Do Most Americans Really Want What They Say They Want?

I hear a lot about how “most Americans” are in favor of “Policy XYZ.” The problem is that the social science shows that most Americans don’t know what they’re talking about. Do opinions change with more information or when costs are introduced? Two surveys from the Cato Institute seem to answer this in the affirmative.

The first is on federal paid leave. Seventy-four percent of the 1,700 Americans surveyed “a new federal government program to provide 12 weeks of paid leave to new parents or to people to deal with their own or a family member’s serious medical condition…Support slips and consensus fractures for a federal paid leave program, however, after costs are considered.” A 20 percentage point drop in support occurs when a $200 price tag is attached. Less than half are willing to pay $450 more in taxes for the program. When other potential costs are introduced (e.g., smaller future raises, reduction in other benefits, women less likely to be promoted,1 cut funding to other government programs), the majority of Americans find themselves opposing the program.

Less than half of men would be willing to pay even $200 more, while 55% of women would still be willing to pay $450 more. Support for the program drops across all political parties as costs are introduced, with 60% of Democrats still willing to fork over $1,200 a year to implement it (but only 22% of Republicans and 45% of Independents). “In sum,” writes Cato researcher Emily Ekins, “Democrats have a much higher tolerance threshold for taxes than the average American.”

Another survey looked at support for the Affordable Care Act’s pre-existing condition regulation. Out of the 2,498 Americans questioned, 65% support this aspect of the ACA. However, when costs are introduced, support drops. Furthermore, wealthier Americans are more willing to entertain trade-offs than lower-income ones.

Thomas Sowell has written, “There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs.”2 What “most Americans” want depends on whether or not trade-offs are kept in the dark.

1 thought on “Do Most Americans Really Want What They Say They Want?”

  1. I’m not sure how helpful this kind of follow up is. It’d be interesting if they asked the original question, the follow up about costs, and then some follow up about benefits, and see where everyone lands. Of course fewer people will support just about anything when asked only about costs, right?

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