Marginal Revolution | Alex Tabarrok | The Great FictionOne thing I will add is that presenting evidence of the irrationality or ignorance of voters in order to support one policy agenda or another can be a pretty useless thing to do. "People don't understand how many government benefits they get" doesn't convince me we should have more government benefits because people also don't understand what the costs are. I don't have time to track it down now, but I saw a similar survey of Americans that reported a majority of them thinking getting a refund check from the IRS meant they hadn't paid any taxes that year, not that they had just given the government an interest-free loan.
Catherine Rampell, Bruce Bartlett, and Matt Yglesias are all pushing the chart below from a paper by Suzanne Mettler. According to this gang, people who use, for example, the mortgage interest deduction or who have a 529 college savings program are willfully ignorant about how they benefit from government (Rampell’s terminology).
As Bastiat said, “Government is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.” What Rampell et al. want to do is to make people believe in this great fiction. But there are always taxpayers and taxeaters, even though government has so wormed its way into every organ of the body politic that it is sometimes difficult to tell which are which. (Indeed, part of Mettler’s point is that the government shell game of ‘hide the subsidy, hide the tax’ is often designed to obscure taxpayers and taxeaters.)
Nevertheless, there are dividing lines. In a laissez-faire world we don’t get rid of 529 programs, instead all savings, not just savings for college, become tax-free. A 529 program is not a government program like food stamps, it is the absence of a government tax. (N.B. I am not taking a position here on the best tax structure.)
People who use 529 programs and who think that they have not used a government social program are not willfully ignorant, they are demonstrating a healthy if fading appreciation of the distinction between civil society and government. What Rampell et al. implicitly imagine is that the natural state is slavery and any departure from that state a government benefit. Thus, if the government taxes your saving for a college education less than your other savings, you should be grateful for how government has benefited you and your children.
And if the government doesn’t jail you today, you should be grateful for how government has granted you the benefit of liberty.
This is the attitude of a serf not an American.
Furthermore reminding me how ignorant voters are only makes me think we should leave fewer things up to democratic, political decision making. If voters are really this ignorant (and I think they are!) why should we expand the scope of our lives that is reliant on voters making good decisions about who to elect?