The idea of limited government is closely associated with political thinkers, mostly of medieval and modern periods, who placed special emphasis on preventing abuses of government. Some spoke of limitations connected with divine law and natural law; others spoke of a SOCIAL COMPACT establishing government for the sake of protecting property and other individual rights. Limited government was also a corollary of the more affirmative approach of ancient philosophers, who taught that ruling bodies could best maintain themselves by respecting social customs, moderating their policies, honoring the contributions of each social class in distributing governmental offices, and fostering self-restraint, patriotism, and other attitudes conducive to the general welfare.
In American constitutional thought limited government is often synonymous with CONSTITUTIONALISM itself. It has three more specific connotations resulting from the three principal ways in which the government can be said to be constitutionally limited: in a jurisdictional sense, limited in the objectives it may pursue; in a procedural sense, limited in the ways it may decide policy questions and adjudicate disputes involving individuals; and limited by the requirement that its policies be compatible with individual rights.
The first sense of limited government refers to the ENUMERATION OF POWERS through which the Constitution outlines the jurisdictional concerns of the national government. This method of limitation has failed. The enumeration of powers is now a dead letter as a result of the nationalizing tendencies of American economic and social life, which the Supreme Court has accommodated through its interpretations of the TENTH AMENDMENT, the COMMERCE CLAUSE, the NECESSARY AND PROPER CLAUSE, the GENERAL WELFARE CLAUSE, and the CIVIL WAR amendments.
As for the second, or procedural, mode of limitation (structural limitations on policy formation and due process limitations on adjudication), some contemporary constitutionalists regard it as the only philosophically acceptable variety. These theorists tend to follow a value-neutral conception of constitutional democracy which is both at odds with citizen presuppositions about the goals of politics and supported by no compelling historical or philosophic argument. Respect for procedural ideas like SEPARATION OF POWERS, representative government, and DUE PROCESS is indeed central to American...