A crucial issue in this year’s presidential election is the size and scope of government. Mitt Romney’s words from his website have resounded from many a Republican speech and campaign commercial: “The mission to restore America to health begins with reducing the size of the federal government . . . As president, Mitt Romney will cut federal spending and regulation, . . . reducing the size and reach of the federal government, . . .” His vice-presidential running mate is best known for his attempts to reduce government spending by cutting back on federal government entitlement programs.
I am deeply troubled by this. In this essay I seek to explain why.
At the outset it is important to note that this position adopted by the Romney-Ryan ticket is not traditional conservatism, but libertarianism. Traditional conservatives recognize the limitations and frailties of human nature and human wisdom. Thus they see government as having a proper role in society in restraining the darker forces in human nature. They fear both an overly weak and an overly intrusive government. And they believe societal and political change should come slowly and incrementally. Libertarianism, on the other hand, has a never-say-die faith in human nature and in impersonal forces such as the free market to lead to a strong, equitable society if only left alone.
This means a key issue—in my thinking the key issue—in this election is not liberalism versus conservatism, but liberalism versus libertarianism.
And I am convinced that libertarianism is far removed from a Christian understanding of government and public policy. A Christian perspective on public policy, as all of us who are writing these essays agree, includes both human beings’ fallen, sinful nature and government as a God-established institution to promote justice and the common good in society. There is an active, appropriate role for government in society. The picture of prosperity and societal advancement emerging out of social and economic competition with minimal government intervention is closer to social Darwinism than a Christian view of society and government.
This is not to say that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are thorough-going libertarians or social Darwinists. Far from it. But what I find disturbing is a drum-beat of criticism of government-run programs. And this is combined with a call to reduce today’s huge deficits, which, in turn, is also combined with pledges not to raise taxes and not to cut—or even to increase—defense spending. This can only be accomplished by huge cuts in the remaining, domestic programs. Thus Republican calls to reduce the size and scope of government—while falling short of a full-blown libertarianism—must be seen as moving us strongly in that direction. And that concerns me deeply.
In a brief essay such as this it is of course impossible to fully explain my concern. But I can give some insight into my concern by citing three government programs that I believe are promoting justice and the common good, but would likely suffer under a move towards libertarianism.
One is the Pell Grant program of financial assistance to college students from low and moderate income families. (The House-passed budget that Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate, was the major author would cut funding for Pell Grants by $170 billion over 10 years.) The Pell Grant program is anything but a give-away program, encouraging dependency on government. Instead it is a program that creates opportunities for persons working to obtain the education needed to develop their God-given abilities and to fulfill their God-given calling. With even community college costs rising, it helps level the playing-field of opportunity and thereby is a justice-promoting program. And it advances the common good by helping assure an educated citizenry, able to contribute meaningfully in an increasingly competitive world.
Government programs that lead to cleaner air and water and more efficient use of natural resources also promote justice and the common good. Here individual actions such as recycling one’s waste materials, driving more fuel-efficient cars, and properly disposing of household toxic wastes are good and God-honoring. But if I do so and even if half or more of the population would do so and others do not, the common good would still suffer and God’s good creation would still be despoiled and the resources he has put in his earth would still be wasted. Waste materials that could be recycled, but end up in landfills, waste resources and threaten future ground water pollution for all of us. Persons who drive fuel inefficient cars drive up the costs of gasoline for all. Toxic wastes improperly disposed of—whether by households or industry—can cause cancer or other diseases. Progress in creation care depends on us acting together, as a society, and that means government programs.
My third example of government action that promotes justice and the common good is the PEPFAR program begun under the leadership of President George W. Bush. PEPFAR stands for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. It is a foreign aid program that has sent billions of dollars to Africa and some other countries being ravaged by the HIV/AIDS virus. It has literally saved hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of lives. Part of the reason for its success is that it is working through many nongovernmental, local, often faith-based organizations. Yet the Romney website—true to its less-government-the-better mindset—does not mention the PEPFAR program (even though the website has a special tab on Africa) and promises to cut foreign aid.
Do not take what I have written here to suggest that I believe bigger, more active government is always better or that government programs always promote justice and the common good. That is hardly the case. And even the best of government programs could be made to work more efficiently and effectively. Also, I believe that in weighing for whom to vote this fall, the Romney-Ryan ticket’s libertarian leanings must be weighed against the Obama-Biden’s ticket’s commitment to protecting abortion as a right and its weak approach to protecting the religious freedom rights of religiously-based organizations.
My basic point is that there is a robust role for government in society, a robust role that is in keeping with the God-given role of government to promote justice and the common good in a world where sin and brokenness are still very much with us. What is needed is a thoughtful discussion of where government is working well and where it is not, where government action is needed and where it is not. And that is what I am not hearing this year.