Big Government

Americans Now Prefer Smaller Government, But May Not Get It

No matter what the public wants, crises typically leave the state more powerful.


Americans who notice an increase in the size and intrusiveness of government since COVID-19 first appeared in headlines may wonder whether this will be a permanent condition. The short answer: probably. History suggests that we're unlikely to see government fully return to its preexisting constraints even after everybody agrees the pandemic has passed along with whatever debatable need there might have been for officials to expand their reach. But that lingering inflation of state power will continue over the objections of a public that has lost its taste for an activist state.

"Americans have shifted back to favoring a more hands-off approach for government in addressing the nation's problems after a rare endorsement of a more active role last year," Gallup recently reported. "Currently, 52% say the government is doing too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses, while 43% want the government to do more to solve the country's problems."

In 2020, as politicians warned that we faced death by this new disease unless we shuttered businesses, sheltered indoors, and avoided one another, a rare majority of 54 percent thought government should take on a more active role. The only other time Gallup has registered a popular preference for bigger government was 20 years ago, which is a hint at the dynamic that's at play.

"Last year marked only the second time in Gallup's 29-year trend that at least half of Americans endorsed an active role for the government on this item," the polling firm adds. "The other pro-government response came in the weeks after the 9/11 terror attacks amid heightened concern about terrorism and a surge in trust in government."

That surge in trust in government resulted in the Patriot Act and the Transportation Security Administration. Which is to say, the public was quickly disabused of the notion that the state was worthy of such trust. Americans quickly reacquired a preference for smaller government, and yet we're still stuck with a surveillance state and airport security theater. Unfortunately, that's pretty typical.

"After each major crisis the size of government, though smaller than during the crisis, remained larger than it would have been had the precrisis rate of growth persisted during the interval occupied by the crisis," wrote economic historian Robert Higgs in his 1987 book Crisis and Leviathan. He coined the term "ratchet effect" to describe the phenomenon of hard times promoting government growth. The ratchet effect is celebrated in some quarters by people who see opportunity to remake the world.

"Crises have always granted reformist policymakers powers to bypass legislative gridlock and entrenched interests," Cornell University historian Nicholas Mulder gloated in March 2020. "The coronavirus crisis is already allowing the implementation of ideas that would have been considered very radical just months ago."

That explains why we're likely to be stuck with some elements of the expanded state apparatus and extended government powers that were allowed to metastasize during the 18-months-and-counting of the pandemic. Much of the public has lost its taste for large and expensive government, but its brief shift in sentiment allowed enough of an opening for the ratchet to click forward into a new position. And many people really have returned to their usual preference for smaller, cheaper government.

"Given a choice, half of Americans say they prefer fewer government services and lower taxes, while 19% want higher taxes and more services," adds Gallup. "Twenty-nine percent want taxes and services as they are now."

After a taste of lockdowns and mask mandates, the public may, by and large, want to push officialdom to the sidelines where it can do less damage. But that's not what lawmakers and presidents have been up to during these long months of viral fears, spending, and dictates. It's certainly not what's in the far-reaching, multi-trillion-dollar, 2,465-page bill that's pending in Congress.

"The $3.5 trillion social policy bill that lawmakers begin drafting this week would touch virtually every American, at every point in life, from conception to old age," Jonathan Weisman noted last month for The New York Times before Americans told pollsters they had changed their mind about how much they want the government to do.

Part of the problem might be that, while Americans have reverted to largely wanting government to leave them alone, they don't necessarily agree on what that means.

"Americans care about their freedoms, but what Democrats and Republicans see as liberty is quite different," Danielle Lussier, a Grinnell College associate professor of political science, observes of polling results published last week. "Democrats value the freedom to get an abortion, use recreational marijuana, and engage in public protest, while Republicans value the freedom to refuse vaccines, carry a firearm, punish children as they see fit, and seek religious exemptions from the law. Both sides appear to see freedom in narrow, partisan terms rather than through a lens of broadly shared individual rights."

Americans of both political tribes do agree that people should be free to become wealthy and to speak their minds. But they have wildly divergent views on many leave-me-alone issues. Tellingly, liberties that some Americans want to exercise in areas such as reproductive and self-defense rights are liberties that others of their countrymen want to restrict through the use of not-at-all-hands-off government power. That is, most Americans want to be left alone, but they don't want to leave each other alone. 

Ultimately, the determining factor for whether smaller or bigger government prevails might be whether people value their freedom more than they value restricting that of their neighbors, and whether the political class sees more advantage in catering to the former preference or the latter. Historically, as economic historian Higgs points out, the evidence is that the state gets larger during crises and never fully returns to its pre-crisis status, which is a hint as to how that choice often gets resolved. 

Americans may be over their brief flirtation with the questionable temptations of a larger, more-intrusive state. But that brief opening they allowed may be all that proponents of bigger government need to permanently change people's relationship with powers-that-be, to the benefit of the political class. The public doesn't want a bigger government, but we're all likely to get a taste of it, anyway.