One of Donald Wittman’s most intriguing claims during last week’s debate is that the public suffers not just from an anti-market bias (as I claim), but from an anti-government bias as well. His main argument, if I recall correctly, is that the public falsely believes that politicians are doing lots of unpopular stuff – like spending lavishly on foreign aid.

Up to a point, I have to agree. After all, I’ve repeatedly argued that the political status quo is quite popular. And if I’m right, then the U.S. public’s low level of trust in its government seems misplaced.

However, there is a crucial asymmetry between anti-market bias and the anti-government bias that Wittman’s emphasizes. Namely: anti-market bias actually leads people to oppose markets. Anti-government bias, in contrast, rarely leads people to oppose government. Why not? Because for the most part, the public’s complaint about government is precisely that it isn’t doing enough! In the public’s mind, the problem with government is that it stands idly by instead of cracking down.

Immigration is a prime example. When people gripe about government’s failed immigration policy, this is NOT a call for open borders. Rather, it is a demand for government to “do its job” and get tough. As Rep. Tancredo said in the last Republican debate:

You wonder why people in the United States are cynical about politics and politicians. It could be — it just could be that when the wind is blowing in one direction, and that is, you know, we’re not going to say anything about illegal immigration, we will be silent on the issue. But when it sounds like the people are getting uptight about this and we can make hay out of it, we’re all going to be the strongest supporters of secure borders that you ever saw in your life.

Well, I’ll tell you, I’d like to see more than rhetoric.

The same largely goes for economic policy, trade policy, and and lots more. For example, the public may not trust the FDA, but its complaint is largely that it allows evil pharmaceutical companies to poison the public – the opposite of economists’ complaint that the FDA kills people by delaying life-saving drugs.

I’ll admit that unreasonable distrust of government may depress the level of foreign aid, and there may be a few other examples. But overall, friends of government have little to fear from “anti-government bias.” In fact, in my view, it is better to conceptualize mistrust of government as an example of what I’ve called pessimistic bias – a blanket tendency to think the world is worse than it is. The bias is there, but unlike anti-market bias, anti-foreign bias, or make-work bias, it’s not clear how – or if – it leads policy astray.