The Dramatic Collapse Of Trust In Government

The real story of the financial crisis isn’t bank bonuses, the impending collapse of the Eurozone, or the Occupy movement.

It is how, in every Western country, trust in government has suddenly, dramatically collapsed in the crisis’ aftermath.

Gallup polls have found that a massive 81 per cent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way their nation is being governed. This is the record. Vietnam and Watergate did not induce such broad cynicism. Dissatisfaction only peaked at 66 per cent in 1974.

Americans believe more than ever that the government wastes their money and that congress doesn’t work in their best interests. Even the poor old Supreme Court is taking a beating.

It is just as bad in Europe. A Guardian survey of five countries in March 2011 found that 78 per cent of people did not trust their governments to deal with the problems facing the country. Eighty-nine per cent of people did not trust national politicians to act with honesty and integrity.

Australia fares much better, but here the decline has been steepest. Eighteen per cent of Australians now think that the most important problem facing the country today is “better government”, according to an Australian National University poll in October last year. In March 2010, that figure was just 5 per cent.

We’re coming into an era of post-trust politics – where voters no longer offer politicians and governments an assumption of good faith. Instead, voters now assume political promises will not be kept, that governments are hopeless unless proved otherwise, and, no matter how honest and charming they appear, all politicians are in it for themselves.

Those are, to be fair, reasonable hypotheses.

But we’ll miss trust when it’s gone. The father of liberalism, John Locke, wrote that voters hand governments power with “express or tacit Trust, that it shall be employed for their good, and the preservation of their property”. Government relies on trust to justify its most basic legitimacy – a trust that it will at least try to govern according to the wishes of the voters who put it there.

Certainly, there’s been a decline in trust across the board – no institution is immune.

But for the first time since they started asking the question, Gallup has found that in the United States satisfaction with the size and influence of the federal government is lower than satisfaction with the size and influence of big corporations. Americans now think those faceless, amoral, profit-seeking corporations are slightly more sympathetic than the governments they vote for and who claim to act on their behalf.

And polls consistently show that, as loathed as business leaders are, they’re not as loathed as politicians. The Edelman Trust Barometer is a survey of educated people in 25 countries which this week recorded the biggest decline in its history. It also found that while 27 per cent of people did not trust business leaders to tell the truth, 46 per cent did not trust government leaders.

Nor can we blame the financial crisis. In the United States, trust was at record lows even before the economy tanked.

Anyway, in times of crisis people are usually drawn to government, not away from it. After September 11, American faith in government surged – doubled, in fact, despite the obvious failure of the federal government to stop the attacks. It is not simple enough to say that failure breeds contempt (even casual observers of politics know that failure sometimes brings support).

Governments are the biggest organisations in society. In Western countries they consume between one-third and half of the nation’s economic production.

They have their fingers in every pie. They are relentlessly expansionary: politicians and bureaucrats are always looking for more areas to intervene in. Some people may feel this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it means that governments easily overstretch themselves; they promise too much and deliver too little. Politicians try to take responsibility for everything: from interest rates to waist sizes to the price of milk, petrol and Apple products.

Sure, a government which promises to fix everything is briefly appealing. But it is always, inevitably, a disappointment. We saw this, in a micro way, with the Rudd government – where too much was promised too quickly and it all fell in a heap. We’re now seeing the same phenomenon play out in a macro way with the sovereign debt crisis in Europe. Too much social support was promised for too long to too many people.

For a long time politicians have argued that they “create” jobs and “manage” the economy. Paul Keating was speaking for all candidates and incumbents when he claimed that to change a government is to change a country.

Now, having taken responsibility for everything good, they suddenly have to take responsibility for everything bad.

The result is a massive decline in trust, and a challenge to the foundations of democratic legitimacy.

Distrust has its upside though. Future politicians promising the world will be met with the cynicism they deserve. Perhaps – perhaps – governments might focus on doing a few things well, rather than a lot of things poorly.