Commentary Magazine


Topic: Federalist #51

The Responsibility of Government

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.

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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.

I would add that if the question was disaggregated and Republicans were asked whether they believed government had a role in helping, say, wounded veterans or those suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, there’s no question that the numbers would be hugely supportive. The survey question is probably a measure of people’s general attitudes toward government as opposed to particular government programs.

The question is probably still influenced as well by the public’s (proper) view that the federal government’s effort to aid the poor, especially in the form of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), did genuine harm to the underclass. (AFDC was eventually replaced by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF program.)

In addition, my hunch is that we’re seeing the effects of the progressive overreach. When government combines unprecedented intrusiveness with incompetence, it leads to a deep distrust of our public institutions, including government itself. The view of the public, with all the proper caveats in place, is that government should do relatively few things well. In many respects, we have inverted this, with government doing far too many things poorly. The effect of this has been the near-complete discrediting of government itself.

In thinking through the large, complicated topic of the role and purpose of the state, then, a caution is in order. Skepticism toward government is often warranted and legitimate; contempt and outright hostility are not. It was Burke who averred that God instituted government as a means to human improvement. Government is not simply a necessary evil; so long as it acts within its proper boundaries and in a responsible fashion, it has a positive and constructive role to play in human affairs.

The end of government, we’re told in Federalist #51, is justice. Justice is defined as the quality of being impartial and fair and bestowing equal treatment. But it also means caring for the defenseless, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed. This is a public as well as a private concern. A society ought to be judged on whether the weak and disadvantaged are cared for or exploited. And a just society is incompatible with one where government doesn’t care for people who can’t care for themselves.

Conservatives should be in the business of restoring confidence in the legitimacy of government by reminding people of its prescribed, limited and proper role in human society. And among those responsibilities is to care for those who can’t care for themselves. That understanding of the proper and humane use of the state has largely been lost; and it is the duty of responsible political leaders to reclaim it.

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