In his recent address to Congress on the need for health care reform, President Obama spoke eloquently about the role of Government in our society and its relationship to the American character. Given our strong belief in what the President called “self-reliance” and “rugged individualism,” Americans, he noted, have always possessed a “healthy skepticism of government.” But he also spoke about the other side the American character, about the generosity of the American people; about their willingness to lend a helping hand when fortune turns against one of us; about the belief “that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgement that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.”
The President also noted that one of the great challenges of our history has been “figuring out the appropriate size and role of government” and he placed the health care debate squarely in this context. But his assertion that “sometimes government has to step in” to assist us in times of trouble tends to re-enforce the persistent American myth that limited government is the norm and that he who governs least governs best.
Much of this myth stems from our revolutionary past. But it has also received impetus from the 19th century American “conquest” of the West, and the widespread view that our forbearers did not want or need government assistance in populating the vast and open stretches of the North American continent. No one would doubt for a moment that the Americans who took up the challenge to settle the frontier were brave and rugged, but hundreds of thousands — indeed millions — of them did so under the auspices of the 1862 Homestead Act, a Federal piece of legislation that encouraged westward settlement by offering federal land at low cost. Further settlement was also encouraged by the expansion of the U.S. rail network and the construction of the transcontinental railroad, assisted by federal land grants and the issuance of U.S. Government bonds under the terms of the Pacific Railway Act of the same year. The truth is then, that in these and on numerous other occasions, government has played a much more significant role in our history than might be immediately apparent. Nevertheless, millions of Americans still tend to view government as an independent and often destructive force; as something akin to a foreign power in our midst, bent on limiting individual liberty.
Franklin D. Roosevelt held quite a different view. For him, the people were the government, and he urged Americans to never forget that “government is ourselves and not an alien power over us.” To work properly, however, government had to reflect the will of the people and not the special interests of those who possessed great wealth and power. During the dark days of the Great Depression, when millions of Americans suffered grievous financial loss, unemployment and abject poverty — thanks in large part to the greedy and reckless behavior of those in the banking and financial sector — FDR assumed, correctly, that the reforms he called for would meet with fierce opposition.
He had also come to the view that the financial and industrial titans who opposed him were not only bent on limiting the actions of government, but on limiting the rights of the American citizen. “Private enterprise,” he said, had become “too private,” indeed it had become “privileged enterprise” aimed at taking control of government itself. As a consequence “the political equality that [Americans] once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor – other people’s lives…Against economic tyranny such as this,” he said, “the American citizen could only appeal to the organized power of government.”
Seen from this perspective, the real question is not so much the size of government, but who controls it, vested interests or the people? One suspect’s that the powerful forces arrayed against health care reform will throw everything they have in trying to stop it — including the myth that government is an “alien power” bent on destroying the American way of life. Franklin Roosevelt knew better, let us hope the current President and Congress do as well.
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.