Last month, in his second inaugural speech, President Obama waded into the longest-running argument our history offers. “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time,” he said, “but it does require us to act in our time.”
He had just laid out a rationale for government action on infrastructure, protecting the security and dignity of people, climate change, inequality, the strength of arms and the rule of law. Even though he also spoke about limiting government’s reach, replacing outmoded programs, and reforming its shortcomings, liberals saw the speech as a call to arms, while conservatives cringed.
However you responded, though, there’s one point I suspect we could all agree on: this is not a question we’ll ever settle. After more than two centuries of discord over the proper role of government, the only consensus we’ve been able to arrive at as a nation is a consensus not to have a consensus.
That’s OK, because the issue is never going to go away. Changing circumstances, new challenges facing the country, and shifting national moods will always demand that we rethink what we want out of government. But that is not the same as saying that we can’t approach the question more thoughtfully.
If you bring up the issue before an audience, someone invariably quotes Henry David Thoreau’s phrase, “That government is best which governs least.” Everyone usually nods in agreement.
But Thoreau was writing more than 150 years ago. As appealing as small government might be to the rugged-individualist, market-oriented strain in the American character, talk about it is misleading. The growing number of Americans on Social Security and Medicare; the interest on the national debt; the social safety net; the public demand for regulations that promote safety and well-being, protect the environment, and keep rapacious firms in check; the sums we spend on defense and taking a robust leadership role in the world; the government’s interest in promoting economic activity, in part by funding infrastructure — all guarantee that the federal government won’t be shrinking anytime soon.
This is not to say that government can’t be restrained, however. Talking about “limited government,” I think, is far more useful these days than about “small government.” An energetic government that nonetheless knows how to restrain spending, ensures that regulations are fair, calibrates the tax code so that it promotes economic growth and provides what government needs without stifling initiative, and rigorously oversees its own actions to correct slip-ups quickly and ensure they don’t happen again — how to create that is worth debating.
Most Americans are uncomfortable with an aggressive, expansive government. They want it to provide the resources for people to solve the problems that confront us, they want it to lay the groundwork for opportunity, they want it to protect liberty, individual freedom and federalism, they want it to keep us secure, and they want government leaders to do the best they can — given how limited their control over the economy actually is — to promote economic growth. But they don’t want it to take over.
Still, I am concerned by our failure as a country to deal with issues that demand government action: income inequality, poverty, hunger, the lack of access for too many Americans to high-quality education, and the sluggish economy. Government can’t solve these alone, but we can’t solve them without government.
The public sector does a lot of things wrong. It fixates on short-term benefits and ignores long-term costs. It remains slow to act when action is needed. It is reluctant to spend now — as on infrastructure — even when it knows that the longer it delays the higher costs will rise. It often spends too much and too inefficiently. It fails to reckon early enough with the consequences of its activities.
Yet it is also indispensable. So it is high time, I believe, to set aside the black-and-white argument about “big vs. small” government and to adopt a more thoughtful, less ideological approach to the role of government. For those things we want government to do, we should be talking about how a limited government can do them better.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.