Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Role of Government

Some people whose opinions I value greatly took exception to my posting about what’s wrong with liberalism. They raised good questions and made some legitimate criticisms in their comments. There were also some debatable statements made. For example, one person saw a problem with my “reinforcing of a simplistic dichotomy” between conservatives and liberals and presenting the two sides as caricatures. is a non-profit current events website for high school students. Most who read this blog have been out of high school for a long time, but let me share how that website describes a major difference between liberals and conservatives. To me this seems to be a fair and helpful description of opposing positions, one which is simple but not simplistic as well as one which depicts real differences and not just caricatures.
According to their analysis, conservatives “believe in personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty, traditional American values and a strong national defense.” They also believe that “the role of government should be to provide people the freedom necessary to pursue their own goals.”
On the other hand, liberals “believe in government action to achieve equal opportunity and equality for all,” and that it is “the duty of the government to alleviate social ills and to protect civil liberties and individual and human rights.” They also believe that “the role of the government should be to guarantee that no one is in need.”
In the political sphere, people have to come down on one side of this divide or the other. It is not really possible to be in the middle—unless that is a rather broad position encompassing various viewpoints, which it can and probably should be.
The conservative position was clearly articulated by President Reagan in his 1981 inaugural address. He declared that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” It seems that Reagan’s statement is now widely supported by the majority of the current members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Yet, the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, as I have previously emphasized, speaks of that document being drafted in order to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, [and] promote the general Welfare.” (The latter phrase refers to the “well-being” of people, not just what is popularly called welfare today.) If, or when, people are in need, discriminated against, exploited, etc., how could government action to correct those ills be a problem—except for those causing such problems?
So while I do believe liberals and conservatives need each other and need to work together for a broad and radiant center, I have to come down on the side that seems to be most concerned for the general welfare of the most people. And while liberals must be careful not to think they can or will be able to solve all social problems, shouldn’t one major role of the government be “to alleviate social ills” to the greatest extent possible?


  1. It seems to me that most people associate "liberal" as an extreme, whereas "conservative" is seen as more central.

    I'm a liberal, but I don't think I'm extreme.

    I define "liberal" (and myself) more in the sense of the liberal arts...having an expansive view, being well-versed on many subjects, embrasing new ideas.

  2. Allyn Harris DaultMarch 10, 2011 at 8:38 AM

    Like Leroy, I generally come down on the "liberal" side concerning the place of government intervention/action. I do so grudgingly, however. Limited federal government, somewhat more robust state governments, and increased local action seem to be in line with the federalist system we adopted long ago, and I think it's a good one.

    More than political philosophy, however, is at stake. When the church(es) abrogated their responsibility to the have-nots over the debate between evangelicalism and the social gospel in the early 20th century, I think it/they made a great mistake. I also think that if the church doesn't fulfill its role as the defender of the last/least/lost, the poor and oppressed, the orphan and widow, well by golly someone needs to, and the government's probably the only one left to do so.

  3. Congratulations on the piece in the "Liberty Tribune" this week. Unfortunately they did not really capture the implied emphasis placed on the radiant center.

  4. Reagan was wrong--not because government doesn't have problems but because of the simplicity of his comment. But then he was great at simplifying--an important gift. In this case, unfortunately, his wealthy and right-wing backers and his followers have generated a movement convincing enough Americans of its truth that we are now scheduled either to be guided by that sentiment or to be so deeply divided that government can't function at all for any progressive vision. In any case, it appears that America is going to have to play out the scenario that includes disempowering government and empowering unrestricted free enterprise. In many ways, it's an attempt to return to a pre-New Deal world. We'll see where it goes. Whether it works or not, my heart goes out to the generation or two of people on the lower end of the economic ladder who will be sacrificed to this grand experiment in minimalist government. Perhaps also to the future generations who are likely to have to secure their own lives in an utterly complex whirl of privatized finance without a sure safety net.

  5. The quadrant political surveys, such as Nolan's, are interesting for perspective. I have taken four such and always end up one step right of center, and one step up the libertarian axis - about as close to center as one can get. "Centrist" conservatives I know peg me as a liberal, and "moderate" liberals peg me as conservative. This points out that definitions are very fluid. Since our President's commission has noted that we are within a few years of default, it is probably time for liberals and conservatives to sacrifice their spending ways, pay off the public debt, and force the Church to go back to what it was called to do in the Great Commission - go make disciples who will keep Christ's Commandments (well delineated statements on love and good works)... for the general welfare. Radiance belongs with Christ and the Church, not with governments.

  6. Another worthwhile comment from an esteemed Thinking Friend in Kentucky:

    "I certainly agree with you on that, Leroy. Conservatives who now dominate the Republican party seem most interested in preserving privilege. Recent studies show real danger to the middle class in the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. We are not far from a plutocracy."

  7. Having just had a second run-in with the bureaucratic incompetence of the US Mail (has nothing to do with Posts or Service anymore), this libertarian is feeling "conservative". In the past 6 months they have lost two certified letters - one with immigration documents, one with our US tax return. No indication that either left the local branch. Their statement: "Obviously they were mailed. That is required by law." ?!

    Less inefficient, bureaucratic government seems a good thing.

    Our most notorious bureaucracies: 1) Democrats 1) Republicans. We need representatives not politicians!