Americans Don’t Trust The Government, And That Could Be Great For America

Published December 4, 2013

The American people don’t trust the government. This could be a great thing for America. It could also be a dangerous opportunity for an enduring and desperate factionalism, of the kind largely unfamiliar to the American experience — and lead to more, and more dangerous, government in the future. But I don’t think it will.

There are all sorts of polls you can cite about the decline in trust in government, but after the disastrous rollout of Obamacare, this trendline isn’t going upAnd Ezra Klein is worried about it. He runs through a litany of recent failures of federal government – considering that Millennials alone have witnessed 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Katrina, the financial crisis, the failed stimulus, and now Obamacare, young voters have every reason to be cynical. But Klein notes that this may not stop voters from trusting government to do more, and implement more big programs, in the future:

[B]ecause voters don’t entrust tasks to “the government.” They entrust them to particular administrations, and, righty or wrongly, they tend to extend their faith in the president to the entire federal government. Obamacare’s failures aren’t likely to undermine confidence in Chris Christie or Hillary Clinton’s ability to manage the machinery of the federal government. They might perversely, enhance it, as a country that’s purposefully looking for more effective management is likely to be more desperate to believe they’ve found it. But the fact that the public will trust the government to do big things again doesn’t mean they should.

Government’s inability to get even basic things right may become just another attribute of partisan measures – Democrats trusting Democrats, Republicans trusting Republicans – but a system with a healthy level of distrust for both parties to manage “good government” is a more honest one, one which understands that markets and individuals do best when government doesn’t try to micromanage them. We should welcome an America with more skepticism that our political leaders know best, or know anything at all. They certainly haven’t proven otherwise recently.

If the American people see the lesson of the failures of government in foreign and domestic policy as a sign that the federal government should focus more on the handful of things it can do and set aside the things it keeps screwing up, most conservatives and libertarians would rejoice. There is a danger here, though, of swinging the pendulum back in the other direction. Nick Gillespie outlined this well in a piece earlier this summer, citing this 2010 paper on “Regulation and Distrust,” written by Philippe Aghion, Yann Algan, Pierre Cahuc, and Andrei Shleifer. Gillespie writes:

Drawing on World Values Survey data from the past several decades for over 50 countries, the authors help explain what they call “one of the central puzzles in research on political beliefs: Why do people in countries with bad governments want more government intervention?” The authors make a distinction between “high-trust” and “low-trust” countries. In the former, most people have positive feelings about business and government and the general level of regulation is relatively low. In “low-trust countries,” the opposite is true and citizens “support government regulation, fully recognizing that such regulation leads to corruption.” As an example, they point to differing attitudes toward government-mandated wages in former socialist countries that transitioned to market economies. “Approximately 92 percent of Russians and 82 percent of East Germans favor wage control,” they write, naming two low-trust populations. In Scandinavia, Great Britain, and North American countries, where there are higher levels of trust in the public and private sectors, less than half the population does. As a final kicker, Aghion et al. suggest that increased regulation sows yet more distrust, which in turn engenders more regulation.

This type of experience is echoed by Jorge Castañeda in his book, Mañana Forever. According to Castañeda, to understand Mexicans and their history you have to understand that Mexicans have nothing between the masses and the government, with almost nothing like the “little platoons” of Edmund Burke, nor the network of associations that Tocqueville saw as key to America’s thriving democratic-republic. Castañeda writes:

In the United States, there are approximately 2 million civil society organizations, or one for every 150 inhabitants; in Chile there are 35,000, or one for every 428 Chileans; in Mexico there are only 8,500, or one for every 12,000, according to Mexican public intellectual Federico Reyes Heroles. Eighty-five percent of all Americans belong to five or more organizations; in Mexico 85% belong to no organization and, according to Reyes Heroles, the largest type, by far, is religious. In the United States, one out of every ten jobs is located in the so-called third sector (or civil society); in Mexico the equivalent figure is one out of every 210 jobs. In polls taken in 2001, 2003, and 2005 on political culture in Mexico, a constant 82% of those surveyed stated they had never worked formally or informally with others to address their community’s problems. In another series of polls already quoted concerning Mexican and world values, a robust and inverse correlation was detected between Mexicans’ happiness (which grew remarkably between 1990 and 2003) and their belonging to any type of organizations. In the words of the survey in question, “the more a Mexican joins an organization or belongs to any type of association, the lower the probability of his or her feeling happy.… Studies regarding values have constantly concluded that Mexican society is extremely difficult to organize.”

In place of lateral social bonds, Castañeda maintains Mexicans form bonds upward and downward, creating a patronage society where unhealthy levels of corruption, cartels, and tribal loyalties are a substitute for freedom of association and true community. This creates a cycle of desperation, where people put their faith in charismatic leaders who promise to solve their problems, only to have their hopes dashed. Castañeda writes:

[I]t should not be altogether surprising that today, after nearly five hundred years of a strong state, civil society should be weak. From this perspective, Mexicans are disorganized, except during exceptional circumstances (rescuing victims after an earthquake, for instance), because, tautologically, they are not organized, and they are not organized because a perennial, all-powerful, overwhelming state has crowded them out. This Hobbesian behemoth (unmistakable in colonial times, at least after the Bourbon Reforms of the late eighteenth century) has simply never allowed civil society to flourish, and absent an organized civil society, people fend for themselves. When they do that for centuries, they get used to it, and persist in their customs indefinitely, until something occurs that makes them change their mind. It hasn’t in Mexico, and so the ways of the past continue. As we shall see further on, those ways — corruption, cronyism, disregard for the laws — persist and date back to those times. Today, according to polls, nine out of every ten Mexicans believe that “if one does not take care of oneself, people will take advantage of you.” Some sought solutions by joining the state; others by leaving the country; still others, by retrenching into the past and the ways of that past.

So could the United States be on a path to becoming, like Mexico, a state where a hollowed out civil society leaves people with nowhere else to turn than the government they don’t trust? I just don’t think that’s going to happen. It didn’t happen after the Bay of Pigs, the JFK assassination, the quagmire of Vietnam, and Watergate. It won’t happen now. (The Millennials may turn out worse than the Boomers because of it, but that’s a different matter – and no one generation is all bad).

I’m more optimistic in part because America has bucked the trend of other nations and retained its inherent generosity, with more than 70% of charitable giving offered by individuals and families, and a healthier appreciation of civic involvement and volunteerism. The Mexican historical experience is a very different one from ours, and the character of the American people still has some strength in it yet. Even as the nature of our associations have changed, and the level of trust in government, institutions, and others has decreased, there’s still a large segment of the American people who have faith in each other and work to help each other. Rather than throwing up their hands, people should not view the failure or success of government, particularly presidential level policies, as the be all and end all of the nation’s future. Far from it.


There is a path for the country out of the wreck of distrust and disaster we’ve seen at the federal level over the past decade, if the American people choose to take it. The truth is staring them in the face. If the American people reject the false promise of one more politician promising a governmental answer to their problems – “trust me, this time, I’m not like the other guys” – we could see a resurgence of bottom-up trust. This has happened before in American history (the 1830s, for instance): when the failure of large institutions leaves power decentralized, people can give in to hopelessness… or they can realize the sun will still rise the next morning, and that they are better off living as individuals and families, trusting their neighbors rather than trusting in factional political tribes or far off powers which will always fail to live up to their promises.

The failure of government to live up to its promise is an opportunity for honesty and clarity and for the American people to reexamine the role of the citizen and the state – not a moment for despair. There’s more to life, and more to a country, than government.

[Originally published on The Federalist]