WASHINGTON, November 24, 2015 — Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent recently made the point that although more than 80 percent of Americans do not trust government, most Americans support some government activities. Even a majority of Republicans favor some government involvement in our lives. He suggests that this is hypocritical.
Sargent doesn’t understand the Republican view of the role of government in a democratic society.
Every economics textbook teaches that the government’s role in a capitalist economy should be “limited,” but few texts define exactly what that means. This lack of clarity has led to much of the debate in the U.S. today with regard to government programs.
Republicans take a very narrow view of “limited.” They note that there are government functions that support the public good, and public responsibilities that fall on government. But they also emphasize that these functions and responsibilities should be held to a minimum. The public good includes critical functions like national defense, primary education, the provision of critical infrastructure, and the provision of a legal framework via a well-defined court system.
The vast majority of Americans will agree that some “public goods” should be provided by the government. The differences between Republicans and Democrats center on what income, maintenance and other social programs should actually be provided.
Republicans take the view that social programs should be limited to those who in serious need, or to those who have paid for senior citizen programs during their working years so that taxpayers are not over-burdened with ongoing financial obligations. Republicans recognize that we, as a society, have certain responsibilities to ensure that all Americans have enough to at least survive along with the opportunity to achieve more if they so desire.
The Democrats believe that government involvement should be greater and should provide more than just the basics for survival. Government, they believe, should provide a minimum standard of living for all Americans, whether individuals have earned sufficient income or not.
These differences manifest themselves when issues like raising the minimum wage, increasing welfare payments, increasing food stamp payments and providing universal health care are discussed. Republicans generally favor reductions in these programs while Democrats favor increased spending in these areas.
Sargent suggests that Republican support of functions such as ensuring food, medicine and workplace safety rivals that of Democrats. Of course it does. All Americans view public safety as a public good. This is not inconsistent with the Republican position.
But Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg notes that Republicans have an aversion to dependence-creating government handouts. That is true. Republicans believe the government should provide assistance to Americans facing hardship, but also believe that assistance should be temporary until those individual can get into a position to exercise individual responsibility and take care of themselves. They argue that the Democrats’ position of supplying more than the basics, especially for an extended period of time, often results in generations being permanently locked into welfare dependency.
This well-meaning trap ends up harming the individuals receiving aid while burdening the average taxpayer with long term and very costly obligations. It is far better, Republicans argue, to limit government aid and encourage individuals to learn to provide for themselves.
Sargent re-enforces the Republican argument that their view is supported by the majority. He notes that in states like Kentucky, there are large numbers of residents benefiting from Obamacare, which provides health insurance at little or no cost to people who can’t afford to buy insurance on their own. These people tend to be dependent on government programs.
Yet in their recent election, Kentucky voted Republican because the majority realized that social programs, like Obamacare, appear to be helpful but end up costing all income earning Kentuckians too many tax dollars while providing poor results. It is for that reason that Matt Bevin was elected governor of Kentucky. He promised to cut Obamacare-related programs.
A recent Pew poll showed that Republicans favor a safety net for the elderly. This, too, is consistent with the Republican position that favors providing programs for those who truly need or deserve them. Since the elderly have paid Social Security taxes and Medicare taxes for most of their working lives, they have clearly earned these benefits and should receive them.
Sargent, like most Democrats, constantly criticizes Republicans for trying to reduce the size of government, government spending and income tax rates. Democrats also criticize Republicans for what they see as hypocritical views that advocating small, limited government yet support programs like Social Security and Medicare.
Indeed this apparent contradiction is not hypocritical. Republicans are simply trying to clarify and define the role of government in a way that contrasts sharply to the Democratic view, namely that government should provide more benefits and exercise more control over everyone.
But as Thomas Jefferson noted, the government that governs best is the one that governs least.