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Why Trump’s proposed budget cuts could make the “administrative state” more popular

We appreciate things more when somebody threatens to take them away.

President Donald Trump Meets With Economic Advisors Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

A funny thing happened on the way to repealing the Affordable Care Act. Once repeal seemed like a real possibility, the law suddenly got more popular.

Anybody who understands the psychology of “loss aversion” could have predicted it. Because we weigh potential losses much more heavily than we do potential gains, we value something a whole lot more when somebody threatens to take it away.

When it seemed like we were stuck with the Affordable Care Act, we complained about it. But when faced with its repeal, suddenly some of us decided that we’d be even worse off without. Classic loss aversion.

Now that President Trump is proposing massive cuts to a wide range of federal programs, he’s tapping the same psychological force. Many voters are about to be made much more aware of specific government programs that they took for granted, or didn’t even know about. And threatened with the loss of these programs, they’re about to appreciate them a whole lot more.

Voters dislike government in the abstract but like government programs in the specific.

One of the puzzles of public opinion is that while people generally say they want less government, they also are hard-pressed to find specific government programs they oppose. That is, many voters are “symbolically conservative, operationally liberal.”

By the calculation of political scientists Christopher Ellis and James A. Stimson, 30 percent of people who call themselves “conservatives” are actually “conflicted conservatives,” in that they don’t actually hold conservative issue positions, while another 34 percent of “conservatives” are what they call “moral conservatives” — that is, they are conservative on social issues but also like government spending. That makes for almost two-thirds of “conservatives” who actually support many government programs, at least when polled about it, even if they might dislike big government in the abstract.

But voters don’t know that many government programs are actually government programs

But one reason many self-proclaimed “conservatives” can hold these seemingly contradictory views is that many don’t know that many government programs are actually government programs. In the language of political scientist Suzanne Mettler, they are “submerged.”

In her book The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy, Mettler found that 60 percent of individuals claiming the home mortgage interest deduction, 53 percent of people using student loan programs, and 52 percent of people claiming the child and dependent care tax credit said that “no, I have not used a government social program.”

Perhaps more remarkably, Mettler’s survey found that 44 percent of Social Security recipients, 40 percent of people receiving veterans benefits, and 40 percent of Medicare recipients also pronounced themselves not to be users of government programs. While these are visible programs (and not technically part of the “submerged state”), they are administered either privately or through a dedicated agency, and certainly these benefits come with very little advertising that they are, in fact, government-provided benefits.

Importantly, people like government more when government benefits are visible. By contrast, people like government less when they don’t appreciate what government does for them.

As Mettler explained it: “I’ve found that people who have benefited from visible programs have different attitudes than those who haven’t. They are more likely to feel that government is responsive to people like them, and that taxes are fair, whereas people who have benefited more from submerged state programs are more likely to feel that the tax system is unfair.”

Now take a minute to go through the list of federal agencies and programs the Trump administration is proposing to cut or eliminate. Pick any one, and it won’t take long to imagine a constituency for the program.

For example, take the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Program, administered by the Environmental Protection Agency. Many people live near the Chesapeake Bay, and many businesses, including tourism benefits, depend on a healthy bay. Most probably, don’t spend much time thinking about this program. They might not even be aware of its existence, or even think of it as a federal program. It just kind of exists. But there’s an obvious constituency here waiting to be mobilized.

Lots of members of Congress should expect to hear from newly mobilized constituencies, constituencies that will now be made quite aware that there is a government program they like. And they will now appreciate those programs a little more, and take them for granted a little less.

And if, for some reason, a program gets eliminated, these constituencies will be upset. They might even organize to vote out members of Congress who supported the elimination of the program, and instead support new candidates who promise to bring back the programs. Eliminated programs are likely to be especially popular. Again: Loss aversion is a powerful psychological force.

The “administrative state” could become more popular than ever

Trump may think he’s fulfilling a campaign promise to “drain the swamp” by shrinking the “administrative state.”

But what’s he’s actually doing is making a whole lot more people much more aware of the specific things that government does for them.

The most likely result is that this will backfire. Most people appreciate what they have much more when somebody tries to take it away. When government is an abstract entity sucking in tax dollars, most people don’t like it. But when government is a set of programs that are about to be put on the chopping block, it’s a very different story.

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