This observation in The Economist caught my eye:

Contrary to popular belief, there is some evidence for the idea that Americans might quite like some more government. Another consistent finding in political science is that voters are ideological conservatives but operational liberals. Small government is more popular than big government in theory, but voters do not like spending cuts. “The public mostly agrees with the Republicans in philosophical terms and with the Democrats in policy terms,” write David Hopkins and Matt Grossmann in “Asymmetric Politics”, the best recent book about how the two parties became what they are.

This reminds me of something Eliezer Yudkowsky talks about in his book entitled Inadequate Equilibria.  He suggests that people often have two views on an issue, the view they express when they think directly about the issue, and the view they express when they take into account their likely biases.  Thus my “inside view” might be that I’m an above average driver.  But I also know that the vast majority of people regard themselves as above average drivers.  So my outside view is that I’m probably just an average driver.  The outside view is from 64,000 feet up, where I look just like any other ordinary person.  What makes me think I’m a better than average driver, if most other people also have that perception?

When I went to the University of Chicago, I learned that lots of government policies that sound good actually have hidden downsides due to the “unseen” effects, to use Bastiat’s term.  While most people have not studied economics at the University of Chicago, I believe that lots of people of my (boomer) generation have this sort of general view:

Back in 1965, LBJ’s “War on Poverty” seemed like a great idea.  But after 50 years it doesn’t seem to have solved the problems in the inner city, or in rural West Virginia, or on Indian reservations in South Dakota.  Somehow these government programs are not as effective as they sound.  Government is a relatively ineffective instrument for solving complex problems.

At the same time, these people have not studied economics at Chicago, and therefore have a hard time articulating the specific ways that various incentive effects might undermine the effectiveness of a given progressive policy.  Thus when asked about any specific program that sounds good on utilitarian grounds, such as doubling the minimum wage or guaranteed health care for everyone, they have trouble saying no (inside view).  But when asked more generally about big government, they are skeptical (outside view).  Their outside view reflects an tacit assumption that their inside view is likely to be too optimistic, just as in 1965.

Most importantly, I think it’s a big mistake (for either party) to assume that either view is the true opinion of the public.  There is no such thing as “actual” public opinion, there is only the way that people vote in elections, whether for candidates or on referendum issues.  That’s the only reality that counts.  Public opinion depends on how poll questions are framed.

For Democrats, the challenge is to get voters thinking in inside view terms, and for the GOP it’s getting them to think in outside view terms.  (Or at least it was when the GOP still saw itself as the small government party.  Now things are less clear.)

PS.  Speaking of poll results, voters were asked what fraction of Republicans make over $250,000/year.  The average person estimated that 38.2% of Republican made more than that amount.  The study says the actual figure is 2.2% (I suspect it’s more like 3%.)  Think about that disparity for a moment.  Either Americans know shockingly little about the country they live in, or there’s some sort of weird innumeracy that makes Americans unable to articulate their perceptions using actual numbers.  Don’t get me wrong, I expected the public’s estimate to be higher than the actual, but that gap is just bizarre.

Now assume that Americans are asked a poll question about the “distribution of income”.  Given their absurdly inaccurate estimate of how much other people make, should we take those poll results seriously?  What happens to the welfare of someone making $80,000, if we make incomes more equal?  It depends on whether you wrongly think the average income is way above $80,000, or correctly assume it’s below $80,000.

PPS.  A particularly amusing example of trying to pin down “public opinion” is with polls on immigration.  This Gallup poll shows Americans are amazing pro-immigration on all sorts of questions:

A record-high 75% of Americans, including majorities of all party groups, think immigration is a good thing for the U.S. — up slightly from 71% last year. Just 19% of the public considers immigration a bad thing.

And an anti-immigration spokesman counters with this factoid:

Asked an open-ended question about how many immigrants the U.S. should admit each year, 81% gave a figure that is less than the approximately one million we currently admit each year.

If Americans think 38% of Republicans earn over $250,000, God help us trying to figure out how Americans interpret “1 million immigrants”.  What if the question is rephrased as “What percent of the US population should be admitted each year?” (Roughly one third of one percent is the current flow.)