The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


The perils of public ignorance about federal spending



Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post has an interesting column highlighting public ignorance about federal spending. As she points out, a recent survey finds that only 18 percent of registered voters realize that Medicare contributes "a great deal" to the federal debt, only 17 percent say the same of Social Security (the single largest federal program), and only 21 percent describe Medicaid that way. This, despite the fact that Social Security and Medicare account for over 40 percent of all federal spending, and federal Medicaid spending amounts to over $334 billion per year, almost another 9 percent of the total federal budget. By contrast, the poll finds that 46 percent believe that foreign aid spending contributes "a great deal" to the debt, even though it accounts for only about 1 percent of the federal budget, roughly one-twentieth of the amount spent on Medicare.

Widespread public ignorance about federal spending is not new. For years, surveys have consistently found that most Americans vastly underestimate the percentage of federal spending that goes to big entitlement programs, and greatly overestimate the amount that goes to foreign aid and some other small programs, such as public broadcasting. As Rampell points out, this kind of ignorance enables Donald Trump to pretend that he can make major progress in cutting the federal debt by slashing foreign aid and other minor programs, while simultaneously ruling out any cuts to Medicare and Social Security, and significantly increasing defense spending (another large-scale program).

Of course, Trump is far from the only politician who has figured out how to exploit public ignorance about federal spending. Senator Bernie Sanders and other left-wingers play a similar game. On both right and left, public ignorance is a major obstacle to any honest effort to deal with our fiscal situation.

So long as the public doesn't realize where tax money actually goes, politicians have strong incentives to pretend that we can solve our fiscal problems without touching any popular programs or significantly increasing taxes on anyone, except perhaps a few wealthy people. Even worse, public ignorance about spending is just one part of the broader problem of widespread political ignorance, which cuts across many other issues. As Trump might say if he weren't himself benefiting from public ignorance so much : Sad!

There is no easy antidote to public ignorance about spending, or political ignorance generally. But we can start by recognizing that the problem exists, and taking it seriously.