A few weeks ago, 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.”
However you responded, 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.
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 as appealing as small government might be to the rugged-individualist 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; and other obligations — 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.
There are issues we have failed as a country to resolve, and they need 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.
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.