The Consumer Logic of Anti-Government Antagonism
28 Pages Posted: 2 Sep 2013 Last revised: 21 Dec 2017
Date Written: 2013
Theories of American opposition to government usually rely on theoretical or historical explanations that assume implausibly high levels of political knowledge among citizens or lack precise causal mechanisms. This paper investigates a parsimonious causal alternative. The Consumer Logic of Anti-Government Antagonism holds that citizens evaluate government in the same way they evaluate everyday consumer transactions. Anti-government attitudes emerge when citizens perceive that government costs outweigh government benefits--when they receive low "transaction utility," or are getting a raw deal (Thaler, 1985 and 1999). In a survey experiment, I expose subjects in treatment to personalized estimates of the costs and/or the benefits that government provides and/or extracts. I find that strong Republicans, who otherwise believe government is wasting virtually all of their tax money, come to hold views approximating the median voter's when they are shown a "taxpayer receipt," detailing where their money went. Additionally, a "natural experiment" study of Hurricane Sandy survivors offers statistical evidence to support the idea that perceived disparities in costs and benefits greatly diminishes trust in government spending. Together, the survey experiment and the natural experiment lend broad support to the theory.
Keywords: trust in government, government spending, behavioral economics, Hurricane Sandy, consumer psychology
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