The Role of Government
Imagine for a moment living under a government that possessed unlimited and undefined powers, such as Communist China or Nazi Germany. What rights do you have now that you think you would lose? To whom, or to what, would you turn if you thought the government were treating you unfairly? How many of your own choices in life—what college to attend, what career options to pursue, whether to marry or have children—do you feel you would be free to make?
If contemplating life under such a government seems depressing, that is because it is. Individual liberty and personal happiness cannot coexist with unlimited government. At the same time, there would be little security for our rights without government or under a government that does not possess sufficient power to effectively promote the public good. Striking this delicate balance has been a centuries-long endeavor in Anglo-American history. Initial strides towards limited government came in the Magna Carta (1215), which embodied the principle that the king’s powers were limited and subject to English law. Nearly five hundred years later, the Petition of Right (1689), citing the Magna Carta, reminded the king that it was the law, not a king, that protected the rights of Englishmen. For most of human history it was accepted that the political legitimacy of a king was derived from God, not from man, and that both law and liberty were subject to God’s will. Focusing on the king’s violation of a half-century of accepted British common law and the traditionally respected rights of Englishmen, the Petition of Right supported the conviction that liberty required that government be limited. Furthermore, liberty interests might supersede kingly authority. It also inspired the English Bill of Rights (1689) which contained strict limits to the power of the monarchy and identified certain inalienable political and civil liberties enjoyed by all Englishmen, regardless of royal prerogative.