Because the public does not put itself in this kind of a judgment situation, responses to questions vary. The wording of a particular question pulls the public in one direction, a change in a few words pulls it in another. Trade-off questions exacerbate the problem.
General questions about the proper level of government regulation show high commitment—once again—to the core value identified earlier, the importance of the environment. More specific questions show a concern about balancing costs and benefits. Since 1989, Roper Starch Worldwide has found that strong majorities or pluralities say that environmental laws and regulations have not gone far enough, with around 30 percent saying that we have struck the right balance. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, about two in ten said we had gone too far. That number has since dropped.
A Cambridge Reports question shows that since 1982, solid majorities or pluralities have said that in general there is too little government regulation and involvement in the area of environmental protection. The proportion saying that there is too much has moved up sharply from roughly 10 percent in the late 1980s to 31 percent in 1994.
Polls today show that Americans feel it is important to balance costs and benefits. A January 1995 question by Yankelovich Partners for Time and CNN illustrates the point. Two thirds suggested that "an environmental regulation which addresses a specific risk to people's health" should be "subject to an analysis to determine whether eliminating that risk justifies the cost." It is impossible to know how Americans would have answered that question ten or twenty years ago. These kinds of questions weren't asked then.
Because Americans offer broad values and general conclusions about directions to be pursued, asking them about specific policy choices when people do not really think much about them can produce misleading information. The problem is exacerbated when the nature of trade-offs to be considered is presented in an imprecise and misleading manner.
Consider a question asked by the National Opinion Research Center in 1994: And how willing would you be to accept cuts in your standard of living in order to protect the environment? What do the surveyors mean by "cuts"? How big a cut? In what area? What kind of environmental benefits would be achieved? Because these issues are left unresolved, it is impossible to know what to make of the answers given: 31 percent said they would be willing to accept cuts in their standard of living, while 45 percent said they would not be, with 23 percent on the fence. The numbers suggest that the strong backing for the environment is not unconditional. But we already knew that. This question does not tell us anything new. The actual proportions yielded by it are almost meaningless because of the imprecision and confusion about what is being asked.