As the presidential campaign begins to come into focus in the early days of 2015 it should become increasingly obvious that the race will turn on fundamental disagreement about the very nature of government. Democrats believe that government exists in order to help people; since many segments of the populace can always use more help, progressives assume they can always benefit from more government.
Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to see government as a necessary but dangerous force in modern life that must be strictly limited, since government is designed to control people more than to help them. While some control is certainly necessary to maintain public order and prevent individuals from damaging one another, a more aggressive, controlling center of power inevitably means a reduction in liberty and responsibility for the citizenry.
Aside from the perspectives that philosophy books can provide on this dispute a close look at the dictionary proves that conservatives are more correct than their progressive counterparts in understanding the essential function of government. According to the Oxford American Dictionary, the leading definition for the verb “to govern” is “to control, influence, or regulate (a person, action, or course of events).” Top synonyms are “to rule, preside over, reign over, control, be in charge of, command, lead, dominate; run, head, administer, manage, regulate, oversee, supervise.”
Leftist true believers might counter with the archaic word “governess,” with its kindly evocations of a magical Mary Poppins figure who feeds you, bathes you, clothes you, wipes your bum, helps with the homework and tucks you in at night – the very prototype of what Margaret Thatcher so aptly described as “the Nanny State.” But please note that not even the most liberal female governors in even the nation’s most proudly progressive states has ever dared to describe herself as a “governess.” We may live in an age of competitive victimization and learned helplessness, but the most desperate citizens still squirm uncomfortably at the notion that local, state or federal officials need to play the full care-taker role of nanny.
As for conservatives, few among us would remain so naively confident of the purity and goodness or human nature that we’d deny the need for institutions to “administer, manage, regulate, oversee and supervise” some of our affairs. With the push for the redefinition of marriage, some voices on the right have suggested that this control and regulation should never extend to our most intimate involvements. But without the courts (that is, government) to act as umpire, how do you split property or decide custody of the kids in the not-uncommon occurrence of divorce?
The truth is that a conservative vision of a controlling government and a liberal concept of a helping government aren’t mutually exclusive, and may even count as complementary. A light and restricted emphasis on control may prove helpful to the great majority of citizens, while an excessive concentration on efforts to help may lead to such high levels of control that multitudes will see that interference as an intolerable burden.
No wonder that conservatives show a consistent preference for efforts by the private sector: self control is always more beneficial than governmental control, and helping yourself (or your own family or community) is vastly preferable to dependence on government assistance. Democrats, by contrast, tend to infantilize ordinary Americans and conclude that without government supervision they will be just as lost as children without adult supervision, and that the only meaningful help can come from officials with the power to tax, spend, arrest and punish.
The oddest aspect of this assumption involves the liberal idea that the public somehow benefits whenever control moves farther away from struggling individuals. In other words, leftists conclude that government day care will raise toddlers more effectively than their own mothers, that Washington bureaucrats will devise curricula more effectively than classroom teachers, that distant legislators and regulators can supervise the details of your job in a more enlightened and effective manner than the boss you see every day.
In common sense terms this is, of course, profoundly illogical and in the campaign ahead Republicans must repeatedly call attention to the contradictions and irrationality at the heart of liberal faith. To rely on public officials to assist the unfortunate or distressed is to misread human nature; counting on the unfailing generosity, integrity, goodness and competence of bureaucrats means ignoring the inevitable shortcomings in even the most well-meaning institutions. Reliance on those governmental structures for help means expanding governmental control, which in turn undermines self-reliance and, in every sense, self-governance – imperiling the most fundamental aspects of the American idea.