The decline of trust in government

With so much talk these days of scandal, incompetence and failed programs, trust in government is on the ropes. To some people, this development is lamentable. They write articles about the need to “renew our faith in democratic institutions.” But this may be a case where the general population is smarter than the pundits.
Polls testify to a fading faith in government. One from the American Enterprise Institute more than a decade ago showed that barely 20 percent of Americans “trust government in Washington to do what is right ‘most of the time’ or ‘just about always.’” That was down from about three-quarters of Americans in 1963.
A September 2011 CNN poll found that only 15 percent of Americans said they trust the government in Washington to do what’s right just about always or most of the time. Seventy-seven percent of people questioned said they trust the federal government only some of the time and an additional eight percent volunteered that they never trust the government to do what’s right.
The steep decline in trust in government since the mid-1960s is actually proof that large numbers of Americans are awake and learning something. Politicians who promised the sky delivered the proverbial mess of pottage instead. Remember how hundreds of billions of tax dollars siphoned through Washington would solve poverty? The result would be laughable were it not so tragic. This is the same crowd that can’t balance the federal budget and indeed, one half of the Congress (the Senate) hasn’t even approved a budget in the last four years.
What’s lamentable here is that too many politicians lie, cheat, steal, promise more than they intend to deliver, and otherwise misbehave. It is not lamentable that Americans lose faith in them when they do those things. It is laudable, because it is common sense being appropriately applied.

After all, what does it mean to “trust” someone or something? It means that the object of your trust has earned your respect and confidence through high standards of reliability, truthfulness and performance. No one, not even government, should be trusted unless and until behavior justifies it.

In 1997, economist James Glassman cited the encouraging results of this poll question: “Which statement comes closer to your view: ‘The government is responsible for the well-being of all its citizens and it has an obligation to help people when they are in trouble,’ or ‘People are responsible for their own well-being, and they have an obligation to take care of themselves when they are in trouble.’” In 1983, 43 percent of respondents replied that the government is responsible and 46 percent said people are responsible. In the 1997 poll, however, the results were 16 percent for government, 66 percent for people. Can you think of any reason why the percent for government might be any higher today? Me neither.

While people are trusting government less, they are learning to trust themselves more, and that is a refreshing development.

(Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, N. Y., and Atlanta.)

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