People don't trust government. That government is pretty bad at nearly everything it does. Politicians and officials are at best venal and at worst corrupt. Yet government goes on getting bigger. Go figure?
Nick Gillespie reports on how there has been an almost complete collapse in people's trust of the US government:
In 1964, according to Pew Research Center, 77 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that they "can trust the government in Washington always or most of the time." By 2015, that figure stood at just 19 percent.Gillespie sets out how scandal played its part:
But the most powerful reasons for collapsing trust in government are surely the actions of government. Consider even a smattering of revelations and developments going back to the late '60s. The U.S. failure in Vietnam was bad enough on its own, but the Pentagon Papers, a secret report commissioned by the Defense Department that concluded our involvement was doomed from the start, revealed a government that was incompetent at best and duplicitous at worst. The Watergate scandal and revelations of widespread corruption in the Nixon White House led to the unprecedented resignation of a president who had won re-election by the largest Electoral College margin up to that point in history. (What suckers we were, giving a crook 61 percent of the vote!) High-profile government commissions issued reports showing that intelligence agencies and the military had engaged in illegal surveillance of American citizens and tested would-be mind-control drugs on unsuspecting soldiers and civilians.Political corruption sits alongside government institutions having an almost complete disdain for the public to the point where they considers it entirely justified to simply lie to the public. Gillespie skims through the most egregious US examples and wonders why, despite government's abject failure it has continued to grow ever larger and to stick its grubby fingers into ever more aspects of folks' lives. And, with almost sublime irony, the loss of trust is the reason why people turn to government for protection even though they know it is "...at best incompetent and at worst corrupt".
Things are a little better here in the UK but, like the USA, we have lost trust in the fundamental institutions of society. We mistrust parliament, consider government essentially incompetent and are cynical about central social institutions like marriage, church and business. Yet no politician is asking how we might restore trust and confidence - in each other and in society as a whole. This is a moral mission rather than something resolvable through a policy platform and, as such, it sits uneasily with the now dominant utilitarian approach - moral leadership isn't about "evidence-based policy" but about helping people to recognise why trust is so important.
All our current approach to government and politics does is to provide new sets of rules - often in the form of bans and taxes - intended to manipulate public behaviour and to prevent the negative affects of mistrust from being realised. So the lack of trust becomes embedded - government doesn't trust people (and is entirely comfortable with not telling the whole truth) and creates an environment where mistrust is seen as normal. Yet lack of trust makes doing business harder, acts as a drag on economic growth, and rewards those who would hobble choice and opportunity while casting out those who would liberate people from such tyranny.
Gillespie concludes that we need "...policies that increase local control and individual autonomy..." - what we in the UK would call devolution and I think this to be the right place to start. Our obsession with sameness, with avoiding the postcode lottery, has pretty much destroyed the autonomy of local communities and the most approachable and accountable politicians - local councillors - have been reduced to powerless caseworkers through centralisation, local government reform and intervention-based inspection systems.
There's a tendency to see libertarian ideas as a sort of crash capitalism but perhaps we should look to voluntarism as a way through the sickening darkness of a trust-free society:
That means more work is needed putting together serious, detailed policy plans that give more autonomy to individuals and communities; highlighting examples of markets and voluntary organizations succeeding in building trust, self-regulation, and common purpose; and appealing to a broad, positive vision of a strictly limited government whose goals revolve around ensuring basic fairness, equality of opportunity, continued economic growth, and rising living standards.Everywhere we look we find examples of voluntary action - whether for profit or for reasons of charity or community spirit - that provide this common purpose. Those ideas of mutuality, commonweal and co-operation that created so much good in the 19th century need refinding and reimagining. Whether it's free schools or new mutual financial institutions, these sorts of bodies provide approachable, accountable services to a defined community or a specific neighbourhood. And, at the heart of such organisations' mission is always the idea that most of the time you really can trust your neighbour.