Big Government

More Americans Want Bigger Government—If It's Free

A more active government wins growing approval, but only so long as it doesn’t raise taxes, require tradeoffs, or interfere with private enterprise.


Good news for control freaks and nanny-staters across the U.S.: Americans' support for a bigger, more active government is edging up, potentially creating an opening for politicians and activists who want their countrymen to snuggle in the warm bosom of a nurturing state that provides an ever-greater variety of goods, services, and rules for people's lives. There's just one catch: Americans don't want to pay for it. Support for a big, muscular government falls off a cliff if it comes with a price tag.

"Since 2010, the percentage of Americans saying government should do more to solve the country's problems has increased 11 percentage points, to 47%, and the percentage wanting government to take active steps to improve people's lives is up eight points, to 42%," Gallup reported last week. Forty-nine percent think the government is doing too much, and 29 percent prefer a government that provides just basic services.

Here's the opportunity politicians—especially Democrats—have been looking for as they promise "Medicare for All," student loan forgiveness, universal basic income, government-supported housing, subsidized child care, and more. Progressive standard-bearers Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have made particular waves with their plans for government largesse, but Pete Buttigieg and others have their own schemes for turning the federal government into Santa Claus with a bottomless bag of gifts.

But a government that provides everything to everybody is going to run up some bills. Oh, you can cut some existing programs and transfer the funds to other programs, but that's hardly going to satisfy the demands of "Americans saying government should do more." More programs and spending will require more resources that have to come from somewhere. And since bake sales usually fall a bit short when you're talking about funding government takeovers of large segments of the economy and extensive new programs, that's going to mean turning tax collectors into busy beavers.


"A more active government would almost certainly result in higher taxes," Gallup adds. "However, relatively few Americans favor that approach… In the latest poll, 25% would opt for increased taxes and services, 32% want no change and 42% prefer smaller government."

Support for higher taxes to pay for expanded government is up a bit in the survey from years past, but it remains a distinctly minority taste.

That means Americans are growing increasingly enthusiastic about placing orders for health care, higher education, housing, and more from the government—for free. But when they see prices on the menu, they balk, big time.

It's not just survey questions about an abstract activist government that give Americans second thoughts—specific examples do the same. Medicare for All gains overwhelming support—as high as 71 percent in a Kaiser Family Foundation survey—from Americans so long as they think it's entirely cost-free and devoid of tradeoffs. But throw in some real-world qualifiers, and that support erodes.

"Net favorability drops as low as -44 percentage points when people hear the argument that this would lead to delays in some people getting some medical tests and treatments," the Kaiser survey adds. "Net favorability is also negative if people hear it would threaten the current Medicare program (-28 percentage points), require most Americans to pay more in taxes (-23 percentage points), or eliminate private health insurance companies (-21 percentage points)."

Costs for these plans are unavoidable. Warren's spending schemes would run to at least $26 trillion in new taxes, although she likes to pretend that her scheme would be paid for by a wealth tax that would simultaneously extract funds from successful people while punishing them for their success. Sanders himself concedes that his plan for government-run health care would cost between $30-$40 trillion over ten years. He honestly admits that it would be the middle class that constitutes the majority of the population—not just some rich people somewhere—who would foot the bill.

Tens of trillions of dollars in new taxes are likely to prove a bit of a hurdle for Americans who want lots of new goodies from the government only if they're entirely free.

If you're looking for more evidence that people are a little confused about what they want, try asking Americans about the widely reported growing enthusiasm for socialism. Capitalism—the free market—remains the preferred choice of 60 percent of respondents, with 39 percent having a positive view of socialism, according to Gallup. As with everything in this country, the division is increasingly partisan: Positive views of socialism have risen to 65 percent among Democrats and declined to 9 percent among Republicans. Fifty-two percent of Democrats have a positive view of capitalism vs. 78 percent of Republicans.

But, do you know what almost everybody likes? Eighty-seven percent of the population has a positive view of free enterprise, including 92 percent of Republicans, 88 percent of Independents, and 83 percent of Democrats. Ninety percent of Americans have a positive view of entrepreneurs, including 93 percent of Republicans, 90 percent of Independents, and 88 percent of Democrats.

Age-wise, only 47 percent of those 18-34 have a positive view of capitalism (52 percent like socialism), but 81 percent of them give a thumbs-up to free enterprise and 90 percent dig entrepreneurs. Just as interesting, only 28 percent of Americans want more business regulation, while 38 percent want less.

Wait… How can people like the entrepreneurs who start private businesses that function in a system of free enterprise so much more than capitalism, which is a synonym for free enterprise? And how can they expect relatively lightly regulated entrepreneurial enterprise to thrive in a government-run, socialist economy?

At a guess, drawing from the data for support of activist government, socialist-leaning Americans most strongly favor the kind of socialism that doesn't impose any costs or inconveniences on people starting and running businesses. That's a nice way of saying that people don't know what the hell they're talking about, but they'll happily favor things that you tell them are nice, so long as they cost nothing.

This would be a good time to bang your head against the wall in exasperation.

For what it's worth, Gallup points out that support for bigger government has been higher in the past—specifically after 9/11, and in the aftermath of the recession of 1992-1993. That means Americans' desire for a more activist government ebbs and flows, often increasing after traumatic national shocks. But people's enthusiasm for private enterprise and low taxes lives on.