Americans' wariness about `big government'

THE debate over the proper role for government is a central one in every democracy. We Americans continue to frame this debate in a distinctive way. First, though we now expect our government to provide a great many protections and services, we still define government's role much more narrowly than do citizens of other industrial nations. A set of recent surveys done cooperatively by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) of the University of Chicago and several European research organizations make this clear.

``Do you think,'' the NORC surveys asked, ``it should or should not be the government's responsibility to provide a job for everyone who wants it?'' Eighty-eight percent of Italians, 80 percent of West Germans, and 69 percent of Britons said it was - but only 33 percent of Americans agreed. Seventy percent in the United Kingdom, 63 percent in West Germany, and 61 percent in Italy said it was government's responsibility to reduce income differences between rich and poor. Just 36 percent in the US felt it was.

For Americans, every role-of-government question is seen ultimately in terms of the impact on the individual. Generally, this inclines them to less government. For the individual to be strong, government must be limited. Government should not, in the American view, deny individuals the fruits of their initiatives and success, or absolve them of responsibility for their actions. In September, a survey taken by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal asked respondents which of two positions comes closer to their own views: ``People should do more to help themselves and not look to government so much''; or, ``the federal government should be doing more to help the people of this country.'' Sixty-four percent chose the first response, only 29 percent the latter.

But what if governmental action is needed to buttress individuality? Historically, Americans have been more, not less, supportive of an expanding government role in education than citizens of other democracies, because they have seen education as a means for extending individual opportunity. The US established the first system of universal public education at the primary and then the secondary level. It was the first to extend higher education to a mass public, through state colleges and universities. Today, per capita governmental spending for education in the US surpasses that in any other country.

Even against this backdrop of sustained support for public education, Americans say more needs to be done. The NORC surveys found, for example, that 69 percent in the US said opportunities to go to college needed to be increased, while 24 percent wanted them kept essentially as they are, and 4 percent would cut back. In contrast, just 55 percent in the United Kingdom, 39 percent in Italy, and 31 percent in West Germany would extend opportunities for higher education.

Along with their support for governmental programs that extend opportunity to individuals, Americans strongly support those that assist individuals unable to help themselves and that treat problems seen as beyond individual control. A whole series of important distinctions that the public makes is thus explained. Opinion surveys consistently find that large majorities resent the growth of ``welfare'' spending. At the same time, equally large majorities declare themselves committed to government efforts to ``help the poor.'' The public is saying it backs the claims of deserving individuals who find themselves in need - but not of those who avoid individual responsibility and effort, which ``welfare'' has come to connote.

Americans see catastrophic illness as something that can strike anyone, and they recognize that old people are vulnerable to problems beyond their control. Government programs to aid the sick and the elderly are highly popular - while programs that would extend benefits to people seen as competent to handle things themselves are rejected. The NORC surveys found more than 80 percent of Americans believing that government should provide health care for the sick and a decent standard of living for the old, whereas only 33 percent believed government should provide a job for all who want one.

Obviously there will be differences of opinion on where individuals are competent to handle problems through their own efforts, and conversely where their efforts, no matter how diligent, are bound to be insufficient. But in deciding whether to support new governmental initiatives, many Americans struggle to make this basic decision, and then are guided by it.

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