Are we experiencing a “libertarian moment” in American politics? Some say yes, and of course, I’d like to believe that. Others say no. Unfortunately, the debate has largely been about the sentiment of young voters. As interesting as that may be, there is no age limit for voting at the polls. What I really want to know is the sentiment of voters writ large. Hard data on that question is not available (yet), but what data we do have suggests skepticism.
While there are plenty of opinion surveys out there to choose from to answer the question, we want to avoid cherry picking the polls to get the answers we want. And the best way to avoid that it to repair to the “policy mood” time series first created by political scientist James Stimson in Public Opinion in America: Moods, Cycles, and Swings (1991) and updated since by the Policy Agendas Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
The policy mood dataset is a statistically sophisticated aggregation of all available commercial and academic surveys of public opinion regarding various policy issues since 1946. The questions tend to eschew the abstract (“Do you support more or less government in our lives?”) for the concrete. A typical question making up the policy mood data looks like this:
Some people believe that we should spend much less money for defense. Others feel that defense spending should be greatly increased. Where would you place YOURSELF on this scale, or haven’t you thought much about this?
The aggregation works because support for government intervention in one policy arena moves in tandem with other policy arenas. So even though the baseline of public support for more government differs across issue domains, when public support for move government intervention to reduce pollution, say, rises by 10%, we’ll also find that public support for more farm subsidies will likewise rise by roughly the same degree.
In the 4th quarter of 2011 – the most recent quarter for which we have policy mood data – public support for liberalism (popularly understood) stood at 55%.
There are plenty of libertarian sentiments buried in the basket of liberalism, however, so that number tells us less than we might wish. Accordingly, let’s disaggregate the data and look simply at domestic economic issues (tax and spending matters), regulation, and support for various wealth transfers. While libertarianism is about more than that, it’s hard to imagine a libertarian moment if public support for government in those policy arenas is strong.
In 2010 – the most recent year for which we have that data – public support for more government along those dimensions stood at 68% (nine percentage points higher than the public support for liberalism in 2010).
Of course, four years is a long time in American politics, but it’s not that long. While it’s possible that a massive collapse in support for government has occurred since then, bear in mind that public support for liberalism (again, popularly understood) has never dipped below 48% (the figure reached in 1952). The lowest degree of support for government along our more narrow set of core economic issues (let’s call it the Taylor data subset) has likewise never dropped below the record set in 1952 – 52%. In fact, public support for government along these economic dimensions has been increasing.
One often hears that survey questions like these are bogus because they are usually unaccompanied by any mention of the higher taxes or increased borrowing necessary to pay for whatever government program is on the table. But Stimson finds that there is little difference in the responses to survey questions that mention cost and survey questions that don’t. Regardless, trends in public preference for more or less government still tell us something even if this criticism is valid.
A stronger objection might be that public opinion is so uninformed that such questions do not elicit true beliefs because there ARE no true beliefs to unearth. Perhaps. But if so, “libertarian momentarians” are no better off. There can scarcely be a libertarian moment if there are no real ideological preferences of any sort in the American public.
Hopefully, someone will crunch the more recent survey numbers to produce the 2011-2014 policy mood data. I’m betting that, when they do, it will show far less of a “moment” than libertarians would like to see.