“Where the people fear the government, you have tyranny. Where the government fears the people, you have liberty.”

— John Basil Barnhill, Debate on Socialism, 1914

Government is necessary, said freshman Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., but it has to have clear and well-defined limits because without them, it is also something to fear.

“It’s pretty easy to describe what ails this country because far too many Americans have forgotten the basic premise of what our founders knew,” Johnson told a conference titled “Defending the American Dream” in Washington on Aug. 3.

He added, “What’s even more sad is far too many Americans were never taught the (founders’) basic premise, and it was that government isn’t something here to solve our problems … as government grows, our freedoms recede.”

Some moderates and all conservatives think those points are obvious, but most progressives will find them either offensive or meaningless.

For liberals, government exists to level out differences, to achieve “fairness,” whereas conservatives see it providing a floor to hold up the helpless while letting the vast majority prosper to the highest level their efforts, skills and talents can reach.

Thus, assistance programs should be judged not by how many people they enroll, but by how many they lift from dependence to independent, productive lives.

I recall participating in a discussion in college (way back in the 1960s) in which I ventured the opinion that overweening government power, as shown by numerous historical examples, was a danger to freedom.

My comment wasn’t refuted with evidence. The senior political science professor conducting the discussion simply smiled sadly at me, shook his head and said, “Oh, no, no, no.” And that was the end of the argument.

That sort of assumption about bureaucratic benevolence had its origins in a progressive ideology that dates back well over a century (as the quote above shows), and it hasn’t gone away.

In fact, it spurs the ideology of the crowd in charge in Washington right now, as noted by President Obama’s Roanoke, Va., speech about how entrepreneurs proud of their accomplishments “didn’t build that.”

His defenders have tried to obfuscate the president’s clear intent, but most people aren’t fooled.

One clear-eyed commentator is Abe Greenwald, a writer for Commentary magazine, who on July 23 noted that Obama has faulted himself for not being a good “storyteller” by failing to explain his worldview.

But that’s not true, Greenwald says. Obama has made it perfectly clear he intends to engage in “nation-building at home,” as he claimed in 2011 in announcing troop drawdowns in Afghanistan. What he said in his impromptu Roanoke remarks merely tied it all together, and Greenwald summarizes Obama’s progressive worldview:

“The government will help all Americans prosper. First, that means getting money from the richest among us who won’t miss it. That money is to be used to furnish Americans with federal assistance in a great many areas of life, from birth to death. Ultimately, what successful Americans view inaccurately as theirs was partly attained with government help and is therefore partly the government’s to redistribute.”

The reason the president and his partisans say that he has been doing a bad job of presenting his narrative is that most Americans find his real worldview frightening.

As Greenwald says, “Most Americans don’t share (the liberals’) need for denial. In fact, many Americans these days can’t afford it. Not only are they not inspired by the Obama narrative, but they find it a little scary.”

And to some, worse than that: “To business owners, it sounds dire. And all Americans can’t help but notice the gap between the Obama story and the Obama record. If government initiative is so crucial to our future well-being, why is Obamacare so chaotic? If government spending is fundamental to prosperity, why did an $800 billion stimulus keep us in a recession without producing one identifiable public work?

“In short,” Greenwald concludes, “if government can deliver things we never dreamed of having, why can’t it simply restore what we had four years ago? The story doesn’t fit the facts. The pundits know it and deny it. Americans know it and worry. The president? He built it.”

With Mitt Romney’s selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate (also from Wisconsin, which under Republican Gov. Scott Walker has moved from one of the nation’s most progressive states to a laboratory for smaller, more efficient government), the scope of federal power will be the centerpiece of the presidential campaign.

With deficits routinely topping $1 trillion under Obama, and the national debt soaring since 2008 more than 60 percent to $16 trillion (if we counted entitlement shortfalls, we’d add dozens of trillions more), it’s not too soon for that to happen.

Indeed, we all have to hope it’s not already too late.

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]