On the Contradictions of the People

Larry Bartels has gotten national attention for his work on Bush’s income tax cut, inheritance tax cut, and public opinion. (Here is the full article; here is the digest version; here is what Alex Tabarrok had to say about Bartels). Bartels’ main point is that public opinion verges on contradictory: the public believes that inequality has gone up, agrees that inequality is bad, agrees that the rich should pay more taxes, BUT still supports two tax cuts that mostly benefit the rich.

Bartels is right, although since I belong to the tiny minority of people who favors however much inequality the free market delivers, for once I have to celebrate the public’s folly.

What Bartels does not seem to realize, however, is that the contradiction he laments is only one of many. Here are a few more:

1. Spending. The public wants less total government spending. In the 1996 General Social Survey, for example, here were the public’s views on cutting government spending:

Strongly in Favor of 40%
In Favor of 41%
Neither in Favor nor Against 10%
Against 4%
Strongly Against 2%
Don’t Know/No Answer 3%

However, the public also opposes cuts in virtually every kind of government spending except for foreign aid! Browse any of the numbers at the GSS webpage by clicking on “subject,” then “spending.”

2. Regulation. The public leans strongly toward less government regulation of business. From the 1996 GSS:

Strongly in Favor of 15%
In Favor of 33%
Neither in Favor nor Against 31%
Against 14%
Strongly Against 3%
Don’t Know/No Answer 3%

But the public is favorable toward virtually all particular forms of regulation. Browse any of the numbers at the GSS webpage by clicking on “subject,” then “economy.”

3. Welfare. 64% believe we spend too much on welfare, according to the excellent National Survey of Public Knowledge of Welfare Reform and the Federal Budget. But only 26% are willing to actually enforce a 2-year limit if welfare recipients would have to take a “low wage that would make it difficult to support a family.” Just 16% favor cutting off benefits to a person who is “unable to get a job” (whatever that means).

Since low-wage jobs are the only ones that former welfare recipients are likely to get (and who should do low-wage jobs, if not former welfare recipients?!), the public is in a quandary. It wants to spend less, but as a practical matter is unwilling to kick anyone off the rolls. In fact, the public heavily favors not only job training, but guaranteed government jobs/community service when the deadline runs out. Yea, that’ll save a lot of money.

The big lesson is that public opinion is not just wrong, but downright silly. On balance, the leftists who hate the Bush tax cuts should be thankful. If the public started being logical, we could easily see spending cuts, deregulation, and American citizens “forced” to take the “demeaning” jobs currently done by illegal immigrants. As Eric Cartman would say, “Sweeeeeeet!”