Parties differ on government’s scope

According to a recent Gallup poll, 57 percent of Democratic voters view socialism positively, more than the 47 percent who view capitalism positively. If that sounds utterly bonkers to you, join the club.

When I examined the survey findings more closely, my dismay didn’t lessen much. It turns out that the percentage of registered Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents looking on socialism with favor has actually not gone up over the past few years. The real news is that the share favorable to capitalism has fallen. It was 58 percent as recently as 2016.

Judging from other polling evidence, it also turns out that many of the Democrats in question don’t really favor government ownership of what are currently private industries — that is, they don’t mean socialism straight, no chaser. What they have in mind is a social-democratic welfare state, European-style. That’s bad enough, from my perspective.

There are many specific issues, programs, and personalities that provoke divisions between our two major political parties. But these divisions are mainly a reflection of a fundamental difference of opinion about what government is, what it ought to do, and how much it should cost.

In general, Republicans believe government should be smaller, spend less, tax less, and regulate less. When defining government, they emphasize its coercive nature. In general, Democrats believe government should be larger, spend more, tax more, and regulate more. When defining government, they emphasize its participatory nature.

There are exceptions. Some Republicans care much more about social or foreign policy than fiscal policy. Some Democrats don’t want government to get much bigger, if at all, but vote the way they do based on other considerations. But granting that there is more than one shade of Republican red and Democrat blue doesn’t make everything purple.

Consider this: for decades, Gallup has asked respondents whether they think “government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses” or “government should do more to solve our country’s problems.” The last time Gallup asked the question, Republicans chose the government-skeptic option by a 52-point margin. Democrats opted for more government action by a 41-point margin.

Admittedly, these general sentiments don’t always turn into policy outcomes. Many scholars have observed that Republican-leaning voters are more favorable to individual government programs than to government in the abstract. Similarly, many Democratic-leaning voters support expanded government as long as they expect others to pick up the cost, and will abandon the cause if it means a substantial hike in their own taxes or a constraint on their own freedom.

It’s also true that in Washington, where policymakers can fund operating expenses with debt, enacted policies don’t always match up with partisan talking points. But the situation is often different at the state and local levels.

Consider North Carolina. Republicans won control of the legislature in 2010 and, with Pat McCrory, the office of governor from 2012 to 2016. During GOP rule in Raleigh, annual increases in state spending have generally stayed below the combined rates of inflation and population growth.

Because the gross domestic product tends to grow faster still, that means that our government has gotten smaller as a share of North Carolina’s economy. This can be measured a variety of ways. When I divided actual General Fund expenditures by GDP, for example, I discovered that the proportion declined by about eight percent between 2010 and 2016.

When I broadened the analysis to include other state spending as well as local expenditures, I found that government spending as a share of North Carolina’s GDP went down about 10 percent from 2010 to 2016, compared to an average nationwide decline of 7.5 percent and an average decline in our region of 8 percent.

I don’t think most of the Democrats criticizing this trend are crypto-socialists. But they do think government should be larger while Republicans are delighted that it’s getting smaller, at least in North Carolina. The partisan divide on this question is wide and growing.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30p and Sundays at 12:30p on UNC-TV.

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