The policy mood dataset – which measures public support for more or less government over time – tells a story that could drive libertarians to drink. Despite our best efforts, the public appears wedded to the political center-left consensus and has been so wedded for decades. There’s no evidence in the data to suggest that our not inconsiderable investment in “the war of ideas” has made much of a difference.
But before libertarians hit the bottle, let’s keep in mind that what we’re ultimately after is libertarian oriented public policy, not libertarian majorities in some hypothetical public show of hands. Most of us think that the latter is necessary for the former, but that’s not necessarily true.
For comfort, we might turn to Prof. Martin Gilens’ Affluence & Influence. Gilens examines almost 2,000 public survey questions published between 1981-2002 (along with select others published both before and since) to examine changes in opinion over time. The questions all ask whether the respondent supports, opposes, or lacks an opinion about some proposed change of a specific public policy. Using logistic regressions, Gilens investigates whether there is a relationship between those answers and the subsequent direction of public policy.
His conclusion? “Under most circumstances, the preferences of the vast majority of Americans appear to have essentially no impact on which policies the government does or doesn’t adopt.” And a good thing too. Were that not the case, survey data suggest that we would have more protectionist trade policy, more restrictive abortion laws, fewer civil liberties protections for gays, a higher minimum wage, far larger unemployment benefits, tighter corporate regulation, and a more progressive income tax (at least over the period 1981-2002).
That said, the government does seem to reflect the preferences of the affluent who, as a group, are more conservative when it comes to economic policy and more liberal when it comes to social policy. “When less well-off Americans hold preferences that diverge from those of the affluent, policy responsiveness to the well-off remains strong but responsiveness to lower income groups all but disappears.”
To be sure, there are plenty of credible political scientists (including James Stimson, the creator of the policy mood dataset) who argue that public opinion writ large drives public policy, and they, too, have empirics to show for it. As in so many academic debates, the claims hinge on the underlying methodology and the relevant data for analysis. Yet the more we learn about public opinion and policy change and the better our analytic methods become, the harder it is to accept the older, more comfortable orthodoxies.
I don’t mean to revel in leftist narratives about how the rich get what they want from government at the expense of majority preferences. After all, those complaints are at the heart of all sorts of proposals to regulate the campaign system in order to deliver exactly the sorts of policies that libertarians usually oppose. But it is what it is. Libertarians can acknowledge Gilen’s findings, take some comfort in them, and work to convince the affluent to travel as far down “the road to liberty” as possible.