If you ask them what they think in the abstract, Americans remain very much divided over the role they think government should play. A Gallup poll published today shows a three-way dead heat among fanciers of active government, aficionados of a small state, and people who answered, "wha?" But, if you throw in the very real-world matter of what government costs people and how it affects their lives, opinions shift. Then, Americans overwhelmingly discover a fondness for putting the state on a tight leash. As it so happens, that squares with Reason's own polling results.
In Gallup's survey, 1,510 adults were asked, "Where would you rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 means you think the government should do only those things necessary to provide the most basic government functions, and 5 means you think the government should take active steps in every area it can to try and improve the lives of citizens?" Thirty-two percent picked 1 or 2, 34 percent picked 4 or 5, and a solid 33 percent stuck their fingers in their ears, wiggled them around, and picked 3.
Deadlock—and those rough divisions have prevailed for several years now! Time to start divvying up territory!
But that's an abstract question. As Gallup's Jeffrey M. Jones points out, "Some segment of Americans may favor an active federal government, but believe the current government goes further than they would ideally like."
And, in fact, that's exactly what Gallup has found over the past 20 years. Many Americans may favor the idea of an activist government, but at least a plurality of respondents consistently thinks that the government is actually doing to much.
In fact, in the current Gallup survey, 53 percent of respondents favor the government doing less in order to reduce taxes. An identical 53 percent says the government is doing "too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses."
Interestingly, that number is rather close to the results of a recent Reason-Rupe survey of 1,013 Americans. Of the respondents, 56 percent say that Congress passes too many laws. An even larger 76 percent say the federal government spends too much money. Fifty-five percent were so adamant on that point they preferred to see the federal government default on its debt than raise the debt ceiling.
Given respondents' opposition to Obamacare, war with Syria, and NSA surveillance, it's obvious there's a long list of activities on which they believe the government is expending too much money and legislative time.
Government may be one of those things that seems OK as an idea, from a distance. A far distance. But it's always wildly disappointing in real life.