The Lithuanian Free Market Institute (LFMI) conducts regular surveys among Lithuanian opinion leaders to elicit their attitudes to the emerging market economy and judgements on the ongoing reform process. The questionnaires are designed to follow up on previous polls to ascertain shifts in opinion and the proportion of people supporting free market solutions. The opinion polls target top policy makers, leading entrepreneurs, academics, reporters, and a cross-section of public leaders.
Opinion leaders for limited government
The surveys conducted by the LFMI show Lithuanian opinion leaders in favour of lesser government involvement in economic affairs. A striking 91.9 percent of those polled opposed a large public sector and state regulation, stressing that they should decline or be fairly moderate. Even supporters of the Lithuanian Democratic Labour Party (DLP) and Social Democrats are loath to delegate to the government extensive powers to control and intervene in the economy. That the trend is toward lesser government is indicated by 77.3 percent of the respondents who advocate cutbacks in government functions and programmes.
According to the survey findings, the task of cutting back on the size of government is beginning to take shape. Yet, this commitment is not so palpable when it comes to handling government spending on individual areas and programmes. More than half of those questioned said that the level of budget expenditures should be left unchanged or even raised for community economy, fuel and energy supply, agriculture, fishing and forestry, transport and communication. A mere 2.6 percent of respondents believe that government spending for health care should be repealed or cut. That the state should terminate or curtail social entitlement programmes and public education was indicated by 3.4 and 1.8 percent respectively. The figure for recreational and cultural projects was 10.9 percent.
A total of 64.3 percent of survey participants opposed spending cuts, arguing that the level of budget expenditures should either increase or remain unchanged. This attitude runs counter to the above opinion that government functions should be reduced, an opinion shared by 77.3 percent of Lithuanian opinion leaders.
The belief that state regulation should decline is also at variance with the respondents’ views on the role of the state. According to the survey findings, close to 70 percent of those polled contend that the state “should” or “should partly” secure the nation’s material well-being and shield the Lithuanian market from international competition. This explains why the proclamations of a free market in Lithuania are often combined with more bureaucratic barriers and tax hikes.
Lithuanian authorities are currently developing a corporate welfare safety net, a mechanism embracing virtually everyone-exporters, small businesses, agriculture, local producers, banks, etc. As many as 54.5 percent of those polled voiced support of business aid programmes, while 39 percent opposed them. Corporate welfare programmes are favoured mostly by academics and politicians, 58.8 and 58.3 percent respectively. These figures exceed even the percentage of entrepreneurs upholding business aid (53.2 percent). This points to the conclusion that politicians may have overdone it with “stretching a helping hand” to businesses and that the demand for corporate welfare handouts among entrepreneurs may have been sparked off by the intrusive “supply.”
The most zealous champions of corporate welfare are supporters of the DLP (81.8 percent), Christian Democrats (68.8 percent), and Conservatives (58 percent).
Opinions by political party preference and profession
Asked about the prospects of remodelling public spending, different professional groups produced similar answers. No divergence of opinion was discerned in the responses about the role of the state in providing material well-being and protecting Lithuanian enterprises from foreign rivals. This refutes the widespread myth that entrepreneurs are the most free market-oriented segment of society, with state officials being the opposite. Contrary to popular belief, free market values are acceptable to both business people and other professional groups.
The divergence of views is more distinct among supporters of different political convictions. Liberal-minded respondents (supporters of the Liberal Union) are in favour of deeper spending cuts. Reductions in the level of government spending in some areas are largely advocated by the supporters of the Centre Union, Christian Democrats, and Social Democrats. Interestingly, opinions about preferable changes in government expenditures are fairly compatible. This points to the habit of basing answers to specific questions upon individual experience and knowledge, while opinions about general issues are prompted by popular attitudes. Therefore, even though Lithuania has a classical spectrum of policitical forces, unexpected coalitions may arise when dealing with individual issues.
Looking to the future
Although aware of the merits of limited government, Lithuanian opinion leaders lack confidence in market forces and their capacity to generate adequate solutions to arising problems. The task of cutting back on the size of government seems to them either unrealistic or attainable in the distant future at best. Neither opinion leaders in general nor their professional or political segments would like to eliminate government’s concern for welfare and protectionism.
To conclude on a more optimistic note, only after a turning point have been reached in the prevailing rethoric can a democratic society count on changes in real life. Such a turning point have already occurred. Alongside long-standing doubts about the market structure, people are beginning to display a profound understanding that the state has shown what it is capable of and must withdraw to make way for liberated private initiative.