The answer to what the proper role of government is really lies in what kind of country we want to have. And I think the vast majority of Americans share a common vision for what they want our nation to be. They want our nation to be two things at the same time.
Number one: they want it to be free and prosperous, a place where your economic hopes and dreams can be accomplished and brought up to fruition. That through hard work and sacrifice you can be who God meant you to be. No matter who your parents were, no matter where you were born, no matter how much misfortune you may have met in your life, if you have a good idea, you can be anything if you work hard and play by the rules. Most, if not all, Americans share that vision of a free and prosperous America.
But they also want us to be a compassionate America, a place where people are not left behind. We are a nation that is not going to tolerate those who cannot take care of themselves being left to fend for themselves. We’re not going to tolerate our children being punished for the errors of their parents and society.
So, we are a nation that aspires to two things – prosperity and compassion. And Ronald Reagan understood that. Perhaps better, again, than any voice I’ve ever heard speak on it.
Now America’s leaders during the last century set out to accomplish that, but they reached a conclusion that has placed us on this path, except for the Reagan Administration to be quite frank. Both Republicans and Democrats established a role for government in America that said, yes, we’ll have a free economy, but we will also have a strong government, who through regulations and taxes will control the free economy and through a series of government programs, will take care of those in our society who are falling behind.
That was a vision crafted in the twentieth century by our leaders and though it was well intentioned, it was doomed to fail from the start. It was doomed to fail from the start first and foremost because it forgot that the strength of our nation begins with its people and that these programs actually weakened us as a people. You see, almost in forever, it was institutions and society that assumed the role of taking care of one another. If someone was sick in your family, you took care of them. If a neighbor met misfortune, you took care of them. You saved for your retirement and your future because you had to.
We took these things upon ourselves and our communities and our families and our homes and our churches and our synagogues. But all that changed when the government began to assume those responsibilities. All of the sudden, for an increasing number of people in our nation, it was no longer necessary to worry about saving for security because that was the government’s job. For those who met misfortune, that wasn’t our obligation to take care of them, that was the government’s job. And as government crowded out the institutions in our society that did these things traditionally, it weakened our people in a way that undermined our ability to maintain our prosperity.
The other thing is that we built a government and its programs without any account whatsoever for how we were going to pay for it. There was not thought given into how this was going to be sustained. When Social Security first started, there was sixteen workers for every retiree. Today there are only three for every retiree and soon there will only be two for every retiree.
Program after program was crafted without any thought as to how they will be funded in future years or the impact it would have on future Americans. They were done with the best of intentions, but because it weakened our people and didn’t take account the simple math of not being able to spend more money than you have, it was destined to fail and brought us to the point at which we are at today.
It is a startling place to be because the twentieth century was not a time of decline for America, it was the American century. Americans in the twentieth century built here – we built here – the richest, most prosperous nation in the history of the world. And yet today we have built for ourselves a government that not even the richest and most prosperous nation in the face of the Earth can fund or afford to pay for. An extraordinary tragic accomplishment, if you can call it that.
And that is where we stand today.
And so, if defining the proper role of government was one of the central issues of the Reagan era, it remains that now. The truth is that people are going around saying that, well, we’re worried about – let me just add something to this because I think this is an important forum for candor.