Big Government Chic?

Last month, the Harris polling organization sampled public opinion about the prestige of various professions. The results were in some ways unsurprising. Journalists continue to rank at the bottom, along with union leaders, businessmen, bankers, and accountants. Doctors and scientists remain at the top of the list. But look at the big gainers: teachers, military officers, members of Congress. All these have come up by at least 10 percentage points during the last decade. What do these professions have in common? All three cost taxpayers a lot of money. Education spending usually gobbles up somewhere between 30 percent and 70 percent of all state revenues. Defense spending accounts for 16 percent of all federal outlays. The direct cost of keeping Congress in business isn’t large, in the great scheme of things, but the indirect cost is incalculable. Congress, after all, is the branch of government that actually decides how high federal taxes will be and how that money should be spent.

Might the Harris Poll numbers on teachers, military officers, and members of Congress herald a new era of toleration for big government? It’s hard to think of anything these professions have achieved on their own these last few years to account for their rise in esteem. But it is possible to imagine that their prestige index was previously depressed by public resentment against government spending. Now that their prestige index is up, maybe that resentment is ebbing. Bring on the government programs! This isn’t necessarily good news for liberals, or bad news for conservatives. It might, for instance, mean an even more expensive missile-defense system than the Pentagon is currently contemplating.