Do Americans and Their Elected Representatives Really Want a Much Smaller Government?

August 20th, 2012 at 6:57 pm

Like many other members of the commentariat, I’ve argued that the forthcoming election is about the role of government in our lives, with starkly different answers from the two parties.  Moreover, polling data suggest that the electorate is quite sharply divided along this axis.

But the more I learn about this framing of the debate and the alleged evidence for it, the more I’m convinced we’re missing something.  Most Americans, even those who say otherwise, are actually supportive of much of what government does, and most of their representatives feel the same way, despite their shouting to the contrary.  This suggests that plans for vastly shrinking government are deeply unrealistic and misleading.

First, the evidence and what’s wrong with it.  In a recent Washington Post poll 55% preferred a “smaller government” supporting “fewer services.”  There was great variation, of course, with 98% of Tea Partiers agreeing, compared to only 9% of “urban liberals.”  But as you’d expect, significant majorities of both Republicans and Independents say they support a smaller government that does less, which is a fair description of the Republican platform and is embodied in their budget proposals.

The problem is that this is a 40,000-feet-up question, one that leads many centrist/right-leaning respondents to think about “big government,” intrusive regulations, taxes, and budget deficits, all big negatives to them.  But if you fly a lot lower and ask those same respondents about specifics—about Medicare, infrastructure investment, education, medical research, defense spending, veterans’ benefits, and even certain aspects of the safety net, you get very different answers (in a poll from January, 63% of Republicans and 74% of independents said that cutting food stamps is the wrong way to reduce spending; another poll shows 70% of Tea Partiers oppose Medicare cuts).

The same Post poll cited above provides some back up: When you ask a slightly more nuanced question about whether certain goods and services would be available to ordinary people absent government intervention—a question that hints at the role of government amidst market failure—two-thirds of respondents, including 55% of Republicans, 70% of religious Republicans, and even 30% of Tea Partiers agree.

I learned about this difference in poll results by altitude first hand as a member as the President’s economics team during the implementation of the Recovery Act.  If you asked people about the Recovery Act, you’d find that most thought it was a waste.  But component parts of the bill like expanded unemployment benefits, health insurance, infrastructure, rail, and tax cuts polled in the 60-80+ percent approval range.

Then there were all those Republican governors and members of Congress who opposed the Recovery Act and inveighed against Keynesian stimulus, while quietly seeking stimulus checks for their districts.  Rep Paul Ryan—a particularly high profile case right now—provides a good example, but so do Eric Cantor, Michelle Bachmann, and Gov Rick Perry.

And, of course, as we speak, Republicans who supported the budget process that’s now led to $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts over the next decade are fighting hard to rescind at least the defense cuts.  Gov. Romney attacks President Obama for not taking on the budget challenge posed by entitlements, yet now claims he’ll reverse the $700 billion in Medicare savings in the Affordable Care Act.

The point is not simply that politicians are hypocritical about such things.  In fact, there’s a timely nugget of insight to all this:  the hyper-conservative, huge reductions in the role on government in the budgets of today’s conservative leaders are deeply unrealistic:  neither the cutters nor the voters want to go there.

The House Republican budget, authored by Rep Ryan, eventually takes government spending outside of Social Security, health insurance programs, and interest on the debt down to less than 4% of GDP.  That’s not going to happen.  The CBO points out that “spending for defense alone has not been lower than 3% of GDP in any year [since World War II]” and yet, these politicians seek higher levels of defense spending in the future, along with trillions in tax cuts beyond those of George W. Bush.

Anyone can make wild, abstract claims about how radically they’re going to shrink the government and can even get broad support for it from the public.  Anyone can write down numbers on a budget ledger that purports to get to ridiculously low spending levels, especially without specifying the cuts.  Similarly, anyone can propose massive tax cuts to be offset by loophole closures to be named later.

Yet, despite their tenuous connection to reality, these positions pose real threats.  First of all, when politicians talk about paying for lower tax rates by broadening the tax base, e.g., closing loopholes, be aware that in today’s no-new-taxes climate, we’re likely to get the lower rates without the broader base.  In other words, larger deficits.

Second, the spending cuts that do get shoved through will fall on the most vulnerable with the least clout.  Again, the Ryan/House budget gets 60% of it cuts from low-income programs, like food stamps and Medicaid, while preserving subsidies for oil companies, not to mention doubling down on the Bush tax cuts.

So instead of entertaining ourselves with fantasy budgets that neither their purveyors nor their constituents really support, let’s have a real debate about what the majority of us actually want from our government and how we plan to pay for it.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

6 comments in reply to "Do Americans and Their Elected Representatives Really Want a Much Smaller Government?"

  1. Scott Monje says:

    I’d like to take the opportunity to ask an unrelated question that has been bugging me. Ryan’s plan for Medicare seems to resemble the basic structure of the ACA. (We’ll overlook the irony of that for the moment.) If his plan to subsidize Medicare recipients is unlikely to cover the recipients’ anticipated insurance needs, does that mean that the subsidies for low-income insurees under the ACA are also likely to fall behind sooner or later, or are the Ryan shortfalls something that he has written into the plan specifically to reduce federal expenditures? Or, even if not the same as the Ryan payments, are the ACA subsidies any less likely than Medicaid to be subjected to periodic cost-cutting by Congress? Also, if competition has not managed to keep Medicare Advantage cheaper than regular Medicare, or even as cheap as regular Medicare, does that mean that the ACA exchanges are not likely to produce much in the way of cost savings either?

    • Fred Donaldson says:


      Any subsidy by voucher can be destroyed by the elite. We need universal minimum healthcare and a real end to the monopolies and antitrust activities by healthcare providers.

      Just imagine an intelligent nation agreeing that our drug factories are now mainly in China and Mexico, but the public must be protected from the possible dangers of drugs imported from Canada.

      And the price here can be five times what they pay in Europe for the peace of mind that the true communists in Bejing oversee drug manufacture, not “socialist medicine” folks north of the border.

  2. dpeterka says:

    I suspect this has been covered at some point, but if we look at the National Debt, how much of it is due to the cumulative GW Bush tax cuts, how much is due to the cumulative impact of the wars, how much is from the cumulative cost of the various stimulus programs (TARP, ARA, etc… minus paybacks received), and how much is from the cumulative impact of the recession due to increased demand for government services such as unemployment payments and the loss of income tax revenue due to the unemployment increase (above whatever is considered normal)?

  3. Devin Castles says:

    I think this is a pretty succinct explanation of the argument progressives need to make convincingly to win elections and change the role of government.

  4. Misaki says:

    >I’ve argued that the forthcoming election is about the role of government in our lives, with starkly different answers from the two parties.

    If the Democratic party stands for larger government, is it also prepared to suggest higher taxes to pay for that larger government? Why have discussions about tax reform accepted the idea that “base broadening” will at best be neutral on total tax revenues as it would be accompanied by lower rates?

  5. Jack Klark says:

    I have never seen so much hate for America and our President. I am personally proud of President obama and so is the Majority of the country and the world. But we still have those small republican pockets of resistance.

    If republicans hate America so much why dont they leave? But to sit here and be disrespectful to the Commander in Chief of the united States President Barack Obama is just wrong.