Bryan Caplan  

Does the Public Suffer from Anti-Government Bias?

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One of Donald Wittman's most intriguing claims during last week's debate is that the public suffers not just from an anti-market bias (as I claim), but from an anti-government bias as well. His main argument, if I recall correctly, is that the public falsely believes that politicians are doing lots of unpopular stuff - like spending lavishly on foreign aid.

Up to a point, I have to agree. After all, I've repeatedly argued that the political status quo is quite popular. And if I'm right, then the U.S. public's low level of trust in its government seems misplaced.

However, there is a crucial asymmetry between anti-market bias and the anti-government bias that Wittman's emphasizes. Namely: anti-market bias actually leads people to oppose markets. Anti-government bias, in contrast, rarely leads people to oppose government. Why not? Because for the most part, the public's complaint about government is precisely that it isn't doing enough! In the public's mind, the problem with government is that it stands idly by instead of cracking down.

Immigration is a prime example. When people gripe about government's failed immigration policy, this is NOT a call for open borders. Rather, it is a demand for government to "do its job" and get tough. As Rep. Tancredo said in the last Republican debate:

You wonder why people in the United States are cynical about politics and politicians. It could be -- it just could be that when the wind is blowing in one direction, and that is, you know, we’re not going to say anything about illegal immigration, we will be silent on the issue. But when it sounds like the people are getting uptight about this and we can make hay out of it, we’re all going to be the strongest supporters of secure borders that you ever saw in your life.

Well, I’ll tell you, I’d like to see more than rhetoric.

The same largely goes for economic policy, trade policy, and and lots more. For example, the public may not trust the FDA, but its complaint is largely that it allows evil pharmaceutical companies to poison the public - the opposite of economists' complaint that the FDA kills people by delaying life-saving drugs.

I'll admit that unreasonable distrust of government may depress the level of foreign aid, and there may be a few other examples. But overall, friends of government have little to fear from "anti-government bias." In fact, in my view, it is better to conceptualize mistrust of government as an example of what I've called pessimistic bias - a blanket tendency to think the world is worse than it is. The bias is there, but unlike anti-market bias, anti-foreign bias, or make-work bias, it's not clear how - or if - it leads policy astray.


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COMMENTS (4 to date)
General Specific writes:

I think you are overlooking an extremely large bias: the idea--what even could be called a meme--that the Government is by definition incompetent (granted, Bush is trying hard to prove that competely true). Libertarians will of course scream that the government is completely incompetent (or they'll type it in CAPS on the next-generation government developed DARPA-NET) but, in general, I find that people are anti-government as much or more than they are anti-market.

If anything, they are mixed and confused on issues like this.

True, people often say "the government should stop this or that behavior" or "fix" gas prices, but no more than they gripe or complain towards private companies each and every instance in which they're unhappy with a service or product--rightly or wrongly. People, by definition, are complainers. Homo Complainus.

I think a stronger anti-government bias exists in the US than in many other developed countries. Anti-government bias must be taken into account when looking at pro and con attitudes towards markets and governments (the private and public sector).

John S Bolton writes:

For some reason it doesn't seem as if the general public could disregard the will of the professoriate just by sayinbg that scholars have an anti-democratic bias. Who should have to prove that they're not 'biased' and disregardable, the electorate with its sovereignty, or the scholars with their tenure? Or perhaps neither, but that would be inconvenient for our noble liberators, even too inconveneient?

Floccina writes:

For a charitable person this:

"His main argument, if I recall correctly, is that the public falsely believes that politicians are doing lots of unpopular stuff - like spending lavishly on foreign aid."

Would be a pro government bias. IMO For most people, most people do not knowing how foreign aid works, it is a very pro Government bias. This nice benevolent body is so good that it is giving our money away to starving people. Is there a more benevolent view of government in existence?

MT57 writes:

I think you are part right about the "pessimistic bias" and I think that is the result of modern media,which has to find something new to write about and broadcast every day, and also the decline of religious belief as a counterweight to pessimistic events on earth.

But I also see many people have a bias when it comes to debating policy in favor of self-justification, i.e., a status they have chosen (or arrived at) is the frame of reference for what is moral for all of society, and others who are significantly different are demonized as immoral. For example, we have sexual preference issues debated in terms of morality, and wealth disparity issues debated in terms of morality.

And in these cases, the proponent of a view always presents that view as the majority position, shared by the common people, and then constructs a narrative of good and evil to explain why someone else disagrees with his or her position -- they are corrupt, they are only beholden to rich conservatives, they are only beholden to rich liberals, they are controlled by people who are evil because they do not share the proponent's religion,, they are naive, bleeding hearts, etc. All these arguments are simply forms of self-justification.

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