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A sensible view of government

Published: January 29, 2010
Section: Opinions


In response to inflation and the economic ills of the time, Ronald Reagan declared, in his first inaugural address, that “government is the problem…not the solution.” Twenty-eight years later, many people considered the election of Barack Obama a repudiation of this core tenet of modern conservative dogma. Unfortunately, a year into his presidency, with much of the public still viewing the expansion of government in deeply negative terms, Obama failed to prove Reagan’s 1981 statement false.

Personally, I find this phenomenon troubling because Reagan’s message, which has been continually repeated by a conservative echo chamber, has distorted the public view of the purpose and fundamental nature of government as an institution. While we may live in a center-right-country, the Democrats should continue to work to reverse this trend instead of accepting it as the truth.

I reject the logic behind the stigmatization of government. There is a common misconception that government is incompatible with core values that are embedded within our national character and ethos, including individualism and freedom of choice. An often-heard conservative talking point is that we essentially do not need government intruding on our liberty and that regulations and other manifestations of authority are barriers to us being able to do what we want in life. This may be the case in a society under totalitarian rule, but our government, though imperfect, is inherently well-intentioned as the product of checks and balances and democratically elected officials. Simply acknowledging this basic constitutional framework, why should we fear the laws and policies that our leaders produce?

Today, liberalism, in its modern political context, is a much-maligned term. Indeed, the simple rationalist approach, of identifying and solving problems, is countered by panic and hysteria. Listening to the Republicans and members of the Tea Party movement, it would seem as if the phrase, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” is a sinister one. This sentiment is based on no solid precedent or foundation.

What resulted from the oh-so-dreaded New Deal and Great Society, those supposedly grotesque excesses of liberalism? Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, among other pieces of legislation that helped combat poverty, preserve the environment, provide housing and education, and create a social safety net for anyone who fell into it.

The reason past efforts to cut the size of government have failed—even Reagan himself was by and large unsuccessful—is because people are so dependent on government, the laws it enforces and the programs it implements.

Acknowledging this, we should not fear current efforts at healthcare reform, cap-and-trade and financial regulation, among other initiatives, because they expand government. Instead, we should objectively analyze these proposals based on their strengths and weaknesses. In the case of health care for instance, some on the far right would rather preserve the status quo of 50 million uninsured and rapidly escalating costs rather than have any growth in the size and scope of government because of the Manichean view that this institution is essentially evil. I have enough faith to know that no democratic administration composed of rational vote-seeking elected officials would purposely produce policies that fit this warped conception of reality.

I don’t advocate for a huge radical takeover of the private sector by the public sector, or anything even remotely bordering on that. In fact, I’m not even backing any policy change here. What I do want is to replace the misguided fear and apprehension towards government with a more mature, nuanced view. This anxiety that plagues our current discourse is unnecessary and uncalled for. Let’s forget the Reagan Revolution and usher in the Sensible Revolution.