20 Questions on the Proper Role of Government

Monday, February 28, 2011

Starting March 10, WNYC's Brian Lehrer will be moderating First Principles, a series of three debates on the moral underpinnings of today's politics. The event co-sponsored by Demos, The Ayn Rand Institute and It's A Free Country.

The first debate will explore the question: "Government: What is Its Proper Role?" We want you to start the conversation early. Take our 20 question quiz on where you draw the lines.

And if you're in New York City on March 10, come hear the debate in person at the NYU Skirball Center at 6pm. This event is free and open to the public. RSVP to Demos


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Comments [36]

Maxwell Adam from California

Like most others this survey seemed to black and white. This is because with something like seat belt laws I may not agree that the government should be able to tell people they have to wear them, but traffic laws help determine who was at fault and in identical crashes where someone not wearing a seat belt was killed the driver of the other car may or may not b e charged with vehicular man slaughter based other of not a seat belt law was in place.

Aug. 30 2013 01:00 PM
Matt from NYC

Such a survey is difficult to complete as just a binary yes/no. I do believe government can have some role in nearly all of those. I suppose it's a different between THE role of government and government having A role.

In nearly all cases, I believe government does have an important role in protecting citizens from harm. For example, it should define marriage as for people over 18 in order to prevent harm to children. However, that doesn't give it free reign to define marriage any way it chooses, i.e., to disallow same-sex marriage.

May. 11 2011 05:34 PM
Robertus Magnus from New York, NY

The only purpose of the government is to protect the individual rights of its citizens. Libertarians (often anarchists) and conservatives (total statists) do not advocate this. Only Objectivists do and since there have been roughly 200 of us at each of the first two debates, there should be a separate choice, and not lump in with the others.

May. 02 2011 11:27 AM
rog from mn.

This must be a trick question game.
When you through in several
different answers , it's imposible to

Apr. 24 2011 06:02 PM

the poll questions are properly phrased. If you a splitting hairs over what level or type of government is appropriate to the question, you should check your premises. There is no half-way, sort-of or maybe to these philosophical questions.

Apr. 13 2011 11:09 AM
Ed Thompson from NYC

If the question is what is the proper form of government and why, visit for constructive information. Especially, read "Man's Rights" and "The Nature of Government," which can be found there.

Mar. 12 2011 01:48 PM
Ed Thompson from NYC

This poll is poorly structured. Some questions are ambiguous; some are contradictory.

Mar. 12 2011 12:24 PM
Payne Harlough from Everett Washington

The "other" choice at the last... I was impulsed toward it.Yet I think of my self as just that: Me. But since one must allign oneself, I suppose I'm Objectivist. But I'd rather think of myself as Randian in this context

Mar. 11 2011 12:30 AM
deacon from n.j.

Why ask about health insurance? Insurance doesn't improve or preserve health, health CARE does. Please ask if government should provide health care.
Please don't facilitate discussion about insurance cost when we critically suffer from health care inequities.

Mar. 10 2011 12:10 PM
libprog from Brooklyn

It was difficult to answer just yes or no to some questions because in my own mind I had qualifiers, like is government responsible for public health policies. In some cases yes, in some cases no. So my answers to some questions were given reluctantly

Mar. 10 2011 12:05 PM
jojogazz from Nassau County

I keep hearing and reading about "personal freedom" but I don't see or hear anything about your family, to your friends, to your neighbors, to those who work for you and above all - to your country and its citizens. It's fine and dandy to let corporations have freedom to pursue their ends, which are to make money, but where is the sense of responsibility to do no harm?
If left unfettered, greed will do whatever it can to reach its goals. Without regulation by government, how do we control those who have no problem polluting our land, our water, our air? How do we control those who would sell us rotten food, poisonous chemical products, etc.? Those who espouse all this "freedom" are either naive or unscrupulous.

Mar. 10 2011 11:57 AM
Marty from Edison, NJ

I appreciate the relativly unbiased coverage of NPR. NPR & PBS are my primary news sources.

If government funding is reduced or eliminated i will contribute as liberaly as my limited resources permit. For now we support three radio and three TV stations.

Mar. 10 2011 11:53 AM

I agree with many of the respondents that too many of these questions lumped incompatible philosophies together as if they were conjoined twins.

The proper role of government is to protect its citizens from physical, economic and social aggression domestically and to maintain the freedom of the seas and airways. To accomplish these ends does require some infrastructure--we need publicly owned roads and sidewalks so everyone can get to market, and we need governmental investment in education so that we have sufficient knowledge to defeat foreign enemies and ensure that citizens are capable of participating in their own defense.

Since all taxes are a form of wealth transfer, this philosophy necessarily does not preclude such transfers. Government borrowing is aggression against the future. Whatever programs we deem absolutely necessary must be paid via current taxes.

Mar. 09 2011 05:08 AM
hmi from Brooklyn

Poor poll design, not least because it uses the catch-all term, "government." Some things that may be the proper purview of state or local government may not properly belong to the federal government. And, as other have noted, libertarian, conservative and Republicans no more belong together than anarchists, socialists and Democrats.

Mar. 08 2011 11:19 PM
LEW from Corona, NY

Restrictions/guideslines should be allowed when the institutions/people involved are direct beneficiaries of government funding - they have to be responsible to the government if they benefit from the evidenced in BAILOUTS!!!

Mar. 08 2011 12:59 PM
ED from Queens NY

What a binary choice!
* "Liberal or Progressive"
* "Conservative of Libertarian or Objectivist"

Since when did "objectivist" attain any level of intellectuaal respectability? Plus, lumping "libertarians" with "conservatives" is insulting to both.

Mar. 08 2011 12:22 PM
Mike Kevitt from Hickory, NC

Good survey. My only major objection is having to be lumped in with conservatives and libertarians. I,m an Objectivist. The survey should've asked about a few domestic functions that only governments can perform, like police, law making, and judicial functions in civil and criminal cases. Some questions were nearly loaded, but still clear enough.

Mar. 07 2011 04:31 PM
Harlan Xavier from Western Canada

Good poll for the most part, with the exception of the last question. Objectivists, libertarians and conservatives should not be lumped into one group together. It is great that this debate is happening. The time to debate the role of government is now, and I think that this is the single most important fundamental issue facing not only the United States but all developed countries. I look forward to seeing Yaron Brook debating this issue.

Mar. 07 2011 10:38 AM
Charles R. Anderson from Columbia, MD

The questions were mostly fine, but some have problems. For instance, Should the government promote commerce with free markets or tariffs? Yes, it should leave people free to associate with others in free markets, but no, it should not use tariffs to protect industries. I answered yes since allowing freedom of association and free markets is essential, but I really dislike the central planning of an economy. Central planning rejects the fact that individuals have individual values and it micromanages individual's lives. Our Declaration of Independence made it clear that a government which does not protect the equal, sovereign individual right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is illegitimate.

Government cannot provide justice beyond eliminating the use of force in a society. Justice is otherwise a matter between individuals. It also cannot redistribute wealth, goods, and services except by stealing them. A democratic gang of thieves is still a gang of thieves.

Mar. 07 2011 01:50 AM

The results to this poll will be adulterated on several questions, due to the strange mixing of "conservative or libertarian or objectivist" option.

What was the intention of the poll's creators?

Mar. 04 2011 07:51 PM

12:00 noon

That's more like it.
120 Respondents

71 Liberal or progressive
32 Conservative, etc.
17 Other

Mar. 04 2011 12:08 PM

I just had a thought (my second one this year).

Why not a question similar to:
"The government should encourage listener supported public media by subsidizing specific organizations with money from the public treasury."

Mar. 04 2011 12:01 PM

I'll be interested in looking in on the results later in the day; but now, at 11:44 a.m., it appears there have been 32 respondents, 32 who identify in the "Conservative or libertarian or
objectivist" category.
Am I misinterpreting the results?

Mar. 04 2011 11:48 AM
sylvia tyler from NYC

I would prefer having the option of multiple choice for answers some like Norton.

Mar. 04 2011 11:12 AM
NH from Maplewood, NJ

The poll was a good exercise as it forced me to pause and consider -- but often it was because I could look at the options and have them both apply to how I feel about a particular issue. For example, Should the government make policy on who should get married?

My answer is that anyone should be allowed to be married despite sex, religion or race -- and I disliked very much the Marriage Protection Act because of its discriminatory nature. That said -- the government might need to become involved in order to protect the rights of those that are discriminated against by religious institutions. My concern is by selecting that the government should be involved might be interpreted as the government should restrict the rights of those who are "allowed" to get married.

So while it does designate whether or not I think the government should be involved, it does not indicate accurately my political stance on the issue. And that's my worry for the outcome of this poll. If people read it and consider their personal politics in the application of the results it could be very, very misleading.

Mar. 03 2011 12:51 PM
anon4utu from Manhattan, NYC

That was an excellent poll for general purposes. I'm reading Chernow's bio of Hamilton, and some of your questions brought a smile because they focused on some of the basic principles that Hamilton wrote of in his report to Congress on manufactures and fiscal affairs.
Final point, the questions focus for me on what I want: a robust LBJ (without Viet Nam) like nation, but with a robust protection for civil liberties, privacy, and individual rights.

Mar. 03 2011 11:15 AM
RGA from Connecticut

I liked the pol because it forced me to think about what I really believe government should do and it revealed how uncomfortable such choices are without context. Reinforces my distrust for political dogma and idealogues.

Also reinforces my belief that the guiding principles of a democratic society should be justice and ethics which act as beacons for steering through dangerous and confusing times.

Mar. 03 2011 08:36 AM
Dan Sullivan from St. Louis

Thank you for having this debate. It is critically important to identify what the proper role of government ought to be - and what it ought not. Most people recognize the importance of the separation of state and church. Too many don't recognize the equal importance of the separation of state from economics and from the everyday lives of regular people.

Mar. 02 2011 06:23 PM
T from Washington, DC

The hardest to answer was the question about providing insurance coverage to all. I would really prefer that this isn't the role of the government. Ideally the entire industry would be not for profit, regulated by the government.

Mar. 02 2011 06:04 PM
Klas Romberg from Massachusetts

Contrary to comments made above, I like the format of 'yes' and 'No' questions.

This debate is to define the principle of the role of Government. According to the Founding Documents, Governments are instituted among men to secure the unalienable rights of the individual to his own life, liberty, property and the pursuit of his own happiness. Rights as moral principles define and sanction an individual's action in a social context; they are not licenses to extort benefits at the expense of others through the powers of Government by whoever captures control of its machinery.

The principled view of Government as the protector of individual rights as envisioned by the Founding Fathers allows simple black and white distinctions, when answering the questions. All one has to apply as the criterion for right or wrong is the principle of individual rights. There is no room for shades of gray, when it comes to deciding fundamental questions of justice in a free society.

Mar. 02 2011 04:16 PM
Perry from New York

Forcing the Libertarians and Conservatives into the same pool is completely unreasonable. I'm a Libertarian, which means I favor things like gay marriage, abortion rights, drug legalization and an end to foreign wars. I share more views with the average "liberal" than with the average "conservative" and yet I'm forced to categorize myself as though I was somehow in the same bucket as Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly. That's repulsive.

Mar. 02 2011 03:51 PM
Dan from UK

I thought the bulk of the poll was good, but I disliked - no, loathed - the fact that I had to be lumped in with conservatives and libertarians.

Bit confused on the question about promoting domestic production (either by free trade or tarriffs). The only way to promote production (domestic or foreign) is through free trade but I assumed the question meant 'should the government attempt to give a competitive advantage to domestic companies' or 'should the government have a role in the economy at all', both of which, obviously, merit a negative answer.

Mar. 02 2011 01:29 PM
Solomon Kleinsmith from Omaha, NE

I agree with the comments above... the questions are far too simplistic to even be useful. There are very few issues that you can remotely accurately boil down to a yes or no question, unless they are laser focused, which none of these are.

Mar. 02 2011 11:47 AM
Norton from Nutley, NJ

Interesting quiz; however, some questions are better suited as multiple choice rather than yes/no questions; for example:

As a wealthy nation, provide foreign aid to fight global poverty:*

My alternative would be set policies that do not maintain/encourage disparities leading to "global poverty". So in this case getting rid of farm subsidies, supporting dictators, etc...

Mar. 01 2011 04:23 PM
Jack Jackson from Central New Jersey

Another nit (or maybe not)

I *think* your poll is intended to surface what people think is the proper role of the federal government under our Constitution. I answered 'No' to many of the questions because I don't think that there is a properly described federal role. However, I do think that some of these items belong to the state some other lower form of government - county, municipal. Most education, transportation or marriage issues.

Mar. 01 2011 10:47 AM
P L F from NYC area

"Too much government" is about as vague as "a little bit pregnant".

Our country seems to thrive on healthy, civil exchange of ideologies--and a govenrment that endorsed these differences while working toward the middle ground.

Perfect? No Democracy? No A legitamate effort to allow everyone to weigh in on problems? Yes--most of the time.

messy, human and I believe, good.

Mar. 01 2011 10:09 AM

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