The Role of Government in a Free Society

The Howard Dean and John Stossel debate

by: Benjamin Smith

On August 21, 2012, Howard Dean and John Stossel debated the role of government in everyday society. Dean was a former governor of Vermont, DNC chairman, and a 2004 Democratic presidential contender. He is also a doctor and the father of two children. Stossel is a bestselling author and from the Fox Business Network.  This debate, which was sponsored by the College Republicans and YAF, was paid for through a generous donation from the Arthur Rupe Foundation, displayed the best of two very differing views of what government’s role in the markets, welfare system, and health care should consist of in today’s society.

Governor Dean began the debate by making a slight jab another polarizing figure that was not in attendance, Ann Coulter. His humor continued as he stated that he knew he known as “a screaming liberal around these parts,” as he made fun of his scream back in 2004. Some commentators, if you recall, now believe that the infamous “Dean Scream”, as it is called, may be the reason why he lost the Democratic primary back in 2004. Dean continued on to the substance of the matter, namely, the role of government in a free society.

Dean began his speech by taking direct aim at what he coined as “the excesses of capitalism.” The term simply means what the capitalists, i.e. entrepreneurs and business owners, have left over. A much simpler word would be profits. Dean then goes on to state that the drive for profits was one of the major reasons for the Recession. Dean, however, makes a critical error in blaming the Recession simply on the profit motive. The fact of the matter is that many politicians, including Dean, continued to push for the inflation and growing of the housing bubble that popped by supporting the damaging policy of lending to people who were borrowing outside of their means.  Dean continued by saying that he wants the government to moderate and control the business cycle. Dean, interestingly enough, stated that he is against the crony capitalism that is rampant in today’s markets, but went on to say that he believes in choosing winners and losers. This is an interesting contradiction that Stossel, for his part, failed to pick up on.

John Stossel immediately took aim and fired. He explained his Laissez Faire attitude with government having three essential roles. The first role is to function as a protector of its citizens citizens, whether the threat is foreign or domestic. The second role that government should have is similar to the the first role, namely the enforcement of contract, deeds, and the recognition of private property. Lastly, Stossel stated that the government should have a waste controlling agency, almost like the EPA. He then blasted Dean’s vision of the government. He refered to Dean as a socialist capitalist, and criticizes Dean’s belief that the government should “modulate” the market. Stossel believes that the free market has the ability to fix itself, without the government. To support this belief, he cited the natural ups and downs theory of the business cycle.

The debate then shifted away from the markets to the welfare system and government programs that assist the less fortunate. Dean took an unusual stance at this point in the debate. He reminded the audience of his fiscal record back in Vermont, where he passed eleven balanced budgets in a row and drastically reduced the deficits. Dean continued by stating that he believes in more programs, but ironically, after calling himself fiscally conservative, he stated that he wanted to raise the taxes so that citizens could afford these programs, which he believes are beneficial for the poor and other oppressed classes.

Stossel had a vigorous response at the ready. Stossel, already holding a skeptical view of government involvement, argued that the programs that Dean advocated for were not around during the Great Depression (the example Dean used to defend his championing of more government programs and power). He stated that the people who were suffering relied on each other and their friends, family, and church for support. Stossel argued, furthermore, that it was better for the local and city government to decide how to handle these programs, thus he was for decentralization. He then made the powerful and nuanced argument that that the closer to the source the aid comes from, the less waste, corruption, and expense will go into aid distribution.

The last topic the debate touched on was health care. With the passage of Obamacare, the nation is deeply divided on the issue. Stossel began the discussion on the issue stating that the federal government should . Dean is a major believer in having universal healthcare. He is famous in Vermont for expanding it to cover all children and pregnant mothers. Dean’s passion for the universality of health care was apparent as he defended the right for everyone to have medical care. Yet, running central in Dean’s argument was the belief that the government, and not the free market, should make that universality possible.

Despite the fact that many of Stossel’s arguments seemed more logical and tighter than Dean’s, it was almost immediately obvious that Dean had carried the day. The latter’s personality, his sparkling charm, that famous Dean-twinkle in the eye – the audience was practically swooning near the end. Stossel, an admitted non-people person, came across as more aloof; yet, what this only proves is that American politics cares more for glib than for truth.