January 31, 2013 12:37PM

Is Government a Threat to Our Freedom?

My book Libertarianism: A Primer, published in 1997, begins with this paragraph:

In 1995 Gallup pollsters found that 39 percent of Americans said that "the federal government has become so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens."  Pollsters couldn't believe it, so they tried again, taking out the word "immediate."  This time 52 percent of Americans agreed.

Well, the Pew Research Center has been polling on a similar question, and they've just found the highest number ever. They ask a slightly different question -- "Do you think the federal government threatens your own personal rights and freedoms, or not?" -- and of course pollsters' methods and samples may vary. Pew's numbers seem to have been somewhat lower than Gallup's over the past two decades. But today they report:

Pew Poll on Threat to Rights

As Barack Obama begins his second term in office, trust in the federal government remains mired near a historic low, while frustration with government remains high. And for the first time, a majority of the public says that the federal government threatens their personal rights and freedoms.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Jan. 9-13 among 1,502 adults, finds that 53% think that the federal government threatens their own personal rights and freedoms while 43% disagree.

Gallup's polling found that the level of fear had fallen dramatically in the early 2000s, as did Pew, but that by late 2011 it had risen back to 49 percent. Gallup also, alas, reports a partisan divide in answers to the question:

Americans' sense that the federal government poses an immediate threat to individuals' rights and freedoms is also at a new high, 49%, since Gallup began asking the question using this wording in 2003. This view is much more pronounced among Republicans (61%) and independents (57%) than among Democrats (28%), although when George W. Bush was president, Democrats and independents were more likely than Republicans to view government as a threat.

Dan Mitchell noted that divide back in 2010 and suggested that, with a Republican administration spending us into bankruptcy and a Democratic administration continuing the wars and the Patriot Act, partisans ought to start recognizing the threats from their own respective parties. Indeed.

The bottom line, though, is that when a government is viewed as a threat to "your own personal rights and freedoms" by a majority of its citizens, it should probably take a critical look at its policies.