Most of the headlines about the large new Pew Research Center survey (6,000 interviews) have focused on the continuing decline in Americans' trust in government, as depicted in the chart below.
But the survey also asks one of my favorite questions:
If you had to choose, would you rather have a smaller government providing fewer services, or a bigger government providing more services?
As shown in the chart below, the number preferring smaller government rose to its highest point during the 1990s, then reached a low point as President Obama was elected in 2008, and has been rising since then. In the latest survey 53 percent of Americans say they prefer a smaller government, while only 38 percent would rather have a bigger government with more services.
But as I've written before, I’ve always thought the “smaller government” question is incomplete. It offers respondents a benefit of bigger government–”more services”–but it doesn’t mention that the cost of “bigger government providing more services” is higher taxes. The question ought to give both the cost and the benefit for each option. The Rasmussen poll does often ask the question that way. In one poll about a decade ago, Rasmussen found that 64 percent of voters said that they prefer smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes, while only 22 percent would rather see a more active government with more services and higher taxes. A similar poll around the same time, without the information on taxes, found a margin of 59 to 26 percent. So it’s reasonable to conclude that if you remind respondents that “more services” means higher taxes, the margin by which people prefer smaller government rises by about 9 points. So maybe the margin in this poll would have been something like 58 to 34 if both sides of the question had been presented.
For now, when voters are given only the benefits and not the costs of bigger government, Pew and other pollsters find these results:
Whether the recent election was good news for tea party Republicans, establishment Republicans, or activist Democrats, the Washington Post notes that
Obama’s larger project of redefining what government should do has been stymied by steady Republican opposition and public disenchantment with political leaders....While Obama has framed the question in different ways over the past five years, he has consistently sought to convince Americans that well-run government is uniquely positioned to help secure their economic prosperity.
A sidebar graphic reminds us that
Majorities have consistently preferred a smaller government with fewer services to a larger one with more services.
Here's the chart accompanying the article:
The “smaller government” question is incomplete. It offers respondents a benefit of larger government–“more services”–but it doesn’t mention that the cost of “larger government with more services” is higher taxes. The question ought to give both the cost and the benefit for each option. A few years ago a Rasmussen poll did ask the question that way. The results were that 64 percent of voters said that they prefer smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes, while only 22 percent would rather see a more active government with more services and higher taxes. A similar poll around the same time, without the information on taxes, found a margin of 59 to 26 percent. So it’s reasonable to conclude that if you remind respondents that “more services” means higher taxes, the margin by which people prefer smaller government rises by about 9 points. With that in mind, I've adjusted the Post's poll numbers by four points in each direction, to approximate what the numbers would look like if the Post included "higher taxes" in its question. The revised figure makes even more clear why presidents have difficulty persuading people to increase the size of government:
Peter Wallsten of the Wall Street Journal writes, "Libertarianism is enjoying a recent renaissance in the Republican Party." He cites Ron Paul's winning the presidential straw poll earlier this year at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Rand Paul's upset victory in the Kentucky senatorial primary, and former governor Gary Johnson's evident interest in a libertarian-leaning presidential campaign. Johnson tells Wallsten in an interview that he'll campaign on spending cuts -- including military spending, on entitlements reform, and on a rational approach to drug policy.
Meanwhile, on the same day, Rand Paul had a major op-ed in USA Today discussing whether he's a libertarian. Not quite, he says. But sort of:
In my mind, the word "libertarian" has become an emotionally charged, and often misunderstood, word in our current political climate. But, I would argue very strongly that the vast coalition of Americans — including independents, moderates, Republicans, conservatives and "Tea Party" activists — share many libertarian points of view, as do I.
I choose to use a different phrase to describe my beliefs — I consider myself a constitutional conservative, which I take to mean a conservative who actually believes in smaller government and more individual freedom. The libertarian principles of limited government, self-reliance and respect for the Constitution are embedded within my constitutional conservatism, and in the views of countless Americans from across the political spectrum.
Our Founding Fathers were clearly libertarians, and constructed a Republic with strict limits on government power designed to protect the rights and freedom of the citizens above all else.
And he appeals to the authority of Ronald Reagan:
Liberty is our heritage; it's the thing constitutional conservatives like myself wish to preserve, which is why Ronald Reagan declared in 1975, "I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism."
Reagan said that several times, including in a Reason magazine interview and in a 1975 speech at Vanderbilt University that I attended. A lot of libertarians complained that he should stop confusing libertarianism and conservatism. And once he began his presidential campaign that fall, he doesn't seem to have used the term any more.
You can see in both the Paul op-ed and the Johnson interview that major-party politicians are nervous about being tagged with a label that seems to imply a rigorous and radical platform covering a wide range of issues. But if you can call yourself a conservative without necessarily endorsing everything that William F. Buckley Jr. and the Heritage Foundation -- or Jerry Falwell and Mike Huckabee -- believe, then a politician should be able to be a moderate libertarian or a libertarian-leaning candidate. I wrote a book outlining the full libertarian perspective. But I've also coauthored studies on libertarian voters, in which I assume that you're a libertarian voter if you favor free enterprise and social tolerance, even if you don't embrace the full libertarian philosophy. At any rate, it's good to see major officials, candidates, and newspapers talking about libertarian ideas and their relevance to our current problems.
As the fall elections approach, two factions within the congressional GOP have emerged. The first faction, which generally controls the Republican leadership, is short-term oriented and just wants to return the GOP to power in Congress. Riding the wave of voter discontent over the government’s finances is a means to an end -- the end being power.
The second, and considerably smaller faction, is more ideas driven and views the upcoming election as an opportunity to push for substantive governmental reforms. Whereas the “power first faction” offers platitudes about smaller government, the “ideas first faction” isn’t afraid to offer relatively bold suggestions for confronting the federal government’s unsustainable spending.
The ideas first faction is willing to publicly recognize that runaway entitlement spending must be reigned in and offer solutions to address the problem. Representatives Ron Paul, Michelle Bachmann, and Paul Ryan, for example, aren’t shying away from advocating a phase-out of the current Social Security system, which is headed for bankruptcy. In contrast, the power first faction lambasted Democrats for wanting to “cut Medicare” during the recent legislative battle over Obamacare.
In Ryan’s case, he has given the power first faction heartburn by pushing his “Roadmap for America’s Future,” which confronts the entitlement crisis head-on. Although Ryan’s Roadmap is not the ideal from a limited government standpoint, it’s a credible offering with ideas worth discussing. Even though the Ryan plan has received some favorable notice by the mainstream media, the power first faction would probably prefer Paul and his Roadmap went away.
From the Washington Post:
Of the 178 Republicans in the House, 13 have signed on with Ryan as co-sponsors.
Ryan's proposals have created a bind for GOP leaders, who spent much of last year attacking the Democrats' health-care legislation for its measures to trim Medicare costs. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has alternately praised Ryan and emphasized that his ideas are not those of the party.
Ryan has not helped to make it easy for his leaders. He is a loyal Republican, but he is also perhaps the GOP's leading intellectual in Congress and occasionally seems to forget that he is a politician himself.
At a recent appearance touting the Roadmap at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, someone asked Ryan why more conservatives weren't behind his budget plan. “They're talking to their pollsters,” Ryan answered, “and their pollsters are saying, ‘Stay away from this. We're going to win an election.’”
His remarks illustrate the tension among Republicans over their fall agenda. Some strategists say the GOP should focus on attacking the Democrats; others want the party to offer a detailed governing plan.
Ryan’s ideas can be contrasted with those of the House Republican Conference Committee, which is a key power first organization. The HRCC just released a platitude-filled August recess packet for Republican House members to recite in talking to their constituents. Entitled “Treading Boldly,” the cover prominently features Teddy Roosevelt, which should immediately send chills down the spines of anyone believing in limited government.
The document is not “bold.” Take for example the five proposals to “Reduce the Size of Government”:
- Freeze Congress’ Budget. This has populist appeal but does virtually nothing to reduce the size of government. The legislative branch will spend approximately $5.4 billion this year. That’s less than the federal government spends in a day.
- Stop the Expansion of the Federal Bureaucracy. The document notes that federal civilian employment has risen under Obama. We’ve criticized this expansion and advocated freezing or cutting employee compensation to generate some savings, but merely stopping the bureaucracy’s expansion is not bold.
- Eliminate Unnecessary or Duplicative Programs. This proposal is so vacuous that even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi supports it. If the GOP isn’t willing to name a dozen or so substantial “unnecessary” programs to eliminate, then this promise can’t be taken seriously.
- Hold Weekly Votes to Cut Spending. Fine idea. But the House Republican leadership’s new YouCut initiative hasn’t offered up many substantive cuts. For example, offering up Mohair subsidies for cutting would only save $1 million. The GOP’s weekly vote to cut would be more credible if big money farm subsidies, like those for corn or cotton, were put on the table.
- Audit the Government for Ways to Save. Yawn. Isn’t that what the $600 million Government Accountability Office does? The document says “Congress should initiate a review of every federal program and provide strict oversight to uncover and eliminate waste and duplication.” Nothing says “not serious” like calling for the federal government to eliminate “waste.” Waste comes part and parcel with a nearly $4 trillion government that can spend other’s people money on pretty much anything it wants to.
To be fair, there are sound proposals contained in the document such as privatizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But on the issue of entitlements, the HRCC punts:
The current budget process focuses only on about 40 percent of the budget and just the near-term – usually the next twelve months. We know that we have significant medium and long-term fiscal challenges fueled by the demographic changes in our country. The Government Accountability Office estimates that we have $76 trillion in unfunded liabilities. Rather than simply ignoring these challenges, Congress should reform its budget process to ensure that Congress begins making the decisions that are necessary to update our entitlement programs to secure them for today’s seniors and save them for future generations.
Had the Republicans not swept into office in 1994 on a promise to reduce government only to make it bigger, the power first faction’s “trust us” argument might be more credible. However, given that it already views the GOP’s ideas first faction as skunks at the party, voters who are expecting a new Republican congressional majority to downsize government might not want to hold their breath.
The Tea Party movement may endure, but its endurance will be a testament to its ability to understand that cutting government means having a long-term focus, says John Samples, author of the Cato book The Struggle to Limit Government. In a new video, Samples outlines an assessment of what Tea Partiers should do if they want to sustain an effort to cut government.
He offers five pieces of advice for members of the Tea Party movement:
1. Republicans aren’t always your friends.
2. Some tea partiers like big government.
3. Democrats aren’t always your enemies.
4. Smaller government demands restraint abroad.
5. Leave social issues to the states.
The poll also shows how much ground Obama has lost during his first year of trying to convince the public that more government is the answer to the country's problems. By 58 percent to 38 percent, Americans said they prefer smaller government and fewer services to larger government with more services. Since he won the Democratic nomination in June 2008, the margin between those favoring smaller over larger government has moved in Post-ABC polls from five points to 20 points.
I've noted previously that
I've always thought the “smaller government” question is incomplete. It offers respondents a benefit of larger government -- "more services” -- but it doesn’t mention that the cost of “larger government with more services” is higher taxes. The question ought to give both the cost and the benefit for each option. A few years ago a Rasmussen poll did ask the question that way. The results were that 64 percent of voters said that they prefer smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes, while only 22 percent would rather see a more active government with more services and higher taxes. A similar poll around the same time, without the information on taxes, found a margin of 59 to 26 percent. So it’s reasonable to conclude that if you remind respondents that “more services” means higher taxes, the margin by which people prefer smaller government rises by about 9 points.
In fact, Rasmussen has continued to ask just that question, and found a month ago that voters preferred "smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes" by a margin of 66 to 22 percent. That's a larger margin for the alternative wording than I had previously estimated. I know some people are skeptical of Rasmussen's polling. (A Republican consulting firm recently found results very similar to the Rasmussen poll.) So I invite Gallup, Harris, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other pollsters to ask this more balanced question and see what results they get.