Viewpoint: Trust in government declines - who cares?

Gallup graph trust

Congress has set a new record. Never in the history of the Gallup poll have the American people had less confidence in the House and the Senate.

It's quite an accomplishment. But it isn't unique, in America or internationally.

Almost every major public institution and sector of the economy in America has lost public confidence since the 1970s. Only the military is more trusted. The presidency and big business have held steady.

The story is generally similar in the UK.

A major survey published last year, British Social Attitudes, showed that Parliament, politicians and parties are held in roughly the same disrepute as their American counterparts. A recent report by the Economist found that broadly, "the UK's institutions have been gradually weakening over many decades".

Start Quote

When citizens trust that they have well-protected zones of political and economic liberty, trust and confidence in politicians and governments isn't especially important”

End Quote

The public relations giant Edelman conducts a large annual survey of major economies to come up with what it calls a Trust Barometer. In 26 countries, the survey found that 16% trusted their governments a great deal, higher than the US and the UK, but hardly a profile of confidence.

In the US, civic entrepreneurs for a decade have tried to address what is often called the Trust Gap, though worries about the lack of civility or intense partisan polarisation get at the same thing - government held in low esteem.

A few weeks ago, Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve and one of the few people in the Twitter age to hold safe Wise Man status, launched a campaign focused entirely on trust in government.

Does trust matter?

The great assumption here, of course, is that the decline of trust and confidence in government is a very bad thing.

But is it?

That interesting question comes from Russell Hardin, a political scientist at New York University writing in the Journal of Trust Studies (yes, I've subscribed since I was just a lad).

In a fascinating article called Government without Trust, Hardin notes that generally mature democracies get along just fine even when the public is sceptical and disapproving, which is lucky because there is no turning back the clock to a more trusting time.

Hardin reminds us: "The beginning of political and economic liberalism is distrust." Historically, America's brand of democracy was designed precisely to throw sand in the gears of government, to institutionalise distrust.

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The truth is that all men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree”

End Quote James Madison

And free-market economics trusts markets, not governments, institutions or leaders. In America at least, we are wired for scepticism.

And, Hardin argues, short of a crisis, high levels of trust are not necessary for government to function or maintain legitimacy.

When citizens trust that they have well-protected zones of political and economic liberty, trust and confidence in politicians and governments isn't especially important.

If the big issues of war and peace, public safety and avoidance of economic disaster are handled with a modicum of competence, incompetent handling of marginal and very complicated issues isn't debilitating, just obnoxious.

Indeed, growing distrust may be partly a result of the lack of fundamental issues and threats.

"The significance of contemporary domestic political issues in the advanced democracies may be less than it once was and yet conflict over current issues may be more fractious - not necessarily more heated or deeper but merely more fractious," writes Hardin.

Sceptism to contempt

Just as mammals with over-abundant food supplies play with their food, politicians in prosperous, stable, safe societies can afford to play with marginal issues in overly fractious argumentative ways.

Speaker of the House John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi walk through an honour cordon at the National Peace Officers Memorial Service at the Capitol in Washington 15 May 2013 Distrust within government is more problematic than distrust of government

And citizens can afford to do the sensible thing - scorn them.

From a very lofty level, we can probably stipulate that our distrust and dislike of government now doesn't threaten the stability, legitimacy or even basic competence of our government.

And it is probably well to remember how fundamental the wariness of government power is to democracy - and especially the American political tradition.

But that isn't saying very much and it seems cavalier to dismiss the growing disapproval of government.

In the US, the low station of government is part of a far broader decline of trust and confidence in all institutions, as documented in the recent Gallup poll. The trend began in the early 1970s, the days of Watergate and Vietnam.

It isn't primarily a political phenomenon. It is tied to the rapid pace of social change and shifting values in that period, and to the weakening of the traditional ways people acquire what social scientists call social capital.

It is part of a trend in America and most other democracies where growing prosperity and material well-being is not matched with increased happiness and emotional well-being.

The breakdown of trust in government also now seems to coincide with a breakdown of trust within government. That does affect the competence of government to address issues that most would agree are more than marginal.

The political polarisation of the country now is probably exaggerated and was certainly more severe, for example, during the Civil War, Prohibition or the 1960s.

But the polarisation of the political elites and especially the Congressional political parties is dire. Thoroughly solvable problems are going unsolved. Talented and qualified people refuse to go into public service. A healthy Madisonian scepticism has been transformed into contempt.

It probably is true that public respect for government will never return to pre-1970s levels. Those were times of clearer values, less complicated issues, and a much smaller, less connected globe.

But settling for today's dismal discontent is hardly a reasonable alternative.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Very well put. I would go further than add that the loss of confidence in the US appears to me to be a result of the petty bickering and willingness of both political parties to yield in matters such as "the fiscal cliff". Hence disillusionment in the populace.

    Whereas in the UK we've saw that both parties are now so close to the centre there is little difference. Hence indifference.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I think JamesStGeorge nailed it with the term "political classes". With a perception/acknowledgment of a seperate ruling class the ideals of democracy we were all taught early on pretty much disappear. A poltical class ultimately serves it's own ends, not the interests of the people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Right-wingers and capitalists subvert government, turning it into something that serves only wealthy, private interests.

    Then these same capitalists turn around and claim the state is evil and must be reduced after they are the ones who have manipulated and destroyed it from within via corruption and lining the right pockets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Dr Hardin says government has a declining role in our lives; but that's not so. We have never been more regulated, confined, surveilled, measured and monitored. And those tentacles reach far down beyond people in power to the least of us. And, as far as we can see, there IS NOTHING WE CAN DO ABOUT IT. That's why we distrust, not in healthy, sceptical way, but in a frightened, mouselike way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    As an American I am often asked what I think of UK government, and I reply that I love it. I love that there are government ministers arguing over what kind of math test 14-year-olds should take. I love that they argue over how energy companies should present their price list. If you've got time to argue over stupid minutae like that, you've got the big stuff sorted. And you have.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Perhaps the core problem is democracy itself. It has falsely given the impression we can all vote and get what we want, or a few vote for principles. So of course almost everyone is disappointed. The political classes just lie and deceive as their only concern is getting into power, reaping the personal benefits. Say anything for a vote, oh you can always vote me out next time, too late! I win.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Barring self-annhilation, the human race is going headlong into a fork in the road-- either an Orwellian scenario abetted by more advanced surveillance technology as well as enforcement (imagine insect-sized drones capable of delivering lethal injections of deadly pathogens such as ebola), or a Huxleian Brave New World one utilizing genetic engineering, pharmacology, and electronic mind control.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    “You are a slow learner, Winston."
    "How can I help it? How can I help but see what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four."
    "Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”
    ― George Orwell, 1984

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    My govt tells me that I should feel lucky to live in a safe fish tank in this country, because the rest of the world is in deep dodo.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.


    A/. Society imposes those things, Government is merely the method of enforcement....

    B/. Go live on a dessert island if you don't like it & stop using the resources your Government/society provides with those taxes......

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Like anyone is in control anyway...the chosen few leading the unchosen many, always been that way - always will, just depends which side of the tracks you come from.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Congress is filled with lawyers.

    Enough said, really.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    They make us believe living is more complicated than it is and sell us a false panacea of authoritarianism. People are kept in such fear that we automatically invite our subjugation. They hate the people. Especially activists with ideas that conflict with the deals they have already made under the table 'in the national interest' but which always turn out to be self serving in the end.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    The strong do what they can & the weak suffer what they must.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    How can I trust anyone (government) who steals my money (taxes) while holding a gun to my head (threat of financial penalties and imprisonment) and who, furthermore, obliges me to live my life under their rules (petty laws and regulations).

    Experience has taught the public that "government" and "trust" in the same sentence is an oxymoron.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    In America, republicans tend to mistrust government, & see it as a force of evil, while democrats tend to trust government & sees it as a force for good. I think Europe, especially the Scandanavian countries tend to see government as a force for good. I believe American mistrust of government is more a mistrust of the opposition party - Republicans vs Democrats than a mistrust of government itself

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    The problem is the parties, gerrymandering has created "permanent" positions in a gov meant for temporary politicians not lifetime positions.

    A two party state is twice as good as a one party state.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    The post war era saw a boom in the national economy, particularly within the US.
    The ability to work until 65 and collect a pension was a new phenomenon, unparalleled in history. Yes sir, the good times were here.
    The good times have gone, along with the pensions, and the Xer's are asking. What about us? We're saddled with the expense of past folly.
    This expense doesn't care for it's offspring.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Trust declines?

    Our captains of raw capitalism have socialised their losses, our priests rape our children, and congress can't stand up to special interests when 90%+ of the citizens wish they would.

    Add to this that fewer citizens are "fat and happy", we're not entirely brain dead, and that our private elites have a real interest in discrediting government from within and without -- and voila!

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    You Europeans kicked out the religious zealots who then flocked here. Now we seem curious at best and scary at worst. The coalition of religious idiots (Tea Party) scares me too. Now the zealots are gathering political power! Of course I dont trust the Gov! They take my money and monitor my phone calls worse than an x-wife! Add religion and its an inquisition!


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