In the Wall Street Journal today Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) explain that Americans must choose between “free markets and managed capitalism; between limited government and an ever-expanding state; between rewarding entrepreneurs and equalizing economic rewards.”

They set up a dichotomy, and correctly, suggest that while these are not absolutes, we need to decide as a country “which ideal we prefer: a free enterprise society with a solid but limited safety net, or a cradle-to-grave, redistributive welfare state.”

I agree completely with Brooks and Ryan, and I hope Americans ultimately choose the former.

But as they point out, determining what Americans want can be very difficult. They point to conflicting poll numbers – some show Americans like “generous government programs,” while others reveal Americans favor limited government.

What Brooks and Ryan allude to is a problem that political scientists (like Brooks, who was at Syracuse University prior to joining AEI) have grappled with for decades. In fact since 1964, when Philip Converse of the University of Michigan wrote his famous essay, “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics.”  In this pivotal article, Converse concluded that public opinion is inconsistent. Across issue areas and over time, public opinion appears to exist in a vacuum – free from any larger ideology. The public, he argued, picks and chooses it’s opinions almost at random.

Converse’s work became the basis for years of discussion about the need for elites to help guide public opinion – to give the public some direction when it comes to complicated political ideas.

In this article, Brooks and Ryan do just that.  They lay out in intelligent, but clear, terms just what the threat of big government looks like:

Millions of Americans instinctively look to our leaders for a defense of our culture of free enterprise. Instead, we get more and more publicly funded gewgaws and shiny government novelties to distract us. For example, the administration stills touts the success of programs such as “Cash for Clunkers” in handing out borrowed money to citizens while propping up a favored industry. Yet Rasmussen found 54% of Americans opposed the program (only 35% favored it). Plenty of people may have availed themselves of that notorious boondoggle, but a large majority understand we were basically just asking our children (who will have to pay the $3 billion back) to buy us new cars—and that’s not right.

More and more Americans are catching on to the scam. Every day, more see that the road to serfdom in America does not involve a knock in the night or a jack-booted thug. It starts with smooth-talking politicians offering seemingly innocuous compromises, and an opportunistic leadership that chooses not to stand up for America’s enduring principles of freedom and entrepreneurship.