Lithuanian Opinion Leaders About the Role of the State in the Economy

In March through April 1998, the Lithuanian Free Market Institute (LFMI) conducted a seventh survey among Lithuanian opinion leaders. The survey was designed to follow up on previous opinion polls and targeted 405 top policy makers, politicians, entrepreneurs, academia, and reporters.
The State Sector and Economic Regulation
As the survey results indicate, opinion leaders in Lithuania disapprove of the state’s involvement in the economy. Most of those polled said to be in favour of a moderate or declining public sector (59.5 and 27.9 percent respectively). A mere 4.2 percent support an active participation of the state in economic affairs, with 2.2 percent advocating an absolute public sector.
Similarly, the opinion leaders said to oppose extensive state regulation. Of those polled, 64.2 percent would approve of moderate state regulation and 26.7 percent would welcome declining government controls. Those advocating extensive or absolute regulation constituted only about 6 percent (5.2 and 0.7 percent respectively). Commpared with the previous polls, the current survey did not indicate any significant shifts in opinion as regards the desired size of the public sector and the scope of regulation.
Politicians remain the biggest advocates of a shrinking public sector. Such views were expressed by 37.2 percent of politicians, 26.5 percent of entrepreneurs and 31.4 percent of reporters. Declining regulation is supported by 29.2 percent of politicians, 33.3 percent of entrepreneurs and 31.4 percent of reporters. The Seimas-reshuffle, which took place as a result of the 1996 elections, seems to have had a decisive impact on the economic principles proclaimed by politicians.
As the above data suggest, opinion leaders in Lithuania recognise the importance of a market economy and the need to reduce the powers of the state that exist today. Yet, a closer look at the survey results shows that their views are riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. It appears that a shift to the right in the Seimas-proclaimed values not only failed to soften but even deepened the contradictions between rightist declarations and actual leftist policies* adopted by those in power. The same is true of the other groups of opinion leaders.
The Role of the State
The respondents were asked to assess how useful or necessary economic and social functions performed by the state are. A total of 80.5 percent of those polled think that the powers of the state should be restricted (77.7 percent last year). Of these, 35.1 percent support this idea fully, with 45.4 percent supporting rather than opposing it. Reporters were the most emphatic in this respect: 35.1 percent of them would approve of unconditional cutbacks in government powers, with 47.1 percent being in favour rather than against such changes.
More focused questions were posed to figure out opinion leaders’ practical approach to the role of the state. One of such questions was whether opinion leaders would approve of a constitutional amendment that would outlaw the state’s involvement in economic activities. The results showed that only 46.9 percent of those polled would uphold such an amendment fully or partly, whilst 49.6 percent would oppose it.
Likewise, the declared need to limit government powers is at variance with opinion leaders’ views on what specific functions, and to what extent, should be delegated to the state. As many as one fifth of the respondents think that it is the role of the state to ensure people’s material well-being. Almost half of those polled (45.2 percent) contend that the state should do it partly, and one third said that this responsibility should be very limited. Ultimately, a mere 4.7 percent oppose it altogether. These figures suggest that thebulk of opinion leaders support extensive or moderate interventions in the economy on the part of the state. Also, the declared values run counter to practical policies and decisions.
These contradictions are best illustrated by the answers to the question about whether the state should protect the Lithuanian market against international competition. All of the polled groups expressed even more leftist views than on the above issues. Only 21 percent of the respondents think that the domestic market should be protected to a small degree from foreign competitors by means of customs duties. A mere 6.9 percent said that the state should refrain from doing this. Such attitudes best appeal to individuals in their twenties and to the supporters of the Liberal Union (21.9 percent of the latter said that the state should not shield the Lithuanian market from foreign competition; 21.9 percent think the state should do this only to a limited extent).
Interpreting Contradictions
The answers to essentially the same, although differently formulated, questions reveal contradictions, whereby the promotion of limited government is coupled with the belief that the state ought to ensure people’s material well-being and to protect local producers.
Such discrepancies may be due to the fact that the liberal-mindedness of opinion leaders is largely exaggerated and nominal. Their economic values may be interpreted as Lithuania’s future ideal, which for some reasons is considered to be unfit at present. On the other hand, some of the respondents may be somewhat confused about their beliefs and may profess libertarian ideas while supporting a powerful state.
The inconsistencies in question are least characteristic of the supporters of the Liberal Union. As the survey shows, 12.5 percent of them are object to the state’s involvement in the economy, and 46.9 percent would approve of a very limited role of the state in furthering people’s well-being. The supporters of the Conservative Party expressed similar attitudes (4.9 and 40.6 percent respectively).
Differences in opinion were also observed across different age groups. A total of 22.7 percent of the respondents in their twenties and only 4.3 percent in their fifties think that government has no business providing material well-being.
Rightist economic values proclaimed by Lithuanian opinion leaders run counter to their practical policies. Three fourth of those polled maintain that government powers should be curtailed. On the other hand, about half of the respondents approve of government-dispensed favours and privileges. Their thinking appears to be riddled with critical contradictions and inconsistencies, which make their decisions hard to predict and to explain.
* This has also been observed by other researchers. According to the April 1998 survey by The Baltic Surveys, a striking 63 percent of opinion leaders in Lithuania think that the economic policies pursued by the Conservatives do not match the tenets of a right-wing party. Only 32 percent appeared to hold the opposite view. See: the Veidas journal of April 30, 1998, p. 10.