Government: There Is No Alternative

Public support for government oversight of the economy is growing, and it’s not helping the conservative cause, writes Ruy Teixeira.

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The public has been rightfully angry—indeed, outraged—about the bonuses AIG has awarded employees in its rogue financial products division, perhaps the worst of the very bad lot that brought our financial system crashing down. But it is striking how many conservatives have joined the righteous chorus demanding intervention to block or take back these bonuses, despite their long-standing track record of recommending little or no government intervention in the economy. Perhaps they believe that a little faux populism will get them back in the public’s good graces.

What conservatives seem to be forgetting, however, is that the anger against AIG is just strengthening public support for government intervention into the economy, a development that should terrify them. Back in the heyday of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the conservative battle cry was TINA: There Is No Alternative to the untrammeled and unregulated free market. Now there is a new TINA: There Is No Alternative to the government playing a strong role in keeping the market economy under control and working for the benefit of all. Americans may still not love the government—but they now see how very necessary its role is.

Consider these recent findings. In a late February Washington Post/ABC News poll, more than three-quarters (76 percent) of the public said they support stricter federal regulation on the way financial institutions conduct their business. Just 22 percent were opposed.

chart 1

And an early March Gallup poll found that the public, by 53-42, trusted government more than business to solve our economic problems. We’re pretty far away from that Reagan era nostrum, “government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.”

chart 2

Finally, Pew asked in their most recent poll whether it is a good idea or bad idea for the government to exert more control now over the economy than it has in recent years. The public termed this a good idea by a 54-37 margin.

chart 3

It’s a new day and a new TINA. Conservatives may be able to muster outrage at AIG’s bonuses. But it’s unlikely they can really be convincing as economic advocates for the middle class in an era where government supervision over the economy is seen as necessary and inevitable.

Read more from Ruy Teixeira on our Public Opinion page.

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Ruy Teixeira

Former Senior Fellow

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