “you must first enable the government to control the governed.” Government’s first duty is to protect the citizens from the harmful acts of their fellow citizens. This means the government has a responsibility to defend citizens from any attacks on their life, liberty, or property by another. Only when this is accomplished can the government worry about the second duty, that of creating a limited government. This second duty is where a people must “oblige” the government to control itself. From here arises the principle of limited government. Limited government is not the first concern of those seeking to form a government. Rather, it is a secondary concern that can only be enacted once the government has sufficient strength to protect its citizens. By overemphasizing the limitations of government powers, our ability to protect citizens is wholly lost. By failing to protect citizens, the government shares a responsibility in the grave circumstances which inevitably follow. The government’s rapid growth or quick destruction is the obvious result of these circumstances. As a result, the government’s role in protecting citizens from its own overreach is lost as well. Thus, they will cause the very thing they seek to prevent by taking such actions.

The Framers themselves realized the danger of sacrificing the principles of the Declaration at the altar of governmental form and function. This is exemplified by their abandonment of the inadequate Articles of Confederation. The Articles certainly limited the scope of the federal government, yet, in doing so, they handicapped it to the point of farce. As a response, the states called for a convention in order to save the Union and create a more functional national government. In order to save the Union and provide protection for the people, they decided to scrap the Articles altogether. Madison explains why this happened by saying that the Framers were tasked by Congress with first and foremost adopting a “firm national government” and secondly with ensuring the government “would be adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union.” In fact, the means of achieving these two goals by altering the Articles was the third task given to them by the Congress under the Articles. As Madison notes, “Where several parts cannot be made to coincide, the less important should give way to the more important part.” National unity and protecting the people of America were paramount, whereas the actual form of government was somewhat superfluous or coincidental. As a result of this realization, the Framers decided to totally replace the Articles of Confederation. In terms of the current discussion, the vague idea of limited government is of less importance. It is the frame of silver protecting the more worthy, yet also more fragile, apple of gold.

Aristotle famously starts out his Nicomachean Ethics by saying, “Every art and every inquiry, and likewise every action and choice, seems to aim at some good, and hence it has been beautifully said that the good is that at which all things aim.” He continues to explain that those things which are produced out of activities are “by nature better things than the activities.” Based upon this understanding, the flourishing of life, liberty, and property under a well-formed government is a greater good than the form of government itself. Because of this fact, these outcomes must be protected before the forms to which we are accustomed if they prove inadequate. By not recognizing this fact, the conservative movement has made itself enablers of an evil agenda which thrives in a climate of libertarianism. In many ways, they have also paved their way to defeat. This constant state of defeat can be seen in the many asinine and malevolent changes which have taken place in the past sixty years. In one issue after another the conservative movement has failed to stop the march of progressivism. Conservatives can turn the tide of battle only by recognizing their failings and seeking to protect the apple rather than the frame of silver.

About the Author

Samuel Stone is a Senior Contributor for American Discourse and a Hillsdale College graduate who majored in politics. He currently is getting his masters from St. John’s College.

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