Survey: Americans don’t like the government, but on average they want more of it

Headquarters of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, DC. Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress

Survey: Americans don’t like the government, but on average they want more of it

A sizeable academic literature seeks to explain why the Americans have a smaller welfare state than similar Western countries, especially in Europe. One interesting observation this literature relies upon is that the US population believes in the meritocratic principles of the “American dream”. It is true that American opinions place more weight on hard work than luck, compared to Europeans, to explain people’s success in life, and that such beliefs make people less supportive of redistribution (Alesina, Stantcheva and Teso, 2017). However, this does not necessarily mean that Americans really have the system they want.

In an April 2017 Internet survey of 1,037 individuals representative of the age and race composition of the adult population in the United States, we explored people’s opinions about government intervention and welfare policies.

Our survey shows that Americans, on average, want more from their government in areas of social policy, but they are highly polarised. In particular, a libertarian minority wants less government.

Who promotes social justice? Not primarily the government

A striking initial finding in this survey is that government is not high on the list of institutions that promote social justice, according to those surveyed. Political parties even appear at the bottom of the list. Families, friendship networks and private institutions appear at the top. In line with our survey on religions, the contribution of religious groups is highly ranked. It is surprising that two types of institutions that often devote themselves to social justice explicitly, NGOs and labour unions, appear in the second tier of the list, after the government. Social enterprises and cooperatives – a highlight of the last UNRISD report – are high on the list, which is interesting given that they are seldom in the news.

One should notice that, on the scale from 0 to 100, most of the items are below 50, which reveals the rather limited appreciation by the respondents of the work done by these institutions for social justice.

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Among the survey sample, women and middle-aged respondents give lower scores to most items, whereas progressive or religious respondents give higher scores than average. The young have a more positive view than average about government and unions. The minorities have a more positive view than average about international organisations and unions.

More government involvement, not less

One could interpret such findings as support for the view that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem,” as then-president Ronald Reagan famously said in 1981. But this assumption would be wrong. In fact, for most items in a list of policy areas, respondents want the same degree of involvement or more, and this is particularly true for poverty relief, but also for income redistribution and elderly and child care, as well as education. There is only one item where less government involvement is wanted, the regulation of private behaviour (more on this below).

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Redistribution of income and wealth is less supported by the middle-aged and the rich respondents, and more by the progressives and the moderately religious. Poverty relief is supported more by the progressives and the religious respondents. Public intervention in health care is supported more by the highly educated and less by the conservatives in the sample.

As far as the current situation is concerned, women and middle-aged respondents see less government intervention across the board, whereas religious respondents tend to see more of it. No systematic correlation with political opinions appears on the assessment of the current situation.

On health, taxes and inheritance, liberal and libertarian ideas are popular

It would be also be incorrect to conclude that Americans want more government intervention, period. On specific policy issues, one sees a surprising mix of ideas – including liberal and libertarian ones that flatly contradict one another – appearing jointly high on the lists.

In particular, free health care is strongly supported, which is in line with recent debates about “Medicare for all”. However, the idea that government should not intervene in health issues is not as unpopular as one could believe given the strong support for free health care, even if it comes at the bottom of the list.

More strikingly, there is a strong support for progressive taxation, but simultaneously a substantial level of support for the libertarian idea that there should be no redistribution. Among the possible path-breaking reforms that have been discussed for the redistribution system, the universal basic income (a basic grant given to everyone without condition) and the flat tax (a fixed tax rate on all levels of income) obtain less support than the idea of focusing taxation on consumption expenditures rather than income (i.e., exempting savings).

Finally, on inheritance taxation, one sees a strong support the elimination of inheritance tax (a libertarian idea) but also high support for the reform advocated by A. Atkinson in Inequality: What Can Be Done? and consisting in making the heirs pay as a function of what they receive over their lifetime rather than taxing the bequests left by the deceased.

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Let us analyse how the sample is divided about these issues. As a general pattern, libertarian ideas are defended more by male, young, rich, not highly educated, conservative, and highly religious respondents, whereas liberal ideas are defended more by the opposite categories.

More complex coalitions arise for less obviously ideological or partisan issues. The universal basic income is supported more by young respondents and minorities jointly with low-income and progressive respondents. The Atkinson proposal about inheritance taxation is supported more by young, minority, rich, very progressive, and highly religious respondents. A progressive income tax is supported more by male, minority, progressive and highly religious respondents.

Regulating private behaviour

Let us finally come back to the issue of regulating private behaviour. Here again, one finds substantial support both for government intervention (safety information, repression of illegal drugs) and for opposite libertarian stances. The only statement below the 50 bar is that drugs should all be legalised, and there is strong disagreement among the sample on this question as well as on legalising prostitution.

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Support for libertarian ideas here comes from different coalitions than for social policies. Legalising drugs and prostitution is supported more by young, male, progressives and opposed more than average by the highly religious respondents. Putting government out of private behaviour completely is supported more than average by young, male, minority respondents, and less by progressives, while religiosity is not correlated with responses.

Support for government intervention against alcohol as a drug gathers male, progressive and highly religious respondents, whereas the punishment of behaviour under influence is supported more by rich and highly religious respondents. The punishment of consumers of prostitution gathers elderly respondents with minority, progressive and religious respondents, and is supported less than average by middle-age respondents (no significant gender difference appears).


Pariroo Rattan has contributed to analysing the data.