As Mike correctly notes, there’s plenty to say about David Brooks’s faulty logic. I’ll stick to one aspect of it. Progressives like Brooks see government as if it were not merely a sentient being but one to whom we could transfer our personal responsibilities — as if there were virtue in spending other people’s money and directing other people’s effort. Most conservatives see government as a ministerial device needed to perform a few functions that a free society must see to in order to maintain the order and security necessary for society to flourish. I have never thought “government has a responsibility to help those who can’t help themselves”; I have thought that I have a responsibility to help those who can’t help themselves.
That said, let’s concede for argument’s sake the dubious propositions that (a) the society has a collective responsibility to help those who can’t help themselves, (b) this responsibility can only be satisfied by government, and (c) the government in question should be the central government in Washington with one-size-fits-all prescriptions for 310 million people stretching across several time zones and varying social conditions. Brooks’s claim is that 62 percent of Republicans in 1987 and 40 percent of contemporary Republicans accepted these premises with respect to those who can’t help themselves. Romney was not talking about those who can’t help themselves. He was talking about 47 percent of the country who are on various forms of government assistance. The vast majority of those people can help themselves. They would also get better help, if they really wanted it, from sources other than government if inefficient, unsustainable federal programs were slashed.
I do not believe there is a social compact of the kind Brooks describes. I think, insofar as the federal government is concerned, the social compact is the Constitution, and, properly understood, it does not provide for a centrally planned entitlement state — such matters are left to the people themselves and state and local governments closest to them. But even if I am wrong about that, Brooks’s column shows that it is he, not Romney, who has hopelessly distorted the concept of helping those who can’t help themselves.