Everyone Agrees Government Is a Hot Mess: So Why Does It Keep Getting Bigger Anyway?

Author:Gillespie, Nick

WHEN LIBERTARIANS DOLE out blame for the growth of government, perhaps we should take a look in the mirror. Is it possible that our arguments--correct and widely accepted though they are--about government inefficiency, ineffectiveness, and incompetence have had the unintended consequence of fueling government's growth?

For SO years, Reason writers and other libertarians have preached that government at all levels is bad at what it does, a view that virtually every poll finds to be widespread among Americans of all political persuasions. In his first inaugural address in 1981, Ronald Reagan famously declared that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." That's a tight summary of what not just a majority of libertarians but most Americans believe these days. But has all this declining trust in government actually led to smaller government? With some meaningful exceptions, the answer is no. The government spends more, controls more, and does more than ever.

A respectable and growing body of research shows that as societies move from relatively high to lower levels of trust, citizens counter intuitively call for greater and greater levels of government involvement in their lives. "Individuals in low-trust countries want more government intervention even though they know the government is corrupt," summarize the authors of a 2010 Quarterly Journal of Economics paper. The history of the libertarian movement is a decades long monologue inveighing against virtually every aspect of the federal government, from nation building to the drug war to the Post Office. Should we pause and--like the SS men in the Mitchell and Webb comedy sketch who notice for the first time that they have skulls on their uniforms--ask ourselves: "Are we the baddies?"

And if we are, what might be some strategies worth exploring to win over more people to the side of, you know, wanting to shrink government? Understanding that the relationship between trust in the state and the growth of the state is much less straightforward than it seems is awfully important if we actually want to persuade people that society would be better off with less government.


FIRST, THE NEARLY complete evacuation of trust and confidence in virtually every part of the federal government is worth documenting in some detail.

It seems inarguable that libertarian arguments about the general inefficiency, ineffectiveness, and incompetence of most government action have won the public debate. In 1964, according to Pew Research, 77 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that they "can trust the government in Washington always or most of the time." By 2015, that figure stood at just 19 percent.

Last August, Gallup released a survey in which 21 percent of Americans--a plurality--named "dissatisfaction with government/poor leadership" the most important issue facing the country. A different Gallup poll, conducted regularly since the '60s, asks respondents whether "big government," "big business," or "big labor" is the "biggest threat to the country in the future." "Big government" has always been the top response, but the margin of fear has grown far wider over time. In 1969, the fraction picking government was around 30 percent. By 2016, it had leaped to 67 percent.

The overall decline in trust of government is, not surprisingly, reflected in attitudes toward specific functions or parts of the government. Since the early 1970s, Gallup has been asking poll questions aimed at ascertaining how people feel about various institutions in America. Respondents are asked to tell the pollster "how much confidence you, yourself, have in each one--a great deal, quite a lot, some, or very little." The results are stark.

When it comes to Congress, for instance, 42 percent of Americans had either "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in our national legislature in 1973. (Throughout this article, I'll use that combined figure as the basic measure of high trust or confidence.) In 2018, only 11 percent of respondents did; the last time that number cracked 20 percent was in 2005.

The presidency has taken a similar beating. In 1975--the first time Gallup asked the question, just a year after President Richard Nixon's resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal--52 percent said they had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the White House. In February 1991, 72 percent did, reflecting the popularity of the first Gulf War. By October 1991, though, the number had fallen to 50 percent, and it has mostly remained in the low to mid-30s ever since. The last time a majority of respondents had high levels of trust in the White House was in 2009, Barack Obama's first year in office.

Imagine: More Americans trusted the presidency a year after Watergate than do now.

The other major branch of the federal government, the Supreme Court, has also seen a slide, albeit a less dramatic one. In the mid- to late 1970s, 45 percent to 49 percent of Americans expressed confidence in the high court. During Reagan's second term that number grew, reaching a high of 56 percent in 1988, the year after Robert Bork's nomination hearings electrified the country. The survey from 2018, by contrast, found just 37 percent had high confidence in the Court. And that poll was conducted before extremely contentious hearings over the Brett Kavanaugh nomination, so it's likely that the next iteration will reveal even less confidence in the institution.

While not directly part of the federal government, other major institutions tracked by Gallup reflect what might be considered negative spillover effects. Public schools, banks, and the nation's health care industry are all heavily subsidized, regulated to a substantial degree, or both. In the mid-1970s, up to 62 percent of Americans had high confidence in the nation's K-12 system. Over the last decade, it's been rare for that number to pull out of the high 20s or low 30s.

About half of us had confidence in banks for most of the 1980s. But following the savings and loan crisis of the late '80s and early '90s and the housing...

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