Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released a new report measuring the values and basic beliefs of the American people. There are a lot of fascinating findings in the report, but there’s one in particular I want to focus on. The Pew survey found that just 40 percent of Republicans agree that “It is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves.” In 1987, during Ronald Reagan’s second term, fully 62 percent expressed this view. For independents, the figure has dropped from 70 percent in 1987 to 59 percent today.
Taken literally, this question means a solid majority of Republicans (60 percent) – as well as 41 percent of independents — don’t believe government should care for people who are suffering from dementia, Down syndrome, crippling disease, or debilitating war wounds. It would mean government has no role to play in unemployment insurance or medical coverage to low-income children. Government has no affirmative duty to care for those who are defenseless, vulnerable, handicapped, and have hit hard times through no fault of their own.
As a friend put it to me, if he were asked the question he would be inclined to think that it offered a careless way to put a point that he agrees with: that we have a responsibility to care for the needy among us and that government can be one very important means of meeting that responsibility. To say it is the responsibility of government to care for those who can’t take care of themselves, however, definitely rubs him the wrong way, though upon even modest reflection he would say he agrees with the idea being conveyed as opposed to its libertarian opposite.