How much government do Americans want? (Fortune Classics, 1939)

June 19, 2011, 8:01 AM UTC

FORTUNE — In 1939, Fortune undertook what it claimed was the first survey of Americans on the role of government: Which businesses should it regulate? Should it provide national health care? Should it redistribute wealth? The results revealed a nation demanding government intervention — 61% insisted Washington take responsibility for making sure everyone who wanted a job had one — but still believing in freedom for business. “In general,” wrote the editors, “Public Opinion … seems to remain unimpressed with the theories for extending federal control over the economic life of the nation.” Every Sunday, Fortune publishes a classic story from our archive. Today’s is 1939’s infographic-rich “The Fortune Survey XXII.” One important note: the article is presented in its original form, which includes using the term “negroes” to refer to African-Americans. We opted to keep the text as is to preserve the voice from the time. 

The Fortune Survey: XXII, in which Public Opinion formulates a Magna Charta for U.S. democracy.

What does a people expect of its government? What question is more fundamental than this, so long as government exists only by virtue of the consent of the governed? And who has ever tried to discover a satisfactory answer to this question? The Roman Emperors had one — bread and circuses. Mussolini knows, so he says, that, when he speaks, he speaks the will of the Italian people. Hitler’s decisions are confirmed by ballots 99 44/100 percent pure “Ja.”

But still no one knows, and no one has tried to learn broadly but specifically how much government a democratic nation wants to order with its ballots and pay for with its tax money. The ballot itself, the device of election and recall, initiative and referendum, is like the menu of a vegetarian restaurant. It offers limited choices within a certain dietary system, not choices among systems.

FORTUNE here makes a start at examining the digestive tract of our body politic, through which all political food must go. The means of examination is so simple and direct that it now seems that it should have been obvious during all the hundred and fifty years of American democracy, and to all other democracies. Yet it has not been obvious, because the diagnosis is a job for journalism, and only very recently has journalism, with its catholic curiosity, been mated with an instrument for satisfying that curiosity.

To be sure, in making this Survey the public has been offered a series of limited choices, like those on a restaurant menu. But the choices run a gamut from breadfruit to whale blubber. The public has been asked to decide which of twenty-four functions a government should perform, which of the twenty-four it should not. At one end of the dietetic scale are some activities for which approval is taken for granted, because they are natural and necessary functions of any government. At the other end are functions whose rejection is a certainty, because they are so foreign to American ways of thinking as to seem absurd. But graduated between them are proposals that comprise the fields of conflict between all systems of government that exist by popular consent.

This Survey maps the no man’s land that lies between a government of the limited specified duties that this nation finds desirable, and a government of wide powers for broad dictation that the U.S. public expressly forbids. On this middle ground the political battles of the future will be fought between majorities and minorities great enough to be capable of becoming majorities. For the near future the odds are here set, because such opinions as these are likely to change only slowly. There is, of course, no index to possible shifts of opinion in the long pull. But some guesses are possible. It is safe to say that in 1929 a minimum of government in business was the popular rule. Today, in spite of the trend toward the enlargement of government, this reliance on laissez faire still seems to prevail among the majority of the people. In 1929 beneficence would probably not have been accepted as a proper function for the federal government. But today it is emphatically held desirable. So during the period of the New Deal the public has cleaved to tradition on the economic front and thrown tradition overboard on the social front. During the next ten years the Magna Charta here set forth may be modified in various ways. Meanwhile, here described is the shape of the federal government for which there is a public mandate in this year 1939.

I: Uncle Sam as a Provider

Do you think our government should or should not provide for all people who have no other means of subsistence? Be responsible for seeing to it that everyone who wants to work has a job?

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On the question of providing for the needy, every class and occupation, every part of the country, agree that it is a proper function for the federal government. Only the proportions differ, more by class lines than by any other factor. But on seeing to it that the jobless get work, the prosperous are out of step with the rest of the nation, and so are executives, professional people, and students. Cross-tabulating, it appears that about half the people opposed to having the federal government find work for the unemployed are, nevertheless, in favor of federal subsistence relief. They are apparently thinking of the difference between the cost of direct relief and that of made work. The other half, something like 15 percent of the population, are the only group that might be looked upon as really reactionary. And even many of these may believe in the milk of human kindness with the state governments acting as milkmen.

The social-minded advocates of federal bounty, radical though they might have seemed in the year 1929, are conservative just the same so far as our economic system goes. For their answers to the next questions break down thus: of people believing the government should provide jobs, 43.7 percent say the government should redistribute wealth by taxation, only 22.5 percent propose that wealth be confiscated; of those voting for federal subsistence aid the proportions for shifting the ownership of money are still smaller minorities of those having opinions.

In the Survey for January 1938 the public’s estimate of the needs of a family of four for a decent living plus a few inexpensive luxuries, was placed at a median of about $32 a week. Even the opinions of the prosperous did not vary far from this.

II: Uncle Sam as a Leveler

Do you think that our government should or should not redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich? Confiscate all wealth over and above what people actually need to live on decently, and use it for the public good?

The only groups favoring a soak-the-rich policy are the poor, the unemployed, and the Negroes, and even these think thus by no great majorities. All in all, including the 17.3 percent of the prosperous, and the 27.9 percent of the upper middle class, who presumably think in terms of taking money from the very wealthy to give to the very poor, the national soak-the-rich vote comes to 34.7 percent. To be sure, this is a sizable minority, probably blanketing the audiences of all of the powerful share-the-wealth demagogues of recent memory. But it is not an astonishing one in a country where great wealth and great poverty exist side by side and where heavy taxes on large fortunes are already on the books. Nor is it extremist, for only a third of those who favor redistributing wealth would confiscate it. As for the latter drastic measure, the 15.5 percent of the population that embraces it represents nothing approaching a majority of any group. The largest vote comes from Negroes, 30.9 percent, with the unemployed a close second. Geographically the West South Central, including the land of the late Huey Long and also of the current conservative Garner, is well ahead of the rest of the country in believing that personal wealth should be confiscated by the government, with a vote of 24 percent. But even these people, who are apparently willing to do capitalism the mortal injury of encircling private capital, are hardly consistent radicals. Less than half of them favor having the government take over and operate all of the nation’s natural resources, and 40 percent are opposed to having the government own and operate any of the factories producing the essentials of life.

 III: Uncle Sam as Economic Boss

Do you think our government should or should not regulate all public utility rates like electricity, gas, etc.? Make all decisions in disputes between capital and labor? Control the price of farm products by controlling production?

These answers tend to cast Uncle Sam in the role of policeman, to discourage him from assuming the role of referee whose decision is final, and to rule him decisively out as the planner and enforcer of agricultural-control schemes. For the regulation of utility rates there were years of precedent in state regulation before the Federal Power Commission was established. So here the majority with opinions favoring federal rate fixing are not embracing anything very new in principle. Dissenting from the national opinion are executives, the prosperous, and, by a very small margin, the upper middle class. Presumably these people are more concerned with the threat of government encroachment upon business than with the problem of rates to consumers. Cross-tabulating these results with answers to another question that probes further, over 60 percent of those who favor federal regulation also advocate government production and sale of all or some of the nation’s power. Regulation, then, would appear to be their second choice after public ownership. Here are the answers cross-tabulated:

On the question of federal decision in capital-labor disputes, however, the balance of favor lies against government dictation. Here there is no traditional scapegoat like a “power trust.” The biggest percentages favoring the government as labor umpire are from groups that are least likely to be directly affected — farm labor and its employers, and the unemployed, who, technically at least, have no employers to quarrel with. Executives, naturally, are strongly against it, but it is interesting to note that factory labor agrees with them. The five occupations here mentioned voted as follows:

These answers confirm findings in the Survey for October 1937. The unemployed and farm labor then approved the government’s part in the current industrial labor crisis, industrial workers and executives condemned it. Also executives and factory labor were strongest in preferring arbitration by employer-employee committees to federal mediation. Thus there is a tendency in the nation at large, particularly among the groups most directly concerned, to wish that the federal government would not intervene in disputes between employer and employee, and to criticize it when it does.

When it comes to federal control of farm production and prices, national opinion is emphatically against it, and so is each group in every classification, with one exception — farm labor, which votes 43.7 in favor, 42 against. But the farm hand’s boss, the proprietor, votes just as decisively against federal control of his business as does the nation at large. This seems at least to point firmly against compulsory crop control. Whether these opinions constitute a post-mortem indictment of the old AAA is not certain, because the farmer who votes against compulsory control may change his mind the moment voluntary crop reduction in return for benefit payments is made the form of control.

In general Public Opinion under this section seems to remain unimpressed with the theories for extending federal control over the economic life of the nation. But federal action affecting utilities finds at least mild favor with the public, a favor probably carrying over from a vigorous pre-New Deal distrust of the power companies.

IV: Uncle Sam as Censor

Do you think our government should or should not establish a bureau to supervise what should be produced in moving pictures? Produced over the radio? Printed in newspapers and magazines?

The nation’s answer to each of these questions is an emphatic “no,” ranging from the ratio of about five to three on the movies, to five to one on the press. Except for Negroes, a great many of whom have no opinions about radio and the movies, the majorities opposed to any kind of censorship are so substantial among all sorts and conditions of people that the breakdowns have little importance. But these generalizations are worth making: the lower the income level, the higher the sentiment for federal control; and the differences by income extremes between people declaring that the government should not establish such bureaus run close to 20 percent. It is the prosperous who prize most highly the freedom of the press and the ·air and the screen. Perhaps in the lower brackets there is more of a suspicion that these mediums are venal, or used for propaganda, and that federal control, more especially under an administration friendly to the poor, would work toward the greater good of the masses.

V: Federal Teacher, Preacher, and Parent

Do you think our government should or should not take over and operate all private, public, and parochial schools for children? Take over and operate all private colleges and institutions of higher learning? Make every adult male spend at least two years in the army? Take over all present duties of the family in caring for children and bringing them up? Supervise all religious observances by establishing a national church?

Of course each of these activities has been undertaken in whole or in part by one or another foreign government, democratic or totalitarian, and some of them represent beliefs that are vital parts in the credo of any up-to-date Marxist. But the fact that U.S. Public Opinion so overwhelmingly rejects each one gives evidence that however “liberal” may be the mandate of the American people, it is miles away from doctrines definable as “radical.” For example, it seems likely that even an attempt to encroach upon the independence of private educational institutions and to bring them into a national system would arouse national indignation. Any attempt to regiment men in peacetime conscription would apparently meet with solid resistance. And as for the nationalization of children and of the church, these ideas are so foreign to our people that the small percentages that favor them may perhaps be regarded as mavericks and considered later along with those who oppose the federal postal system and army and navy.

So much for what the public believes the government should or should not do in the course of governing. The mandate is for decidedly limited powers. The next questions were asked to discover what people believe it would be proper for the government to undertake in the way of direct production of goods and services, outside the primary business of running the country. Eight kinds of activity were named in the questionnaire. The four that were rejected decisively will be discussed presently. The four that were approved, in whole or in part, were these:

VI: The Government’s Charter in Business

On the following things we have found that people differ as to the degree to which government should function. Do you think that the government should-

a. Operate all, some, or none of the postal and parcel-post services?
b. Own and operate all, some, or none of the nation’s hospitals and medical service?
c. Own and operate all, some, or none of the country’s natural resources, like mines, forests, waterpower, etc.?
d. Produce and sell all, some, or none of the nation’s electric power?

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Thus under these four headings the people who answered “all,” plus those who answered “some,” outnumbered those who answered “none.” In other words, these are the kinds of business that government may enter with some popular sanction. First, after postal services*, comes medicine and hospitalization as the field in which the federal government should render some service. The total so thinking is 73.6 percent of the population, or probably many times the number of people who are aware at all of the Public Health Service and its rather limited functions. But recently there have been strong pressures in Washington toward some form of socialized medicine. And although here the replies show no enthusiasm for completely socialized medicine under the federal government, there does appear a sweeping demand that Washington provide at least some medical service. On this question majorities well above 60 percent prevail among all classifications of people, rich and poor, executives and laborers; they appear in all parts of the country, communities of every size. People who would keep the government from all other kinds of business undertaking agree upon this.

Next after medical service as a desirable field for federal activity comes the ownership and operation of some natural resources. This, of course, confirms an ancient status quo so far as some forests and power sites are concerned. But it also implies an approval of such new projects as TVA, where the government has gone into exploitation of resources for sale on a major production basis. The opinions on this subject follow class lines to a considerable degree, and the people who declare for complete federal control of natural resources are also inclined toward some of the other proposals tending toward socialism — the redistribution of wealth through taxation (but not its confiscation) and the production and sale by the government of all the nation’s electric power (but not of the essentials of life).

The production of electric power comes as last of the permissible forms of government business on the list. Although a majority with opinions believe in federal regulation of rates, and may mistrust the power companies, more than twice as many people would like the government to produce no power as would favor its producing all. But in the total of “all” and “some” answers a plurality stands in favor of having the government keep an active finger in the power business. Here is another popular justification for TVA, and perhaps for the whole yardstick theory and power program. Chief dissenters from this are the two highest income brackets and the Northeast and Middle West.

*In every Survey are discovered small percentages of people who reject the obvious, or stand upon the most unaccountably contradictory opinions, such as declaring that Mr. Roosevelt is a national calamity but that they will vote for him just the same. Let these people here be called mavericks, unbranded calves that belong on no ones reservation. In this Survey they shape up as individuals who reject the suggestion that the government maintain an army and navy and a postal service. This curious breed is examined further in the box below.  Meanwhile let the reader dismiss them from his mind.


In every survey there are found outcroppings of people who don’t give the right answers — i.e. answers that are reasonable according to any rule of logic. Sometimes when their answers are cross-tabulated they are discovered in startling contradictions. More often, though, they support an impossible position with cold logic. Always they are too few to be anything more than a statistical curiosity. Yet, when they represent even 1 percent, they speak for over 750,000 baffling adults. But these mavericks (let us call them) are otherwise evidently normal people. They almost always come from every level of society, are drawn from as many occupations as are tabulated. And they do, in their own peculiar ways, think with an admirable consistency.

In this installment the maverick can be spotted by his answers to two simple questions. They are the 2.1 percent who deny that the government should maintain an army and navy, and the 3.8 percent who deny that there should be any federal postal services. On both questions they constitute about the same percentage of the prosperous as they do of the Negroes. Take for example the anti postal group: they are usually surer of their opinions on other forms of government services — indicated by fewer don’t know answers-than are the more normal citizens who accept the postman as a worthy civil servant. They are, indeed, very much more firmly than others against any kind of government ownership or operation — power, communications, railroads, factories, natural resources — by margins as high as 40 percent. In the same way, but on the other side of the coin, the handful of mavericks who would nationalize the church are almost ten times more in favor of having the government replace parents of children than is the nation as a whole. In other words there are hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, who are out of step with the nation, but march, to the Right or the Left, or in a circle, with perfectly military precision.

VII: Business Forbidden to Government

Do you think the government should own and operate all, some, or none of-

The railroads?
The telephone and telegraph systems?
The insurance companies?
The factories producing the essentials of life, like clothes, food, etc.?

These are the four kinds of business that decisive majorities say the government should not enter, as follows:

In each income level, from the prosperous to the poor, at least a majority of the people with opinions vote against having the government engage at all in any of these four businesses, and the same holds true for every part of the country. This means that while there is some popular approval of government ownership of natural resources and of government operation of power plants based upon them, there is no broad sentiment for state ownership, even as practiced in some of the most moderate democracies, where government operation of railroads and communications is taken as a matter of course.

Thus, in spite of their financial troubles, the railroads are expected to stay in private hands. And this is not merely because private ownership has provided streamliners even on bankrupt lines, because farmers served by grimy plush-seated antiques are about as opposed to public ownership as are the urban people on the modernized main trunks. They just don’t want Uncle Sam at the throttle. Likewise the neighborly telephone and the lordly telegraph are to be kept in private hands, even though their rates may be unpopular and their services as public as the mail. And the ubiquitous insurance agent is to be left to enjoy his commissions, even though the nation has adopted a taxpayer’s insurance plan under the Social Security Act. As for the manufacture of essential goods, the nation would a good deal sooner have federal control of agriculture, censorship of the radio and the screen, than have the government run any factories. In sum, the public faith in private enterprise in these domains seems to flourish across the country and straight through society.

Thus it seems that human needs — subsistence jobs, medical care — are among the first things the people now expect the government to provide for when other means are lacking. This seems to be the mandate that depression has inspired. But the fact that the depression has affected business as well as people has not persuaded the public that the government should intervene in business to the extent of control or of ownership.

VIII: Functions vs Politicians

Public Opinion on the functions of government, as explored above, presumably exists independently of political leaders. But upon Public Opinion depend parties and politicians. On this

The following correlations of Public Opinion with political preferences throw some light. Don’t knows have been eliminated, and only the percentages giving affirmative answers are shown.

This shows how far apart in their political thinking are the people who favor Roosevelt from those who do not. In a measure Roosevelt seems to have achieved one of the things he has set out to do — to draw liberals to himself, to drive conservatives away. But the terms “conservative” and “liberal” are here, as usual, only relative. Majorities of people who like Roosevelt are opposed to the redistribution of ·wealth by taxation, to the regulation of agriculture, and so forth. On either side of the middle, which is the national average, stand the people who prefer Hull, slightly to the Left, and those who like Vandenberg, somewhat to the Right, but not so far to the right as the people who dislike Roosevelt. Here they are tabulated.


Actually, in the improbable event of a contest between Hull for the Democrats and Vandenberg for the Republicans, each could appropriately run on the same platform of general principles with one exception — that Hull should declare for regulation of utility rates, Vandenberg against it. And each would enjoy the support of a generous mixture of “liberals” and “conservatives,” even of “radicals” and “tories.”

The research work upon which FORTUNE Survey is based is conducted for FORTUNE by the firm of Elmo Roper