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by Dr. Paul G. Kengor

A teachable moment on the purpose of government recently occurred on MSNBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, who has picked up the torch for the departed Keith Olbermann. It was Monday, February 7, the day after President Obama sat for an interview with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News.

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It was an exchange in the O’Reilly-Obama interview that inspired the teachable moment with O’Donnell. O’Reilly asked Obama a valuable question:

O’Reilly: Do you deny that you’re a man that wants to redistribute wealth?

Obama: Absolutely.

O’Reilly: You deny that?

Obama: Absolutely.

Putting aside the issue of whether Barack Obama is a redistributionist, the teachable moment—for me here today—followed on MSNBC. Lawrence O’Donnell’s guest was Howard Dean. Bear in mind that Dean is a very influential man of the Left. He chaired the Democratic National Committee, spearheading it when the Democrats took down George W. Bush in his second term, recapturing Congress in a landslide. Those victories came after Dean challenged Bush for the presidency in 2004 and, in my opinion, did more than any other figure in ratcheting up the toxic vitriol that ultimately destroyed Bush’s presidency. (Click here.)

In short, Howard Dean’s opinion is not irrelevant.

And so, Lawrence O’Donnell followed the O’Reilly-Obama “redistribution” exchange with this question to Dean:

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O’Donnell: Governor [Dean], this is one of those things you can see he’s [Obama] afraid of discussing—what an increase in top tax rate actually does. This for me is—I feel is why Democrats so frequently lose the tax debate. You can see that they’re afraid of the tax debate.

Dean: That [interview] was an unusual thing. The president doesn’t often get mouse-trapped, especially by the likes of Bill O’Reilly…. He laid out a proposition that is we shouldn’t have redistribution. [But] that’s what governments do—is redistribute. The argument is not whether they should redistribute or not, the question is how much we should redistribute…. The purpose of government is to make sure that capitalism works for everybody …. It’s government’s job to redistribute.

There are a bunch of objections I could raise to these statements. Primarily, however, the problem with Dean’s comments on the “purpose” and “job” of government is the complete lack of qualification. Dean gives a definition of government that is a leftist definition, provided by a modern liberal/progressive. Howard Dean cannot, logically, honestly, factually, categorically argue that his definition is anything beyond that.

Dean certainly did not offer a definition grounded in sources we would traditionally expect in America: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, specific writings of Jefferson, Madison, even John Locke. No one, and nothing, is cited. For instance, the Declaration, written by Jefferson, edited by Ben Franklin, John Adams, and the entirety of the first Congress, approved by 56 of our founders, stated that “governments are instituted” for the purpose of securing the “unalienable rights” of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Wealth redistribution is nowhere to be found.

What Howard Dean offered was an expansive modern “progressive” definition of government. That’s fine, but his terms need to be identified as just that.

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