Kevin Drum cites an Economist poll finding that while the public prefers spending cuts over tax increases by a 62% to 5% margin as a means of cutting the deficit, the public also doesn’t want to cut spending in any specific area, except for foreign aid, which makes up less than 1% of spending. “Ah, the American public. God love ‘em.” says Drum. Jacob Weisberg used similar data a couple of months ago to level a broader indictment against “the childishness, ignorance and growing incoherence of the public at large.”
I think these polls actually reveal very little useful information. Everyone pays taxes and the large majority of people pay federal taxes. The benefits of most federal programs, by contrast, are either hard to quantify and personalize (national defense) or vary substantially among different groups (Social Security, Medicare). Thus, the general tax increase vs. spending cut question boils down to choosing between a certain loss (higher taxes) and an uncertain loss (some unidentified program from which I may or may not benefit). Naturally, people prefer the latter.
Nor is it surprising that the poll respondents don’t want to cut spending on specific programs. Unlike actual public budgeting decisions, the Economist poll question (If government spending is reduced in order to balance the budget, which of the following government programs should receive lower federal funding than they currently do?) isn’t framed in terms of a legitimate forced choice. You can just check “foreign aid,” the cutting of which wouldn’t actually balance the budget.
In other words, if you ask people if they’d like something for nothing, or if they’d like to avoid a difficult choice, and the question is completely hypothetical and will have no consequence in the real world, people tend to say, “Sure.” This fact illuminates little.
More broadly, the current level and mix of taxation and spending represents the end result of a democratic process whereby people run for office, are elected, and enact laws. Those voting decisions aren’t hypothetical and do have real consequences. And when elected representatives grapple with those forced choices their decisions come to reflect, generally speaking, the will of the people. Obviously they are countless instances of minority interests manipulating the political process to act against the common will or good. But overall, people prefer to pay taxes and in exchange receive roads, police and fire protection, education, health care, defense against foreign enemies, and some insurance against the risks associated with becoming old, poor, or unemployed. So it’s no surprise that, when asked, people indicated general support for those things, particularly if the question doesn’t explicitly require the allocation of scarce resources.
Similarly, other polls will tell you that the majority of people think citizens shouldn’t pay more than, say, 25% of their income in taxes, which is taken as evidence that taxes are too high. I think the actual level of taxation, which was not imposed upon us by any tyrant or despot, is much stronger evidence of what the people prefer, as is the actual distribution of how public dollars are spent.