In Tuesday’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said the following about the role of government: “I believe what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed: That government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more.”
This is not the first time that Obama has attempted to draw parallels between himself and the great emancipator, and there is no denying they share a few things: Both are from Illinois, their presidencies were both revolutionary and unprecedented and they both have a special relationship with the African-American community. But any claim that they share a political philosophy about the role of government is a bit hard to swallow.
To be clear, I do not necessarily think that the president was being dishonest in quoting Lincoln. Very likely he does believe the letter, if not the spirit, of what he said. But encapsulated within that one, innocuous sentence is the fundamental difference between how liberals and conservatives view the world.
Government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves. It’s certainly a crowd-pleasing line, because it’s something that everyone can agree on. No American was going to stand up and shout that they want government to do even those things at which it is inept, and in that respect it was a clever move on Obama’s part.
However, we should always be suspicious when we hear a politician say something that alienates no one. If everyone agrees on an idea, that idea almost certainly lacks any real meaning. Bold statements provoke passionate responses. It is only the mealy-mouthed and unprincipled utterance that has everyone in the room nodding along in agreement.
No one wants government to do what the people can do better. Our disagreement lies in drawing that line with any degree of accuracy. It would have been far bolder and more revealing for the president to delineate those areas in which he finds American ingenuity to be superior to central planning. Based on his legislative record, I do not expect it would be a very long list.
The liberal mindset shows limitless condescension to the American people, continually asserting that government needs to hold their hands in order to see them through the otherwise insurmountable challenges of life. They view the population as a mass of perpetual children, unable to fend for themselves or make their own decisions. Conservatives, on the other hand, believe in individualism, in self-sufficiency and independence from a state that strives to be our nanny, our protector and our warden. Mitch Daniels put this difference in ideology elegantly in his response to the president’s speech, saying that we don’t need government to intervene in our lives for fear that “we might pick the wrong light bulb.”
The president’s comments offer us the opportunity to engage in a much-needed and long-delayed national dialogue about the role of government. The quote from Lincoln frames the debate in clear and easy-to-understand terms, and the question on everyone’s lips should now be, “What can the government do better than I can, and what can I do better than the government?” The answer to this question will determine the future direction of our nation, but until we have the courage to ask it, we will have no direction at all.
Logan Albright is an economist and researcher at the American Action Forum.