You can agree that today’s federal government is too large, intrusive, and inefficient without agreeing about the best way to approach fixing that problem. In the latest issue of Hillsdale College’s Imprimis, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan suggests focusing on a key principle that helped serve as the basis of the American constitutional system.

Self-government under the rule of law—which rests upon the fact that we are endowed equally with fundamental rights—is the touchstone of American conservatism. Keeping it always in mind will allow us to identify measures that conform to the American Idea, as well as those that weaken or conflict with the American Idea. It provides us a sure guide for reform.

Here’s a practical distinction: There is a difference in principle—a clear bright line—between two kinds of government programs. On the one hand, there are those that can be repaired and restructured within the bounds of limited government. Let’s review those, and seek to reform and upgrade them, making them more efficient through market mechanisms, more decentralized and transparent, more fiscally sound and more conducive to self-government.

On the other hand, some government programs require massive bureaucracies to direct large segments of our society and economy through arbitrary regulations that increase uncertainty and insecurity. These programs, which have resulted in a hodgepodge of boards and commissions with uncertain responsibilities and unaccountable decision-making, undermine self-government. The way they operate also creates relationships between government and money that encourage cronyism and breed political corruption. More and more Americans are right to see these programs as threats to their freedom. They are incompatible with the American Idea, and they must be rejected.

The American Idea imposes a duty to oppose programs that subvert popular government and impose bureaucratic rule. These programs and their administrative forms—leading examples are Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial apparatus—cannot be reformed and restructured, but must be ended or, if we choose, replaced by something completely different and consistent with popular consent and self-government. No reform is possible without recognizing this problem. No reform is worth pursuing that does not turn against this rule and take us on the path of renewal.