People have disagreed about the nature and purposes of government since nomadic bands created the first governments. Because government is the organisation created to carry out policies on behalf of the people, a debate about limited government must also consider what actions government should take for the people and what powers it needs to have in order to carry out these policies.
What is Limited Government?
Limited government has some limit on the powers it can use. This limit may come in a written constitution, as for example the U.S. Constitution prohibits Congress from punishing children for crimes committed by their parents. Limits may also be created through political processes, if the people who control government believe that it should take few actions then the government may choose not to use all the powers that it is possessed of.
Advantages of Limited Government
Limited government protects the rights of the people and prevents government from exerting extensive or total control over people's lives, actions and speech. This can lead to increased freedom for all. For this reason, democratic and republican political systems normally have limits on the power of the government.
Disadvantages of Limited Government
Limiting the power of government protects rights, but it can also limit the government's ability to take actions on behalf of the people. If the government is too weak, either because of constitutional limitations or political policies, it is possible for individuals to have their freedom restricted by non-governmental concentrations of power. For example, Theodore Roosevelt worried that "malefactors of great wealth" were using economic power to stifle liberty in the early 20th century.
Power and Government
Discussions about limited government often focus on the role of government rather than whether government's powers are limited or limitless. People who come out of the libertarian or classical liberal tradition often see government as a powerful force that can take liberty from individuals normally try to limit its possible dangers. People who think more about the government as a tool that serves the will of the people or that protects the people from non-governmental power tend to increase its possible powers.