February 16, 2011 2:51PM

Looking for a Free Ride

The Harris Poll finds that most Americans favor cuts in foreign economic aid, foreign military aid, spending by the regulatory agencies generally, space programs, subsidies to business, and federal welfare spending. All good stuff.

On the other hand, a significant plurality opposes cuts in defense spending. Fewer than one in four favor cuts in federal education spending or health care. 11 percent favor cutting Social Security payments. Over one‐​third favor spending more on education, health care, and Social Security.

How seriously should we take these results?

Simple observation of Congress suggests that most Americans are not willing to pay more taxes. The Obama administration found that in focus groups Democrats were not willing to raise taxes on anyone except individuals making more the $200,000 annually or families above $250,000 each year (now you know why the Obamacare taxes are the way they are). Taxpayers evidently are not willing to pay for current spending since the annual public deficit runs into the trillions.

I conclude that survey respondents want to sustain or increase public spending at a cost to someone else, perhaps “the rich” or future citizens who will repay public debt. These survey respondents, in other words, want a free ride. A more charitable interpretation would be that respondents have not thought much about the cause and effect relationship between spending and taxes, at least with regard to the abstractions posed in a survey. Neither interpretation flatters the respondents.

I recall James Madison’s remark in Federalist no. 10 that majorities tend toward policies antagonistic to “the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Policymakers have little reason to take seriously these fantasies. Whether they will have the courage to ignore them is another question.