Gratitude for Restrained Government, and Restraints on Government

Nov 25, 2019 | Blog | 0 comments

We at the 1889 Institute spend a lot of time critiquing government. I mean a lot. It’s what we do: we want to make government the best it can be, and that starts with identifying its flaws. But it is important, from time to time, to acknowledge that on the whole, Americans have it pretty good when it comes to governance. Here’s what I’m thankful for in government this year:

National defense. We live in perhaps the freest society that has ever existed. That would assuredly not be so if it were not for our strong commitment to deterring every foreign threat to our national sovereignty. What use is restrained government if a country is not safe from foreign invaders?

Courts. Courts not only determine who is guilty of a crime and who is not, they also provide a forum to resolve sometimes vicious disputes without violence. If free trade is the bridge to human flourishing, then a legal system that upholds property rights, enforces contracts, and deters crime forms the truss of that bridge.

Police. They are the enforcement arm of the courts (eventually, if you continue to defy the courts, these are the men and women with guns who ensure you do what you are told or escort you to jail). They provide general deterrence to criminal activity (the threat of arrest that keeps many honest people honest). They provide specific deterrence to the criminal element (locking them away from the public). While not every individual action taken by every individual officer is without fault, they are, on the whole, undeniably a force for good.

Roads. Roads facilitate trade. They make everyone better off – those who commute an hour every day, and those who are homebound and have their needs delivered courtesy of giant online retailers.

Freedom of speech. We have an almost-absolute right to think, say and write what we want. This is subject to very limited exceptions – each of which has a good justification.

Freedom of religion. We have a broad rights to worship as we please without government interference. While there is work left to be done to ensure that freedom of conscience does not stop where freedom to earn a living begins, there has never been a time when so many people were so free to worship as they choose. This is not a call to let up on fighting for the next inch – give an inch the secular extremists will take a mile. But it is well worth being thankful. For most of history a man’s birth determined his religion. For most of history a woman’s husband determined her religion. While parentage still carries exceptional weight in determining religion, there is no government thumb on the scale pushing people towards or away from their parents’ religion. This is as it ought to be.

Due process. We have broad rights to ensure that the government doesn’t get too involved in our lives. If we are charged with a crime, there is a whole process dedicated to giving us a chance to clear our name. We also enjoy a presumption of innocence, which starts before charges are ever filed: that is why warrants are required before (most) searches may be legally conducted.

Right to keep and bear arms. Lest these important protections become nothing more than parchment barriers, we have the right to keep and bear arms. This is both so law abiding citizens have the means to defend themselves, and so would-be tyrants meet armed resistance at home before they can conquer the world. There is a reason that every tyrant disarms his own populace before he reveals his tyranny.

Interestingly, many of the things I’m most thankful for in Government are its limitations. While government is incredibly necessary to human flourishing, restraints on government power are part and parcel of good government necessary for human flourishing.

Mike Davis is the 1889 Institute Research Fellow. He can be reached at