We’ll never agree on role of government — and that’s fine

The conventional wisdom has settled on the subject of this year’s presidential campaign: it’s about the proper role of government in our nation’s life.

This is a good argument to have, but don’t expect it to be resolved by the election. Americans have been debating the question since before the Constitution was drawn up, and we haven’t come to terms on it yet.

At the moment, we have got a Republican challenger who embraces the conservative conviction that government must be as limited as possible. In this view, much of what government spends is wasted; Ronald Reagan’s comment, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is our problem,” is its mantra. Conservatives want to reduce regulation, make cutting taxes the highest priority, propose handing Medicaid and other responsibilities to the states as block grants, and consider a more active government the wrong answer in almost every case.

Privatization, contracting out and a private sector freed from the intrusive hand of government will be the engines of a stronger society.

Against this view we have a Democratic incumbent, backed by liberals who see value in government’s role. They are concerned about social inequality, support a publicly funded safety net, and are prepared to levy the taxes needed to pay for it. In this view, public spending is necessary to stimulate the economy when needed and regulation is vital to checking the excesses of the market. There are times, this side would argue, when a muscular government is indispensable to our national fortunes — properly deployed, government can expand opportunities to achieve the American dream.

The gap between these views seems unbridgeable — especially in the midst of a presidential contest between two parties whose interest lies in highlighting their differences. Yet in the end this fundamental political gulf is not as wide as it appears.

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