Have we reached a critical mass of voters? On what issue you might ask. On whether big government is bad on the whole. I have read a couple of articles recently, addressing that question. I don’t honestly know whether or to what extent people may believe big government is basically good. But here is a quote from the author of the article, Jim Geraghty, writing in National Review, January 21, 2016 (read it at http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/430104/many-americans-dont-seem-all-upset-about-big-government). He quotes from research by the Pew Research Center back in 2013 (you can read the poll results here: http://www.people-press.org/2013/02/22/as-sequester-deadline-looms-little-support-for-cutting-most-programs/):
“Polling indicates that 70 percent want a smaller deficit . . . but the only spending cut that gets anywhere near a majority support is to foreign aid — about 1 percent of the budget — and even that’s close to an even split. ‘For 18 of 19 programs tested, majorities want either to increase spending or maintain it at current levels.’ People want smaller government right up until the point where it actually affects them.”
So it looks like those polled did seem to want smaller government, but not if it might affect them negatively. That would make it awfully difficult to get politicians to vote to actually make cuts in any significant way. It is a case of what political scientists call log-rolling (we might call it “back scratching” too). Since any one politician would vote to cut other legislators’ programs but not his own, and since they all know this to be the case, they will collectively make a decision to vote for the programs favored by each on in return for a favorable vote on their own programs. Presto! Nothing gets cut—except perhaps a few token programs that no one apparently cares about. That is merely a microcosm of the larger patterns by voters who are asked about cutting programs. And if the voters don’t want a particular program cut, you can bet the politicians will not cut it. Another quote from the article:
“. . . Congress’s apparently declining interest in deficits and debt is shared by most Americans. Fewer Americans now cite the federal budget deficit as one of their top priorities. According to PollingReport.com, in 35 polls taken between June 2010 and July 2015 that asked about the ‘most important problem’ or ‘priority’ for the country, the percentage of respondents citing some variation of the ‘federal deficit’ or ‘budget deficit/national debt’ steadily declined.”
What is going on? Is this a case of Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning in Democracy in America, written back in the 1830s? Tocqueville said that at some point in a democratic society, voters/citizens will become a majority who determine they can now consistently vote that majority to take from the minority and redistribute to themselves. Only in this case, it could be a super-majority, in which case most everyone is taking from most everyone else to get what they want. When 18 of 18 programs polled could not achieve a majority vote to cut them, it certainly looks like we have moved past a critical mass.
If you read the Pew results you can see that even Republicans only voted in the majority to cut spending on two programs: unemployment assistance (56%) and foreign aid (70%). This ought to be worrisome. Deficit spending can only continue at its current levels so long before a huge debt service problem arises. Of course I don’t know exactly how long that will take to occur. But if it does we might default, and that would bring a lot of pain. In the meantime, as long as the economy is prosperous enough, the problem is put off for another day. But even that may be threatened more and more. Many are talking about another recession. But in addition, the number one obstacle to growth stated by small and medium sized businesses is government regulation, estimated to cost somewhere around $200 billion per year (the Federal Register now contains over 800,000 pages). The problem is that when government grows, and the private sector does not, we are in a situation in which we have less tax revenue to pay the debt (unless, a la Bernie Sanders, Congress just raises all taxes), going to a government that does not produce income except through various kinds of taxes.
But if citizens want all this spending and are unwilling or unable to see the end result, trouble is ahead. The ultimate problem may be a moral one: people are persistently self-interested. That is not always bad, but if it lapses into selfishness, it makes them discount the problems caused for everyone by their own desire to continue government spending indefinitely. There was a time when even our legislators understood these issues better, but that time seems long ago. Politicians want votes and people want “goodies” that appear free (they aren’t of course). The future is uncertain.