Early in The West Wing, a newly invigorated President Bartlett abandons the key phrase in his planned State of the Union address — “the era of big government is over,” previously intoned by President Clinton — for a more complicated sell. “Government can be a place where people come together and where no one gets left behind.”
Mark it as the precise moment where today’s timid liberalism diverged from the benevolent, triumphant liberalism of Sorkin’s fictional world. Toby’s sentiment is jarring even today — we just don’t talk about government as a force for good. Not anymore. Take last night’s Republican debate:
For the second time in two consecutive showings, the Republican audience actually cheered death — here, the death of a hypothetical uninsured man in dire need of health care, whose loss is apparently preferable to government intervention — while Ron Paul backtracked, explaining that society can care for the deathly ill, rather than government. Our patient needn’t die, so long as the community chips in.
Except, it won’t — not in every case. Not everyone is so privileged as to be able depend “on the kindness of strangers.” For those without family, friends, or community support, Paul’s answer is no answer at all. And even where it might offer a solution — for a middle-class man, say, with little personal wealth but well-connected friends able to rally the community around them — what Paul’s answer saves the public fisc, it passes on to the community in the form of transaction costs. The sick individual must hope and trust that he can pay his bills, and his community must dedicate its time to solving that problem.
Government removes that burden from society — the uncertainty and cost inherent in collective action — and places it in the hands of experts. All we have to do, in return for the knowledge that our fellow citizens are cared for, and not a one is left behind, is suffer the trivial psychic indignity of having to pay taxes. “Big government” pledges us to each other, to unite us in defense of the common welfare, and there’s pride in a society that takes care of its own. I wish to God we’d discover it.