Is government too big? ABC's “This Week” hosted a debate on that question Sunday.
“It's no coincidence that government spending has hit record levels while people's trust in government has hit record lows,” House Budget Chair Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said. “Too much government inevitably leads to bad government.”
But limited government is not the same as no government, he added. Ryan still argued for a government that would perform some basic functions well. “Those of us who believe in limited government also believe in effective government.”
Ryan was joined by conservative columnist George Will in arguing for the affirmative. Congressman Barney Frank and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich represented the liberal position.
Frank argued in favor of government intervention for certain things, such as regulating the economy and cleaning the environment, but argued for less government for other personal choices, such as gambling on the Internet and smoking marijuana.
“We have two sets of needs. We have needs that we best pursue individually, with money for ourselves and our families and we can make personal choices, but then there are things we have to do together,” Frank said.
Much of the debate centered on whether government does more to help or hurt the poor and vulnerable versus the rich and powerful.
Will believes that bigger government helps the rich and powerful. “Big government inevitably exacerbates the problem of inequality. Big government inevitably is the servant of the strong.”
Supporting his argument, Will cited the tax code. “The tax code has been changed 4,500 times in the last decade. Every one of those times as the service of a group strong enough, attentive enough, and wealthy enough to hire a Washington lawyer to represent them to gain the tax code,” he said.
He also pointed to the welfare state. “The welfare state exists to transfer wealth basically from the working young and middle-aged to the retired elderly.
“According to a CBO study, the net worth of a family, on average, headed by someone 65 and older is 47 times larger than that of the net worth of someone 35 or younger. That's a record and has doubled in the last five years.”
“Look, I'm not attacking the elderly, I am the elderly,” Will said as the audience laughed and he pulled his Medicare card from his pocket. “I showed it to my doctor. He said, 'that's wonderful, George, now we'll send your bills to your children.' I find that a regressive transfer of wealth and the welfare state is full of that.”
Will concluded, “Big government is responsive to big, muscular, interest groups.”
“The top 1 percent is claiming, in terms of their pay, a larger share of total income than has been at any time since before the Great Depression, and their tax rates are lower than they've been in 30 years,” Reich complained.
The proper response to that concentration of wealth, Reich contended, is “to make sure that those at the top reaches, that is both individuals and corporations, don't have the untoward influence they now have.”
The event was cosponsored by the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. Some of the questions were asked by audience members. Richard Cizik, former president of the National Association of Evangelicals and current president of The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, asked one of those questions.
“There's a great paradox … we are a nation of haves and have-nots. Fourty-eight percent now in poverty or working poor. … The second point is that we don't believe that as Americans. The percentage, according to Gallup, that actually know that this paradox exists, this great income inequality, has fallen. Isn't this a great American delusion and inconvenient truth that we deny at our peril?” Cizik asked.
“The point we're trying to say as conservatives is,” Ryan answered, “what do you set the conditions for economic growth so that you have upward mobility so that people can rise through society.”
Reich countered that civil rights laws are a good example of when government can help with upward mobility. “If it had not been for those laws … we wouldn't have the upward mobility that we now have.”
There were some areas of cross-partisan agreement among the debaters. Will and Reich agreed, while Frank disagreed, that banks should not be allowed to become “too big to fail.” Also, Will and Frank agreed that adults should be allowed to gamble on the Internet. Plus, all four debaters agreed that crony capitalism was a problem.
Frank pushed several times for Will to agree with him that there should be no criminal penalties for marijuana use. Will said he was open to the idea but needed more time to study the issue.
“You're on Medicare, how much longer are we going to have to wait for you to make up your mind?” Frank joked.
ABC and The Miller Center will host four more debates before the 2012 election.