Why People Don't Trust Government—and How to Fix It

The United Nations General Assembly in 2012 Photograph by Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

This week, presidents and premiers from around the world will converge on New York for the U.N. General Assembly meetings. A focus of those meetings will be a stock-taking of progress toward global development in such areas as poverty and child mortality—and on those scores, there’s plenty of reason for optimism. Despite the miserable economic performance of the West over the past few years, global progress has continued apace. The proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day has dropped from nearly one-half to around one-fifth in the last 20 years. The number of children who die before reaching the age of five worldwide has halved over the same period.

You might have expected that to translate into growing popular faith in government. Yet studies show that in country after country, people’s trust in their leaders is eroding—even in places where life has improved the most. Economic growth and job creation are nice, but they’re far from sufficient conditions for restoring confidence in government.

The percentage of Americans who say they have “trust and confidence” in the presidency and Congress bounced back a little between 2011 and 2012, but that’s not saying much. Only about one-half of the population has trust in the White House and one-third trusts Congress, according to Gallup. For Congress, that places public trust at about half its level in 2002. Eurobarometer surveys (PDF) suggest the proportion of Europeans  saying they “tend to trust” their national legislatures has fallen from 43 percent in 2007 to 27 percent in 2011.

European and American leaders suffering miserable ratings might think to envy their developing country colleagues, who are surely basking in popular goodwill thanks to all of their relative success. But it turns out that there is a lot more to trust in government than a strong economic performance. Look at Afrobarometer measures of public trust in government institutions in some African countries that have seen rapid progress in development since the turn of the century. Take Ghana, whose average incomes climbed more than 50 percent from 2001 to 2011. The proportion of kids in primary school rose  25 percentage points and child mortality rates fell by a quarter. Yet over the same period, the proportion suggesting full trust in parliament fell from 48 percent to 18 percent.

Ghana isn’t alone. Nor is it just parliaments that are mistrusted. For 10 African countries, Afrobarometer reports the percentage of people who reported “no trust” in their presidents at the start and end of the decade. In the five countries whose economic growth has been fastest, the average proportion reporting total distrust of the presidency climbed by an average of 6 percent of the population. The five slower-growing countries—where income still climbed an average of 29 percent over the decade—saw the average proportion reporting distrust of the presidency climb, too, but by only 2 percent of the population.

Work by Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers (then both at Wharton) does suggest (PDF) that, across countries, confidence in government institutions is somewhat related to economic performance. Since the post-2008 global slowdown, higher unemployment has been associated with lower public confidence in governments, particularly in developed economies. But the long-term trend toward lower trust in rich countries predates the global financial crisis—and data showing the weak relationship between trust and economic performance in Africa suggest a lot of other factors at work.

What might they be? Pierre Cahuc has reviewed some of the evidence on trust in institutions in a recent chapter for the Handbook of Economic Growth. Beyond suggesting that trust in government is largely beneficial for a country’s development, he points to some obvious ways to avoid losing it. Spying on citizens doesn’t help, for a start. Parts of East Germany in which the Stasi state security agency was particularly active two decades ago are still less trustful today. Stronger democratic institutions and greater transparency of those institutions appear to be associated both with more trust and better functioning government.

That suggests that greater opening up—publishing government budget details and contracts, reporting on corporate political donations—combined with a reining in of the surveillance state might both help restore some trust. Create the groundwork for trust in government institutions and they might finally get credit for some of the good they are achieving worldwide, which would be a boon for elected leaders and beneficiaries alike.

People will inevitably doubt the integrity of representative governments. In order to win votes, candidates themselves often portray their own industry as a hotbed of incompetence and corruption. The horse-trading required to get things done, once elected, can smack of opportunism and inconsistency. So if politicians worldwide want to climb above used-car salesmen (at least) in the confidence rankings, it will take more than a strong economy or progress on global development goals. The key to redeeming public trust is for governments to start showing they are worthy of it.

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