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It has been 35 years since Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural speech as president — the one in which he said, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Over that time, hostility toward government seems only to have grown.

This is troubling not because those agencies — or the government as a whole — are faultless, but because it’s not clear how a democratic society and market economy can function without an effective government.

Limited government is more often part of the solution than it is a problem. It funds core functions — such as infrastructure, the court system, and national security — that allow the private sector to flourish.

This is not to say that government does not overreach, or that it always performs as it should. On occasion, its leaders make poor and misguided decisions; its legislators, however well intentioned, create wasteful and unneeded programs.

But we’re not going to do away with government. Instead, we have to make the sometimes comfortable, sometimes uneasy co-existence of the market and the government work.

So it’s crucial for our political leaders to find the right balance. To establish in clear terms where government should and should not be active. To wring duplication out of the bureaucracy and rigorously pursue efficient, effective, and accountable government. To ensure tough, fair enforcement of the law.

It’s the balance between limited government and the private sector that it’s our job constantly to assess, debate, and get right.

Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government.

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