October 4, 2012 12:17PM

Romney and Obama on the Role of Government

President Obama and Mitt Romney effectively delivered clashing statements on the role of government last night. That’s an issue I discuss in the latest issue of Reason, in a review of two new books, To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government, edited by Steven Conn, and Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent, by E. J. Dionne, Jr. It’s not online yet, so you’ll have to go to the newsstand to buy a copy! Obama seemed to be channeling the Conn book, with its endless repetition of “things the government did for us”:

I also believe that government has the capacity — the federal government has the capacity to help open up opportunity and create ladders of opportunity and to create frameworks where the American people can succeed. Look, the genius of America is the free enterprise system, and freedom, and the fact that people can go out there and start a business, work on an idea, make their own decisions.

But as Abraham Lincoln understood, there are also some things we do better together.

So in the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said, let’s help to finance the Transcontinental Railroad. Let’s start the National Academy of Sciences. Let’s start land grant colleges, because we want to give these gateways of opportunity for all Americans, because if all Americans are getting opportunity, we’re all going to be better off. That doesn’t restrict people’s freedom; that enhances it.

And so what I’ve tried to do as president is to apply those same principles.

Romney had a different view:

The role of government — look behind us: the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

The role of government is to promote and protect the principles of those documents. First, life and liberty. We have a responsibility to protect the lives and liberties of our people, and that means the military, second to none. I do not believe in cutting our military. I believe in maintaining the strength of America’s military.

Second, in that line that says, we are endowed by our Creator with our rights — I believe we must maintain our commitment to religious tolerance and freedom in this country. That statement also says that we are endowed by our Creator with the right to pursue happiness as we choose. I interpret that as, one, making sure that those people who are less fortunate and can’t care for themselves are cared by — by one another.

We’re a nation that believes we’re all children of the same God. And we care for those that have difficulties — those that are elderly and have problems and challenges, those that disabled, we care for them. And we look for discovery and innovation, all these thing desired out of the American heart to provide the pursuit of happiness for our citizens.

But we also believe in maintaining for individuals the right to pursue their dreams, and not to have the government substitute itself for the rights of free individuals. And what we’re seeing right now is, in my view, a — a trickle‐​down government approach which has government thinking it can do a better job than free people pursuing their dreams. And it’s not working.

His rhetoric was certainly more appealing to libertarian voters. But when Romney waxes eloquent about freedom, the rubber rarely meets the road. He’s the father of the health care mandate. His view of liberty, above, is a strong military. His closing argument, about the candidates’ “two very different paths,” ended with a promise not to cut Medicare or the military. He promised to deliver “energy independence” and to crack down on countries that sell us goods.

More on why libertarians are skeptical about big government here — and in Reason!