Does government have limits?

Police in Altamont Springs, Fla., recently raided some little old ladies’ friendly mahjong game because word on the street was they were sometimes playing for than the $10 limit set by state law.

Police didn’t make any arrests. They called it an “educational action.”

Of course, most rational people recognize policing tile games is pretty absurd. The little old ladies clearly posed no threat to society. Nevertheless, a few folks defended the actions of the police and the existence of the law they enforced.

“As frustrating as they can be, we need rules. Humans don’t do well without rules.”

Even if you accept this statement at face-value, it still raises some interesting questions – most significantly what, if any, limits exist to government rule-making authority?

The American system was built on a philosophical foundation that regarded government a necessary evil. It was considered necessary, but only for a very limited purpose. The Declaration of Independence established the scope of government as conceived by the founding generation.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

In the American conception, the function of government was limited to a specific role– to “secure” life, liberty and property.

Certainly not to make sure little old ladies don’t wager too much on mahjong.

Of course, the Declaration of Independence did not create a government. It does provides a philosophical foundation we can look through like a lens in order to better understand the American system. Still, it does not establish any binding limits in-and-of itself.

But the Constitution does.

Constitutionally, the federal government may only exercise delegated powers. We find most of these in Article 1 Sec. 8 with a few other scattered throughout the Constitution. In fact, the feds have very little legitimate authority. As James Madison explained it in Federalist #45 federal power was only intended to be “exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation and foreign commerce; with which the last the power of taxation will for the most part be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement and prosperity of the State.”

This doesn’t help our little old ladies, but it does establish an important truth – the limited sphere of government.

The Greek philosopher Althusius wrote, “All power is limited by definite boundaries and laws. No power is absolute, indefinite, arbitrary and lawless. Every power is bound to laws, right and equity.”

Most people intuitively know that government reached beyond its sphere when it raided a retirement home tile game simply because we recognize the eye-rolling absurdity of it all. Our gut tells us it’s an overreach.

When it comes to the feds, we don’t have to rely on our gut. The Constitution defines the limits of the federal government’s sphere.

If you play baseball, you accept the umpire’s authority to enforce the rules. But that doesn’t mean the ump can walk into your home and start telling you how much sugar you can put in your coffee. A baseball umpire’s authority extends only to a limited arena – the baseball field. If he started throwing his weight around in your house, you’d throw him out on his ear.

In the same way, the federal government lacks the authority to do the vast majority of the things it does today – from regulating what kind of light bulb you screw into your fixtures to spying on your phone calls. And just like the out-of-control umpire trying to dictate your coffee flavoring habits, Uncle Sam needs to be thrown out on his ear when he takes one step beyond his constitutional limits.