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Is Government No Longer a Four Letter Word?

January 25th, 2013


“Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”
With that bloodless, analytical sentence from his second inaugural address, President Obama set off a firestorm of protest among conservatives. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called the speech “unabashedly far-left-of-center.” House Speaker John Boehner said the President’s mission was to “annihilate the Republican Party.”

“Good grief,” Charlie Brown would say.

What Obama was doing was responding to the Reagan Revolution. The rallying cry of that revolution, delivered in President Reagan’s 1981 inaugural address, was this: “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” That has been the reigning principle of American politics for 32 years. Even President Clinton reaffirmed it when he said in 1996, “The era of big government is over.”

President Obama wasn’t saying the era of big government is back. He was saying that Republicans have gone too far. They have been taken over by the Tea Party, which challenges the most consensual functions of government: providing security and ensuring opportunity. That requires–the President dared to say–”collective action.” The term “collective action” gives Republicans a nosebleed. It sounds like collectivism. That’s socialism!

Actually, it’s the most basic function of government. This country has been debating strong government versus weak government for more than 200 years. The bias has always been in favor of weak government. Most people came here seeking economic freedom or religious freedom. They associated government with excessive power (King George III). The country’s first governing document, the Articles of Confederation (1781), set up a central government that was so weak it was unworkable. It had to be thrown out and replaced by the Constitution in 1789.

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