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.

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