Commentary Magazine


The Role of Government

To the Editor:

“What Good Is Government?” by William J. Bennett and John J. DiIulio, Jr. [November 1997] starts off promisingly enough, with a presumably rhetorical title and a recap of the depressing slowdown of the conservative “revolution.” But more depressing still is their prescription: Big Government is here to stay, so, apparently in the interest of political viability, efforts to dismantle it should be abandoned.

But to say that the public demands a titanic government and leave it at that is baffling. The proper question for conservatives to ask is not, “Do the people want it?,” but rather, “Are the people wise to want it?,” and, even more importantly, “Are the people right in wanting it?” The goal of political activity is to implement one’s favored policies (or lack thereof); it is not to reach concord with the will of the people, but to shape it That is why we involve ourselves in politics in the first place: the people are not always right.

Furthermore, I doubt that there are very many conservatives out there (though perhaps there are a few million liberals) who would agree with Messrs. Bennett and DiIulio’s pronouncement that “the national government’s post-New Deal role . . . in itself is not the problem,” the real problem is mismanagement and a failure to perform in the “public interest.” Really? So a socialist nanny state redistributing our wealth and taking away our liberties is just peachy, as long as it does so efficiently? I for one prefer my tyrants inept.

Public distrust of government may wound our pride in our chosen system, but many of the founding fathers whom it is so popular to cite thought it healthy, the price of liberty being eternal vigilance and so forth. The question is: with which government would Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and the rest be more familiar and more comfortable: the libertarian model, protecting freedom, basic rights, and borders, or Messrs. Bennett and DiIulio’s enormous but nebulously “limited” government? The public owes the government precisely as much allegiance and respect as it has earned, and right now, that is not a lot.

The sad part is that retreat is not even necessary (laying aside the issue of whether it is ever desirable when principle is at stake). Granted there have been setbacks, but rather than concocting strategies for capitulation, minds of the authors’ caliber ought to be conceiving ways to guide the electorate toward smaller government and regain momentum for conservatism (e.g., one-term term limits or the elimination of the withholding tax).

We are a few hundred miles outside Baghdad, and Messrs. Bennett and DiIulio would have us stop the tanks. Cutting one’s losses can be a wise strategy, but the concept of cutting one’s gains is new to me.

Michael Fransella
Williams Free Press
Williams College
Williamstown, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

The timely article, “What Good Is Government?,” by William J. Bennett and John J. DiIulio, Jr. makes the crucial distinction between the “mindless expansion” of government and the good and essential functions of government envisioned by the men in Philadelphia.

In arguing the conservative case for an active American government, they reflect the classical wisdom of philosophers from Aristotle and Thucydides onward. Were it not for the state, said Saint Augustine, “men would devour one another as fishes.” Martin Luther wrote that the primary function of the state is to protect its people from evildoers. Both emphasized the state’s responsibility to ensure order and justice. And, of course, James Madison weighs in with his Niebuhrian understanding of evil and original sin: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

Men are neither fish nor angels, but humans “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . . Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Liberals trivialize government by failing to recognize its limits. Conservatives trivialize it by failing to acknowledge its essential contribution to the security and enrichment of its citizens.

If conservatives understand these truths and act on them, America—its people and government—might still become Lincoln’s “last, best hope of earth.”

Ernest W. Lefever
Chevy Chase, Maryland

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William J. Bennett and John J. DiIulio, Jr. write:

Michael Fransella’s main assertions are that though the American people are “not always right,” they are always right to distrust government; that the “tanks” of reform are already outside the capital; and that the founding fathers would not want the anti-government troops to “retreat” when victory is in sight.

Mr. Fransella adduces no empirical, historical, or other evidence in support of these assertions, and for good reason—there is none. The “retreat” about which we are most concerned, however, is that of Mr. Fransella and like-minded others from empirical reality and civic morality. The only “tanks” Mr. Fransella has going for him are libertarian think-tanks that, on public-policy matters as disparate as Medicare and illegal drugs, advocate positions most elected leaders, and most Americans, wisely reject.

As we noted in our essay, the founding fathers gave us, the people, a magnificent representative democracy. Warts and all, it still works. Much as Madison explained in The Federalist Papers, the system frustrates temporary popular majorities, empowers lasting popular majorities, and checks (even where it does not checkmate) the influence of both majority and minority “factions” that violate “the rights of other citizens” or threaten “the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, environmental-protection laws, and many other costly post-1935 government programs are “here to stay” because, like it or not, they have withstood the tests of representative democracy: they are strongly favored by duly-elected representatives at every level of government and by most citizens of every race, region, and demographic category. Anyone who doubts this should recall (as we pointed out) that government spending grew, new programs were enacted, and old ones were expanded even during the Reagan presidency. Better still, try running for mayor of Los Angeles or New York City, governor of Wisconsin or Texas, either chamber of Congress, or the presidency of the United States on a “dismantle-it” platform.

In deference to what the nation-building founding fathers unapologetically termed “the common good,” the task for contemporary conservatives is to reform existing government programs and relimit government. To begin this task, conservatives must be totally honest about both the costs and the benefits of government programs, and be prepared to restrain activist liberal federal judges and others who are as deluded about what government can and should do as some libertarians are about what it cannot and should not do.

In our admittedly exploratory essay, we outlined factual arguments about the political significance of recent national elections, the fiscal and administrative realities of devolving federal programs, and the state of civil society. We did not think it necessary to draw up a bill of particulars, but here are some real-world numbers to think about:

  • A shift of only 19,500 votes in thirteen districts would have made Tom Foley speaker of the House of Representatives instead of Newt Gingrich. The 1994 Republican electoral mandate, if any, was to relimit government, not to eviscerate it, and certainly not to talk as if eviscerating it were both possible and desirable.
  • Welfare spending per case in Wisconsin has doubled in an effort to get able-bodied adults off the dole and into work. And under Wisconsin’s welfare plan, one can be 2.75 times above the government poverty line and still qualify for social services.
  • Each of the over 250,000 religious congregations in America would have to increase its charitable social-welfare giving by $300,000 in order to replace the government’s current annual commitment.

Finally, we commend to Mr. Fransella the words of Ernest Lefever: “Liberals trivialize government by failing to recognize its limits. Conservatives”—or, as we would prefer, some libertarians—“trivialize it by failing to acknowledge its essential contributions to the security and enrichment of its citizens.”

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