What is the proper role of government?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Over at Commentary, Peter Wehner points to a disturbing Pew Research Center study highlighting widespread disbelief in the institutions and purposes of government.

As Weiner notes, “The Pew survey found that just 40 percent of Republicans agree that ‘It is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves.’”

That’s depressing stuff.

Wehner, to his credit, astutely points out potential problems with the poll — most notably that poll designers should have been more careful in crafting questions. There is, as Wehner notes, a sea of difference between what is the role and a role of government. I’d like to see what even a very minor change in wording would have in the ultimate results.

But let’s presume the study is ironclad. What does it mean for the state of our national view on the role of government?

Might it be that people are exhausted by the progressive attitude to governance we’ve been largely trapped in since the early 20th century? It seems that each New Year’s resolution for progressive types is to find a new area and role that can’t function without the presence of government. When you make everything the proper place for government, eventually people will see nothing as the proper place for government.

But let’s not discount the possibility that some of today’s conservatives have, amid their anti-government zeal, forgotten that caring for those who truly cannot care for themselves is, in fact, a legitimate purpose for government. Created as a legitimate response to overreach, the Tea Party (and many of its adherents) now seem to rage against the very idea of government — at least as we know it today. That’s a concern. There are proper functions of government.

The reason “compassionate conservatism,” was perceived (by some) as an offensive slogan is that it implied the qualifier was needed. The two things, of course, are not mutually exclusive.

UPDATE: A few people on Twitter have pushed back at this. Let me say that my belief that we as a society should care for people who cannot (not will not) care for themselves is not an excuse for government to usurp the role of charity. Ideally, individuals and charities fulfill this function. But when they can’t — or for whatever reason don’t — I’m of the strong opinion that in these rare circumstances, this is a proper function of government.

Matt K. Lewis