What Does the Public Think About Markets, About Government, and About Corporate Favoritism?

Last March, my colleagues and I published “A Culture of Favoritism: Corporate Privilege and Beliefs about Markets and Government.” Using data gleaned from a public opinion survey of 500 American business leaders, the study explored those leaders’ experience with and perceptions of government favoritism.

This week I released a short follow-up paper that presents some additional data derived from a wider sample including 500 additional respondents. These are folks who, when surveyed, were not necessarily business leaders and therefore were left out of the original study. In contrast with “A Culture of Favoritism,” this new paper eschews regression analysis and presents the raw descriptive data in an attempt to offer easily interpretable results.

For those who consider themselves free market advocates, the original findings may have been disquieting.  We found that most business leaders (about 61 percent) thought that their firms were privileged by government policy in some way or another.

Moreover, we found that compared with other business leaders, those leaders who work for privileged firms have systematically different and often contradictory attitudes toward markets, government, and favoritism itself. Compared with other business leaders, those at privileged firms were:

  • more likely to say that markets should be free in the abstract, but less likely to say that the US market should be made freer,
  • more likely to believe that competition is unfair to business,
  • more likely to approve of government intervention in markets,
  • more likely to approve of favoritism, and
  • more likely to think that favoritism is compatible with free enterprise.

While the original study suggested that exposure to or awareness of favoritism is associated with greater skepticism of markets, the new paper highlights the fact that, even so, the general public still has a fairly positive view of markets.

Among other things, I report:

  • most respondents generally support a free market (though they are reluctant to make the current US market freer),
  • most respondents generally believe that the freer a market is, the more likely it is to serve the public,
  • most respondents reject the notion that competition is unfair to industry,
  • most respondents reject favoritism,
  • most do not rank government assistance or knowledge of influential policymakers as the most-important factors in business success, and
  • most respondents understand that favoritism is incompatible with free enterprise.

The new paper also includes some charts that contrast business leader attitudes with those of the general public. Among the general public, about 76 percent disapprove of the notion that governments in the United States should favor particular firms or industries. Among business leaders at privileged firms, opposition to favoritism is weaker with just 61 percent disapproving it. Among business leaders at non-privileged firms, however, fully 84 percent disapprove of favoritism. These numbers suggest that those business leaders in non-privileged firms may be reliable advocates for the elimination of government-granted privilege.

Together, the studies suggest that both the general population and business leaders support a free market and oppose government favoritism. Experience with or awareness of favoritism, however, tends to be associated with less support for the expansion of economic freedom and weaker opposition to favoritism.  

Photo by Cytonn Photography