Stephen Gottlieb: What Is Limited Government Anyway?

Jan 26, 2016

With the presidential primaries underway, the media is choked with talk about getting the government off the people’s backs, restoring limited government, making government let the people alone. But the Koch brothers, the Tea Party, their candidates and supporters are actually saying something very different – they want government to support their definition of their rights and push everyone else out of their way, and most important they want the courts to decide in their favor when others complain that they are trespassing on public land or polluting the air, land and water in ways that injure and interfere with the lives of others. That’s government in their favor.

We lawyers talk about law as a seamless web. That sounds like an idiom but it’s actually very precise. Everything is governed by rules. Judges always decide that someone does or does not have a privilege or a right. Those are all decisions about what the law is. Law always favors someone and disfavors someone else. If someone has a privilege, then everyone else loses when that person does whatever he or she is privileged to do. The question is not, cannot be, whether there is law; the question we have to deal with is whether it is fair and whether it is good for the public. Government off the backs of some means government on everyone else’s back, often leaving you and me poor and defenseless.

Limited government, regulation off people’s backs, are the tropes we hear when a government agency or legislature takes note of bad behavior – fraud, pollution or unconscionable business practices that cause decent people great loss. Unscrupulous companies, some very large and well known, as we discovered during the 2008 financial shock, want no regulations that would set a moral floor under their behavior, allowing more moral enterprises to compete instead of being bankrupted by cut-rate competition from the scandalous moguls. The only regulations that the unscrupulous like are regulations that keeps everyone else out of their way.

So when you hear that trope, look squarely at the privilege these anti-government claimants are defending. You hear it loudest when people are claiming the right to hurt the public. That’s not a claim of freedom that would have made any sense to the Founders of our country.

When the Founders spoke and wrote about government, their central questions were what’s fair and what’s good for the public. Those were central in every aspect of their work from the definition of property rights to the rights the public retained and what the public could and should do for the benefit of the people. Concern for public welfare was central to the building of the Erie Canal that defined the path of commerce in the State of New York for a century and a half, even as the canal was replaced by roads and railroads to continue developing the path the canal had developed. Concern for public welfare was central to the establishment of schools which made Americans among the most educated people on the earth, education that was at the root of all the good things that have happened since.

The Founders believed in public spirit, not a spirit of what the public could do for one’s selfish needs, but a spirit about what each of us could contribute to the improvement of the community, the states and the nation. When President John F. Kennedy told the American people “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” he was channeling the spirit of the Founders.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.

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