Americans Do Care About Smaller Government

In comments Freddie writes:

…if there’s one thing that I hear again and again from Republicans, it’s that Americans have this great aversion to growing the government. And I simply don’t think that this is true. If they do, they’ve been remarkably patient about getting what they want. Ronald Reagan grew the government. George HW Bush grew the government. George W Bush grew the government. Republican congressional majorities in 1994 and 2002 failed to meaningfully shrink the government.
I fully expect Republicans to be back on top in the next several election cycles. That’s American politics. But as for small government orthodoxy, I’m sorry, I see no evidence that it’s something that the majority of the American electorate cares about on any kind of a substantive level.

What’s going on is that Americans want both smaller government and getting there without having to cut the particular government programs that they like. Americans want lower taxes without having to decrease spending. They want contradictory things, and they want something for nothing. They do genuinely want small government, and all the benefits thereof, but there is insufficient agreement about how to get there for it to happen politically.

Does this make Freddie wrong?

I’d say he is partly wrong. On a matter like health care, my sense of popular opinion is that a majority of Americans are okay with a bigger federal role if it means a better system (setting aside the issue of whether that result will obtain). But I think Freddie has to admit that on many matters, there is a majority of citizens who are for less government, and despite that, the popular thing isn’t happening due to the nature of politics in America.

Think of agricultural subsidies. The obstacles to getting rid of them are several — interested parties have a lot more to lose than the average citizen has to gain by their repeal; due to the structure of the Senate and the roll played by the Iowa caucuses, low population agricultural states exert disproportionate influence on the political system; no Congressperson or president has a particular incentive to launch this crusade. Or think of public employee unions in California. Does anyone think the state’s voters would’ve approved a ballot initiative allowing DMV clerks to retire at age 50 and receive 90 percent of their salary for the rest of their lives? Or take drug policy. A liberal cause would benefit if government were shrunk in every state where voters favor legalizing medical marijuana and decriminalizing even non-medical consumption, or even if we stopped pouring billions of dollars into drug eradication efforts in South America and Afghanistan, but the Feds are preventing that from happening.

I grant that Americans are tempted by stuff like “free” health care, universal pre-school, and other government spending programs, but I think it is silly to look at growth in government across several eras and conclude that voters really don’t care about size of government, when the better explanation is that for reasons of structure, inertia and political incentives, it is much harder to shrink any kind of government than to grow it, regardless of public opinion. Were the true preferences of Americans reflected in reality, I am unsure whether the overall size of government would be bigger or smaller — the answer would probably change from year to year with the vagaries of public opinion — but I am sure that certain expensive outlays we endure now would be eliminated. Finally, whatever the state of public opinion, it remains the case that an ever larger government reduces economic freedom, is more capable of impinging on basic liberties, and (insofar as it is funded by deficit spending) creeps closer to bringing about the financial collapse of America. Citizens would do well to develop a deeper aversion to an ever-expanding government, and to be more demanding about their preferences being met. This end would be aided if people like Freddie stopped acting as though every time Americans express contradictory preferences, lusting for new government programs without being willing to fund them, the default outcome should be passing the programs. I’d say the default should be: don’t pass any new program Americans aren’t willing to fund with higher taxes. Given that standard, I imagine that the country would be far less amenable to certain programs Freddie champions than he thinks.