A BBC survey in 22 countries says that people believe that governments misspend more than half of the money they receive in taxes.
But many people also want their government to play a more active role in the economy, the survey suggests.
This survey of more than 22,000 people in rich and developing countries has a bleak message for governments.
The figures vary from nation to nation, but the general picture is that people do not feel their taxes are well spent.
In Columbia and Pakistan, the average estimate of the amount of tax not spent in the public interest was more than two-thirds.
In no country was it less than one-third. Spain, at 34%, was the only one that came close to that.
With that rather cynical view, it is perhaps a little surprising that there is substantial support for governments to be more active in the economy.
Across the 22 countries, there was clear backing for government measures to reduce the cost of basic foods, with 78% of people, on average, in favour of food subsidies.
In the Philippines, 95% backed food subsidies. Even in the United States, more than half the respondents were in favour.
Germany was the only country where most people were against food subsidies, but the majority was a small one.
There is also support, though not so strong, for more government regulation and supervision of the economy.
Only in the US, Spain, Turkey and Australia were people against more regulation.
Cuts versus taxes
How do we reconcile the scepticism about government effectiveness with the desire for them to do more? Doug Miller, the chairman of Globescan, one of the research agencies that conducted the poll, put it like this.
"As countries struggle to achieve economic recovery, citizens want more active government, but also more effective government intervention in the economy to meet the real needs of citizens, including stabilising food prices," he said.
Many countries, especially developed ones, have a problem with their government finances. Just over half of respondents supported action to cut government borrowing.
The preferred method of doing it was cuts in services, rather than increased taxes, in every country except Egypt (where taxation was the more popular option).
The preference for spending cuts was especially marked in Brazil, China, Germany, France and Azerbaijan.
Consumer confidence is subdued. Among the 17 countries also surveyed last year, 28% expect good times. Even though the world economy is now recovering, that's only 2% better than in 2009, a year of global recession.
The pattern across countries generally reflects the fact that economic growth is now strong in developing economies, and lacklustre in the rich nations, though there are some exceptions to that rule.
Optimists strongly outnumbered pessimists in China, India, Nigeria and Brazil. The reverse was true of the US, Britain and France.
The research was done for the BBC World Service by Globescan and the Programme on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.