Our Anti-Government Hypocrisy

Americans, the political scientists (and common sense) tell us, are ideologically conservative and operationally liberal. On the level of ideology, they’re opposed to government’s intervention in the economy. On the level of daily life, they support such universal government programs as Social Security and Medicare.

But this split between abstract beliefs and the concrete needs of daily life doesn’t just apply to government programs: It applies to government regulations as well. Last Thursday, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released a survey that revealed what Pew termed “Mixed Views of Government Regulation.” But “mixed,” in this case, means anti-regulatory in matters of ideology and pro-regulatory in practice. Asked whether they believed that government regulation of business was necessary to protect the public or that such regulation usually does more harm than good, just 40 percent answered that regulation was necessary, while 52 percent said it did more harm than good.

But then came the specifics. Pew asked whether federal regulations should be strengthened, kept as is, or reduced in particular areas. When it came to food production and packaging, 53 percent said strengthen, 36 percent said keep as is, and just 7 percent said reduce. In environmental safeguards, the breakdown was 50 percent strengthen, 36 percent keep as is, 17 percent reduce. In car safety and efficiency, the split was 45, 42, and 9 percent. In workplace safety and health, it was 41, 45, and 10 percent. And with prescription drugs, it was 39, 33, and 20 percent.

Pew then followed up by asking whether there were too few regulations on particular kinds of businesses, the right amount, or too many. For the oil and gas industry, 44 percent said too little, 14 percent the right amount, and 36 percent too much. For banks and financial institutions, it was 43 percent too little, 20 percent just right, and 30 percent too much. For the health insurance industry, the breakdown was 40,18, and 37.

For large corporations generally, it was 43 percent too little, 19 percent the right amount, and 31 percent too much. Only when it came to small businesses did respondents believe that the regulatory burden was too onerous. Just 21 percent thought it too little and 23 percent just right, while 49 percent thought it too much. (How this belief is reconciled with respondents’ belief that we need to keep or strengthen safeguards in workplace health and safety, which applies to small businesses no less than large, is anybody’s guess.)

So the storyline of Americans’ sentiments towards regulations is the same as the storyline of Americans’ sentiments towards government programs: They hate them all, they love them each.

The question that these data raise is how the right has managed to win the ideological battle for so many years even as the public’s support for specific government programs and regs has remained high. Some of this, surely, reflects the left’s inability to make a good case for its worldview, but this clearly goes beyond the messaging strengths and weaknesses of left and right.

At one level, I suspect, it reflects the political consequences of government programs in a racially polarized nation, where it’s easy to stigmatize government programs for the help they provide to the “others." (Such were the findings of Stan Greenberg’s famous late-1980s survey of working-class whites in a suburb bordering Detroit.) But it also reflects our belief in the myth of rugged individualism and our congenital anti-statism. One pretty good definition of American exceptionalism is that while both Europeans and Americans have enacted all manner of government programs and regulations, Americans like to pretend we haven’t. At its core, what makes Americans exceptional is our capacity for denial.

Comments

I suppose the world can always use another spelling cop. Apparently, it's been fixed.
Now, on to the meat of the matter. It is quite frustrating how so many Americans seem incapable of critical thought processes. I also think there is enough evidence of a rather immature emotional intelligence. The non-stop propaganda channels don't help either. Journalism has contributed greatly in the dumbing down of America in recent decades.

Progressives and Dems are going to have to improve their messaging. It may be true that other factors are at play and simple messaging changes won't help, but I don't quite buy it. I think the ridicule and other nonsense coming from the right wing have greatly contributed as well as the complicit media. It certainly doesn't seem we have our best and brightest leading the show for Dems. When Obama gets on message, he's pretty good at it. The problem is he is far too center-right in his approach. His approval ratings went up when he got back on the populist message.

It's certainly hard to figure out the thinking of those who respond with such self-contradiction.

Maybe the problem is that when you ask whether something needs more regulation, people agree that it does when they imagine well-crafted, effective regulations. However, they still acknowledge that when the inept government tries to regulate, the often do so in counterproductive ways.

Another possible explanation is that people are less apt to support an abstract principle that could apply negatively to themselves but are less weary of specific applications that target others. Since most people aren't involved in any one industry, asking people whether that particular industry should be regulated more would never threaten the majority. If people always voted in their own interest, presumably they would approve any tax on a particular group that is less than 50% of the populace but may nevertheless disapprove of raising taxes in general, the latter having the potential to affect them personally.

A final explanation is that people are stupid and inconsistent, which is indisputably true. Unlike politicians (often), voters change their minds about things with impunity. Doing what voters say they want will only keep you safe until enough of them change their minds.

Perhaps if the public were to become acquainted with public costs associated with regulations they'd return to their initial more skeptical view - which is not to say that all regulations are without merit. Regulations do not come cost free, so maybe the best public policy would be to require cost benefit analyses on many more proposed (and existing) regs than may now be the case.

Dear Mr. Meyerson,

To my mind, the best way forward is not to embrace government interference, but to go cold turkey on it:

  • To stop bailing out banks.
  • To stop allowing an anointed few to imagine that the world would be better off if they decided what other people would expend their labor on.
  • To refuse to behave as if the state is the father-master of it's citizens there to dole out favors.
  • To have government stop taking responsibility for others' private lives.
  • To prevent government from using currency manipulation as a means to create Teflon prosperity and to push the costs it incurs off onto an abstract future.
  • To accept that life is tragic, and that attempts by government are the cause of the business cycle rather than a solution to it.

Although my own understanding of economics, and my own prescription for an ethical government, is essentially the polar opposite of yours, I want to give you credit for this clearly written piece, with which I agree whole-heartedly.

Your piece clarifies the issues in a beautiful way. We cannot have a market and be socialist at the same time -- interference in the free market without being on the road to government control in the details of our lives. You have done a service to people of all political and economic stripes by writing this piece.

Thank you, Scott

"Of all tyrannies a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."

-- C.S. Lewis

"The question that these data raise is how the right has managed to win the ideological battle for so many years even as the public’s support for specific government programs and regs has remained high."

The answer, I suspect, is that people understand perfectly well that many, if not most, existing government programs and regulations are ineffective, do more harm than good, cost too much for any good they actually do, or are in some other way too flawed to be acceptable. People don't necessarily want more programs and regulations, they want programs and regulations that work quietly, well, efficiently, inexpensively, and achieve their objectives and only those objectives.

Of course, it's not likely that any government can devise such programs and regulations. My take is that programs and regulations that don't meet those requirements should, for the most part, be abolished.

It is just that; hypocrisy. The mantra that government is "bad" is just an intellectually lazy catchall that is used by the right. Undermining government regulations would enhance the profits corporations and businesses by critically lowering safety and protection to people, but Republicans have stuck to this narrative for the many years (particularly the last 30 or so) and people now buy into it by sheer repetition. The thing that people fail to grasp is that we once existed without government regulation and in the post-industrial age it was turning America into a hellhole of robber barons and wage slaves. Of course some might argue that is what the right truly wishes to resurrect. Our grasp of history, or lack thereof, and our ability to ignore what is in our best interests is astounding.

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