Donald Trump

Wait: The Government Is Incompetent, So We Want it To Do *More*?

The feds can't pass a budget or do much very well, yet a record level of Americans want it more involved in our lives. That's not as crazy as it seems.


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By now, you know the score: A couple of weeks have passed, so there's a new deadline looming for a budget agreement to keep the federal government open until the next continuing resolution can be hammered out, maybe after a brief government shutdown, during which members of Congress might even have to bring their own towels to the House gym (the horror, the horror).

The deadline is Thursday, so lots of luck, fellas. You've been getting along so well lately, this shouldn't be a problem at all. Oh wait.

Since the late 1970s, when new budgeting rules were passed, the government has only passed a budget four times before the fiscal year covered by said budget begins. This time around, there's a debt limit looming, too, with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin saying that the government's credit line will be exhausted by February 28. That's sooner than originally expected, due to the not-at-all-surprising result of the tax cuts passed in December. Lower taxes generally result in lower revenue, after all.

Further down the road—all the way to March 5!—is the end of the Obama-era program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows immigrants who were brought here illegally as children to stay in the country. Last year, President Trump extended DACA, giving Congress time to pass a legislative fix to the issue. DACA was at the heart of the recent government shutdown, as both sides made different versions of immigration reform a condition of the budget process.

And oh yeah, the market is showing jitters, at least partly because of estimates that the budget deficit is going to zoom to $955 billion this year, or nearly double what we borrowed last year.


With all that incompetency and dysfunction as a backdrop, consider this: A new NBC/WSJ poll finds a record level of Americans agree with the statement that "Government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people." Fully 58 percent of us agree with that notion, versus just 38 percent who believe "Government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals." In December of 1995, the first time this poll asked that question, 32 percent though the government should do more and 62 percent said it was doing too much. As recently as 2014, 50 percent of Americans thought government was doing too much (versus 46 percent who thought it should do more). It's worth pointing out that Gallup, which asks the same question, yields different results. Last September (the most recent results reported), it found that 50 percent of Americans think government is doing too much and 41 percent think it should do more. But even if the totals are different, Gallup's results run in the same direction as those from NBC/WSJ, with more and more people saying that government should do more.

What gives? You'd think that as the government reveals itself to be less and less capable of taking care of its most basic tasks—such as passing legislation that allows it to function—we'd be washing our hands of it, right? I think the answer lies in declining trust in public, private, and nonprofit institutions. Americans also trust individuals less than they used to. Across virtually all aspects of our lives, confidence in most institutions is down from where it was a couple of decades ago. None of this is surprising, given the parade of highly misleading statements and scandals coming out of government (remember when the Bush administration fixated on "WMDs" as the cause to invade Iraq? Or when Barack Obama swore up and down that you if you liked your doctor, you could keep your doctor?), businesses (Volkswagen, Enron), and others (United Way, the Catholic Church) over the past few decades.


To the extent that we are shifting from being a high-trust country to a low-trust one, it is predictable that we are turning to government for more, even as we know it will disappoint if not defraud us.

In "low-trust countries," write Philippe Aghion, Yann Algan, Pierre Cahuc, and Andrei Shleifer

citizens "support government regulation, fully recognizing that such regulation leads to corruption." As an example, they point to differing attitudes toward government-mandated wages in former socialist countries that transitioned to market economies. "Approximately 92 percent of Russians and 82 percent of East Germans favor wage control," they write, naming two low-trust populations. In Scandinavia, Great Britain, and North American countries, where there are higher levels of trust in the public and private sectors, less than half the population does.

Hail Mary passes aren't just for the Super Bowl, it turns out, and thinking the same government that can't be trusted will save you is the worst kind of Hail Mary.

What can be done? In the current political climate, it seems very unlikely that partisans from the president on down will make any moves toward fiscal and governmental responsibility, but that's exactly what needs to happen. Ironically, and despite a generalized hostility toward government, libertarian-leaning members of Congress such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), and Rep. Tom Massie (R-Ky.) could well set the proper tone. They are among the few officials who routinely break with their party to stay consistent with higher principles than simple partisan advantage. Pulling out of the worst sort of hyper-polarized, hyper-partisan politicking that we take for granted is what we need and it's going to take credible ambassadors to sell that message.

Related: "The Government Is Going To Shut Down Again (and That's Bad)"