US & Canada

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".

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.

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.

Image caption 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.