A Gallup poll released last week revealed good news: Americans’ confidence in the federal government’s ability to handle foreign and domestic problems has reached an all-time low. In both areas, a minority of those polled said that they had either a great deal or fair amount of confidence in Uncle Sam.
Yes, I said that’s good news.
Skepticism of government is as American as apple pie. The experiment that is the United States was borne out of a colonial revolution against an overbearing master. As the decades have passed, however, the federal government has steadily acquired powers that are vastly beyond what was intended by our founding Constitution. And like a frog in pot of water that is slowly brought a boil, Americans have become acclimated to a world in which the federal government intrudes into every nook and cranny of our lives.
In his seminal work, Crisis and Leviathan, economist Robert Higgs demonstrated that government grows in times of crisis — perceived or real. When the crisis abates, however, the government does not fully recede to pre-crisis levels. In recent years, this upward “ratcheting effect” was exemplified by the massive expansion of federal power in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2011 terrorist attacks. Indeed, the Gallup poll shows that faith in the federal government’s ability to handle foreign problems peaked following 9/11. Angry and scared, Americans instinctively turned to the politicians in Washington and said “do something.” Now, we live in a country where the government can read our emails, listen to our phone conversations, and monitor our every move with satellites and drones.
The public’s “do something” mentality resurfaced with the onset of the economic crisis. Once again, angry and scared, Americans turned to Washington for a solution to a problem that was engineered, in large part, by misbegotten federal policies. With unemployment rising, policymakers rushed to implement policies that they promised would “create jobs.” The result was annual federal deficits in excess of $1 trillion, mounting federal debt, and the rise of so-called “crony capitalism.” In sum, a heavy price was paid by current (and future) Americans for what is widely considered to be an exceptionally weak economic recovery.
I would like to believe that, having been badly burned in recent years, the Gallup poll reflects a growing recognition by the public that there is no Wizard of Oz residing in Washington. Indeed, having worked in both federal and state government, I can assure readers from first-hand experience that there are only fallible human beings behind the curtain.