Limited Government: Not Just a Talking Point for Grumpy Conservatives

Limited Government: Not Just a Talking Point for Grumpy ConservativesGovernment Did Not Build America — Here’s What Did

As he was surveying the political landscape in America in the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville noted, “In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association.”  Whether it’s maintaining a local park, building a church, distributing books, caring for the sick, or providing clothes for the poor, early Americans worked together locally to meet their community’s needs.

In this, America is unique. According to sociologist Charles Murray: “[W]idespread voluntary mutual assistance among unrelated people who happen to live alongside one another has been rare [in other countries]. In the United States, it has been ubiquitous.”

Voluntary associations are often called “mediating institutions” because they take place in the space between the individual and the state. The first — and most important — of these institutions is the family. But just beyond families are what Edmund Burke called the “inns and resting places” such as churches, schools, sports leagues, clubs, and neighborhood associations where humans naturally meet to socialize and solve problems.Within these localized webs of human connectivity, warmth, loyalty, and affinity are nurtured, civic virtue is cultivated, and social improvements are sought. Mediating institutions made America.

How Government Can Nurture or Destroy Mediating Institutions

When big government becomes the primary place where people turn to have their problems solved — instead of families, churches, private charities, or private enterprise — then people who can help themselves through the common efforts of the community no longer help themselves. As they slough off ever more responsibilities, they become passive and increasingly dependent on the beneficence of the state. As radio-show host Dennis Prager frequently notes, the bigger the government is, the smaller the individual becomes.

Although government assistance is often well-intended, when it assumes functions performed by smaller associations, it stifles volunteerism and character development. In doing so, it risks crowding out mediating institutions and choking human initiative. Scholar Yuval Levin writes, “To clear away what stands between the state and the citizen is to extinguish the sources of American freedom.”

In an exclusive interview with Summit Ministries, Dr. Samuel Gregg, Director of Research at the Acton Institute, commented that “all of us need to make free choices if we are to flourish as human beings. Too often, assistance morphs into undue dependency, and undue dependency does not affirm human dignity. It turns us into serfs rather than people who have been set free by Christ to do and live the good.”

The Principle of Subsidiarity: Solving Problems at the Right Level

In Latin, the term subsidium means “help, support, assistance.” The proper role of government, according to the principle of subsidiarity, is best described by these three words. Instead of absorbing the roles of lower institutions, the state — the grandest and most distant institution — should act as an integral support, operating in the background and ensuring that the mediating institutions have a space within which to thrive. In other words, the government should assist the family and assist the church, effectively helping people to help themselves.

Although subsidiarity limits government activity, it also grants government an essential role. In Fragments on Government, Abraham Lincoln writes, “The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves — in their separate and individual, capacities.”

At Summit, we apply the principle of subsidiarity by encouraging students to think of the optimally ordered society as that in which each sphere (family, church, state) properly stewards its own domain — and stays out of the others.

What Is the Government Responsible For?

Governmental authority was established by God (Romans 13), and when it is wielded properly, peace and stability result. Government should help individuals and families do things they could not possibly do for themselves. For instance, the state rightfully enacts justice by punishing wrongdoers. In addition, the state is granted the sword to protect its people from the encroachments of outsiders. Courts settle disputes and enforce contracts. The rule of law is maintained to promote healthy interaction and the proper functioning of the free-market system. Neither families nor churches nor neighborhood associations can accomplish these tasks. As a result, they remain the exclusive domain of law and government.

Government can rightly help coordinate the activities of lower institutions, but it can’t replace them, subsume them, or impede them without diminishing liberty. As St. Thomas Aquinas writes, “It is contrary to the proper character of the State’s government to impede people from acting according to their responsibilities — except in emergencies.”

What Are Families Responsible For?

What institution is best at raising children to become mature, healthy, hardworking adults? The private economy? The government? Of course not! The family is, by far, most fit to provide for children’s health, education, and welfare. The principle of subsidiarity says that families are the best institution for providing for the health, education, and welfare of families. And when families falter, the government should assist — not usurp — the family’s role. It can do this by encouraging struggling families to look first to extended family, neighbors, and the church for assistance. When those institutions do not help, however, the state inevitably fills the gap and becomes a substitute child-raiser.

The breakdown of the family unit (40 percent of children are born out of wedlock) has had disastrous social consequences, dramatically increasing the rates of delinquency, despair, violence, drug abuse, crime, and incarceration. These failures affect the economy by enlarging the welfare state and reducing the number of self-sufficient, qualified, and virtuous individuals.

Rather than empowering families and mediating institutions, however, the Obama administration is using the collapse of the family as an excuse to expand the role of the central government. It is even using “family” language to do so. In a recent article from Think Progress, Tara Culp-Ressler writes, “From racial issues to poverty to reproductive rights, the [Obama] administration regularly uses the language of parenting as a tool to argue for policy. … The new policy push [‘My Brother’s Keeper’] is described explicitly in terms of familial bonds, with Obama positioned at the head of the household. … [Even] Salon’s Dr. Brittney Cooper described [Obama] as ‘donning the role of father-in-chief.’”

But does government takeover of the family solve the problem or make it worse? Ryan Anderson from the Heritage Foundation writes, “A study by the Left-leaning Brookings Institution finds that $229 billion in welfare spending between 1970 and 1996 can be attributed to the breakdown of the marriage culture and the resulting exacerbation of social ills: teen pregnancy, poverty, crime, drug abuse, and health problems. A 2008 study found that divorce and unwed childbearing cost taxpayers $112 billion each year.”  Advocates of large government insist that there is no better way. But there is. It’s called the church.

What Is the Church Responsible For?

Judging from the results of the 50-year-old War on Poverty, the government is not the best institution to lift people out of indigence. In 1965, the poverty rate was 17.3 percent. In 2012, it was 15 percent. Robert Rector from the Heritage Foundation reports: “Converted into cash, total welfare spending would equal five times the amount needed to eliminate all poverty in the U.S.”

Aside from private enterprise — which has been the most effective weapon against poverty — the church plays a valuable role in helping the poor. Of course, charity is one of the primary responsibilities of the church, which does something that the government could never do — tend to people’s spiritual needs.

Whereas the government can only take money from some people and give it to those it thinks need more, the church is uniquely placed to develop relationships and to meet needs that transcend those that are simply material. Through food pantries, homeless shelters, community outreach events, after-school programs, youth groups, Bible studies, fundraising efforts, unemployment support, and healthcare assistance, churches enable community members to love and serve one another. The church facilitates virtue, volunteerism, and poverty alleviation like no other institution.

Yet, big government has encroached upon the church’s territory. Take, for instance, the HHS mandate that requires religious institutions to facilitate people’s access to abortive and contraceptive drugs. The Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic charity devoted to caring for the elderly, would have been penalized for not obeying the mandate were it not for the intervention of the Supreme Court. Furthermore, the legalization of gay marriage threatens the existence of religious adoption agencies that refuse to place children in the homes of same-sex couples. The respective missions of these church-based organizations are put in jeopardy by governmental overreach.

If Subsidiarity Is Such a Good Idea, Why Isn’t It Followed?

There are two primary reasons the government absorbs the roles of lesser institutions, thereby violating the principle of subsidiarity. First, families and churches might fail to fulfill their responsibilities. As Charles Murray notes, “A neighborhood with weak social capital must take its problems to police or social welfare bureaucracies because local resources for dealing with them have atrophied.”

Second, the government may simply become too eager to assist lower institutions and end up severely limiting both their freedom and their effectiveness. Or, more perniciously, there may be an underlying desire to increase the power of the state at the expense of mediating institutions.

How Do We Sustain a Vibrant Society in Accord With Subsidiarity?

Individuals should be encouraged and allowed to provide for themselves. If they are unable, then they should look for help first from their families, then from their churches and other social groups, and finally, as a last resort, the state. When the state is quick to offer material support, the public sector grows, state spending balloons, and people fail to have nonmaterial needs tended to. Even when it is well-intended, government expansion risks impeding the proper functioning of the family, the church, and the private economy, and promoting passivity, apathy, and dependence. It reduces neighborliness and industriousness, sapping life out of the community and making the individual smaller.

A well-ordered society is established when each sphere remains committed to fulfilling its own respective responsibilities. In such a scenario, the state restrains evil by punishing injustice, incentivizing good works, providing a framework within which people can flourish, ensuring public safety, making treaties, and protecting the nation.

When asked by Summit what our readers can do to guard themselves, their families, and churches from excessive government intrusion and nurture thriving communities, Dr. Gregg replied,

“The first step is to ask, when faced with a situation of need, which community is the best equipped to address it, and to recognize that government is normally not the first port of call. The second step is to consider whether the default position in addressing problems has become one of lobbying politicians or simply expecting government welfare agencies to intervene. Simply asking these questions will help us all think clearly about these issues instead of just assuming that politics and government action is the primary way forward. If we don’t take these and other steps, there is always the risk of what the French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville called ‘soft despotism’: the situation in which we more-or-less let our freedoms slip away in return for voting and supporting those who promise to use the state to give us all we want.”

It isn’t enough to be against big government. We must also actively promote the strength of families and churches if we want people to truly flourish.


  1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), chapter 9
  2. Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Forum, 2012), p. 238
  3. Edmund Burke, The Works of Edmund Burke Vol. III (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1839), p. 228
  4. Yuval Levin, “The Hollow Republic,” National Review Online (August 6, 2012)
  6. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, III, c. 71 n. 4
  10. Murray, p. 252