Student Attitudes toward Regulation, Politics, and Free Enterprise

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ABSTRACT

What determines the attitudes that students have toward governmental agencies, regulatory bodies, and political systems? This paper begins with a review of the historical foundations of today's economic beliefs concerning the role of government. Survey data is then used to explore individual economic beliefs and student attitudes toward government. A factor analysis of these survey instruments reveal underlying attitudes toward government and economic institutions. A regression analysis explores the linkages between these belief systems.

INTRODUCTION

The economic literature has a rich history of discussions as to when, why, and how government should intervene. Early economic thinkers such as Mill and Sidgwick posed questions that are still viable for today's college students. Since those beginnings, further research has studied the impact of economic education on beliefs and attitudes. Stigler (1959) defines economic conservatism related to the study of economics as student beliefs and attitudes on the functioning of private ownership and competitive markets to allocate resources in an efficient manner and limit private power. Boulding (1969) recognizes the interdependence of economic and political attitudes and the social process. He advocates considering this as an important topic for economic education research. This paper extends that literature by linking free enterprise attitudes to political attitudes. A factor analysis of survey responses is used to identify alternate attitudes toward the free enterprise system. One set of factors reflects beliefs about the market allocation of resources and the efficiency of the free enterprise system. Another set of factors captures beliefs about private ownership and private power in a capitalist system. A separate factor analysis identifies components of political attitudes. Regression analysis is then employed to investigate the correlation between attitudes as reflected in the free enterprise factors, political factors, and gender.

HISTORICAL FOUNDATION

Both John Stuart Mill and Henry Sidgwick endeavored to construct a comprehensive theory regarding the intervention of government in instances of recognized market failure: When government should intervene, why should government intervene, and how these interventions should be implemented. (Schwartz 1966, Grampp 1965, and O'Donnell 1976.) A solid answer to this issue is not assured even today. The appropriate scope of government intervention is an ongoing topic of political debate. The alternate philosophies of government intervention have their foundations in the historical arguments concerning government and the economy.

Jeremy Bentham, one of the founders of utilitarianism, believed morals and legislation could be described scientifically (Bentham, 1789). Bentham's main concern was consequences of private acts, not motivations prompting this behavior. The government's role was to reconcile society's goals with individual self-interest. Bentham was very pragmatic in his approach: nothing was, in principle, outside the purview of a legislative solution. He feared government's powers of coercion but admitted to its necessity to prevent greater evils (Stephen 1950).

Sidgwick's brand of utilitarianism was based on precepts intuitively known, what he regarded as "common sense." Under his hand, Bentham's "greatest good" implied one's concern for others as well as himself: an ethical standard. Like Bentham, he focused on consequences of laws to promote this harmony: government action should make individual's actions more conducive to the happiness of others, particularly in cases of imperfectly defined property rights (O'Donnell, 1976).

Mill retained the utilitarian method and approach but included certain non-utilitarian ideas. He was primarily concerned with the happiness of the individual (Mill, JS, 1863). He distinguished between immutable laws, which were not the subject of human choice, and those that were. …

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