November 29, 2021

Is the public trust in government in terminal decline?

The recent local elections in England – particularly the emergence of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) – have once again prompted debate about the importance of trust in government. Set against the economic crisis on both sides of the Atlantic, the growth in citizen-led social media campaign groups, and the recent violent uprisings against governments in North Africa and the Middle East, it is hardly surprising that the broadsheet newspapers are busily debating the subject. A more considered, academic debate of the current situation, however, suggests that the decline in trust may be a symptom of both globalization and wide-spread public disinterest in matters that are beyond the individual’s direct sphere of influence.

Russell Hardin, Professor of Politics at New York University, sparks the debate in his article “Government without Trust” by suggesting that the decline in trust is an inevitable result of economic globalization and, controversially, that trust may not be as crucial to democracies as previously thought:

“… this decline may not be the symptom of a major problem. … It can be argued that the economic system has become so advanced that it has become highly independent from traditional state control and regulation, so public trust in government will naturally decline because there will be less need for it in the future than in the past.”

Hardin’s detailed analysis of the trust gap rests on the “three causal accounts of trust”, which relate levels of trust to specific personal perceptions of trustworthiness between individuals. Using political theory and the history of the US and UK as examples, his article explains how Western political and economic liberalism are founded on “liberal distrust”. Taken to its logical conclusion, this inevitably leads to disengagement by the public. As Hardin says: “A nation of 200 million adults cannot be run the way a small city state, such as Athens or Venice, was run.” Attempts to introduce greater citizen democracy, for instance through referendums, are not the answer, though:

“Referendum issues, though often relatively simple, are too hard for voters to understand them well. … As the complexity of policy increases, and as the electorate grows larger, these considerations weigh more heavily and militate against the expectation that the electorate will vote intelligently.”

Hardin concludes: “Declining confidence in government may well be evidence of a trend toward the declining role of government in certain activities that it was not wise enough to handle anyway, often because incumbents could gain opportunistic short-run advantage from manipulating the economy. For the time being…the theory of liberal distrust may return to favor and we may welcome distrust in government.”

In response, Guido Möllering, Professor of Organization and Management and EWE Chair of Economic Organization and Trust, Jacobs University Bremen, Germany, disputes Hardin’s assessment of the concept of “trust”. Moreover, he questions the supposition that declining trust – as shown in numerous surveys – is unproblematic or even a “good thing”. Significantly for the wider debate, Möllering suggests that a “lack of knowledge is as much a trigger for trust as it is an obstacle to trust”, and concludes: “… citizens are not passive perceivers of government action but active partners in the trust relationship with government. They need to work on trust, just like the government on the other side, and accept to go beyond their knowledge. Trust should not be written off as a productive mechanism in political systems or, for that matter, any social system populated by people with partly convergent and partly divergent interests.”

Although the authors are not in total disagreement, the two articles clearly demonstrate that there is still ample scope for further research and debate on the subject of trust in democratic government. In particular, they raise important questions for political parties to consider, given the growth in single-issue campaign groups, online surveys and increasing calls for referendums on complex subjects.

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