There is an interesting piece in today’s NYT by political scientist Suzanne Mettler. The basic argument is relatively straightforward. Americans dislike government because they fail to understand how greatly it benefits them. This is partially a story of ideology, partly a story of policy design. The first point is relatively simple. On the last point, the piece is referring to design issues that allow beneficiaries to receive their benefits through third party providers, thereby obscuring the source (and explaining how one might carry a placard telling the government to keep its hands off of Medicare). Design issues also arise in what Chris Howard has referred to as the “invisible welfare state,” or what Mettler describes as the “submerged state,” i.e., a state that executes functions via tax expenditures. Citing the examples of the mortgage interest deduction or the tax treatment of employer-provided health care, the author notes that such policies leave “beneficiaries with the false impression that their economic security was owed merely to their own efforts.”
The submerged state obscures the role of government and exaggerates that of the market. It leaves citizens unaware of the source of programs and unable to form meaningful opinions about them.
The solution: make the benefits of the “submerged” state more visible.
I am a great fan of transparency. It is my suspicion, however, that if citizens looked beyond the treatment of their mortgage interest, health care, and church contributions, they would quickly lose enthusiasm for the submerged state. This same state uses the same means to provide countless billions in corporate welfare to transfer-seekers thereby tilting the competitive field to benefit those who have most effectively purchases access. One should not be surprised that the majority of the benefits accrue to the top quintile.
I might be wrong, but I am not certain that full transparency would make the submerged state far more popular. It might, in fact, have the opposite effect.