Do most voters want government to get bigger or smaller? This seemingly simple question obscures a range of complexities. The answer depends, in part, on whether we are building a budget from the “top down” or the “bottom up,” so to speak.

Hard-core Republican partisans tend to say government should be smaller, spend less, tax less. Hard-core Democratic partisans espouse the opposite positions. For those in the middle, whose support is necessary for either party to form a majority, their views are contextual.

If asked about government’s size in general, they often lean to the fiscally conservative side. For example, Gallup has long posed this question: “Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country’s problems. Which comes closer to your own view?”

I dislike this question. The first option lists only individuals and businesses as potential nongovernmental actors, thus leaving out the many family, charitable, religious, and community associations that help form the voluntary sector in a free society.

Nevertheless, Gallup has asked the question routinely since the early 1990s, so one can track public sentiment over time. During some earlier periods, the conservative position far outpaced the progressive one. As recently as 2012, 61 percent said government should do less while 34 percent said it should do more.

In 2019, though, just 50 percent said it should do less vs. 44 percent who said it should do more. Allocating the undecideds proportionally yields a majority, albeit only a bare majority, favoring the conservative side.

That’s if voters are asked about government in general. What if, instead, they are asked whether public expenditures ought to go up for specific programs? This “bottom up” approach to divining public sentiment about government yields a rather different answer.

In a March 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center, respondents were asked whether funding should increase, decrease, or stay the same for a host of expenditure categories. In no case did more than 28 percent say spending should go down. A majority favored increasing expenditures in such areas as education (72 percent), veterans benefits (72 percent), infrastructure (62 percent), and Medicare (55 percent). Surveys of public sentiment about state-level expenditures usually produce similar outcomes.

For both sets of findings — majority support for fiscal restraint in general and majority support for increased spending in particular — you can see the usual patterns in the cross-tabulations. The Republican base overwhelmingly takes the conservative side in both cases. The Democratic base overwhelmingly takes the progressive side. The respondents who change sides, depending on the nature of the question, are the “soft” Ds and Rs as well as true swing voters.

Their ambivalence isn’t so hard to understand. Don’t you feel that way about your own household budget? On the one hand, you’d like to buy a house with more room, or take more trips, or give your children some opportunities you didn’t have growing up. On the other hand, you have to keep your overall spending in line with your income or risk ruinous debt.

In the short run, at least, you have to learn to say “no,” including to yourself. In the long run, you or other family members may seek other employment to raise the overall cap on your household expenditures, so you can accommodate increases in some areas without having to exact equivalent reductions in others.

Government budgeting is more challenging precisely because the costs and benefits aren’t directly aligned. Even if you expect spending hikes to result in higher taxes, you might rationally expect to get more from the enhanced program than you will pay in additional taxes. That inherent bias in favor of spending more is precisely why I and other fiscal conservatives advocate tight, constitutional limitations on how fast government can grow. We think the “top-down” model for budgeting is more relevant than the “bottom-up” question. Progressives disagree. And so it goes.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.