Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Americans distrust government? You don't say ...

For any thinking person, it can only be welcome news that the Pew Research Center reports, "[r]ather than an activist government to deal with the nation’s top problems, the public now wants government reformed and growing numbers want its power curtailed." In fact, says Pew, "[j]ust 22% say they can trust the government in Washington almost always or most of the time, among the lowest measures in half a century." It appears that perception is finally catching up with reality, and Americans are growing increasingly aware of the monster they've created.

By "reality" I don't mean that government is necessarily an unalloyed evil (though a strong argument could be made to that effect). But government's very nature is one that deserves skepticism and mistrust. After all, as an institution with a "monopoly on violence," there's no reason to involve government in any aspect of human life unless you're trying to make people do things they don't want to do -- with dire consequences for noncompliance. However necessary that may be, the role of designated arm-twister is one that should come heavily laden with distrust.

That's especially true when you consider the actual track record of government, whether federal, state or local. From the use of eminent domain to increase tax revenues to surveillance of politically active organizations to violent raids and road-side stops to enforce prohibitions on disfavored intoxicants (and legally mug motorists), government is an intrusive agency at best and an abusive one at worst. Government officials are perfectly capable of violating rights and also punishing critics.

So it's no surprise that trust in government has declined over the years, from a high back in the neolithic era ... errr ... Eisenhower-through-Johnson days to today's rock-bottom low. What is surprising is that trust was ever high. To be honest, government hasn't necessarily changed and become more contemptible since the gray-flannel era -- we may have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Patriot Act now, but back then the powers-that-be unleashed the IRS on enemies of the administration of the moment, deposed foreign leaders and sent boys to die in Vietnam.

It's worth noting that Americans expressed their greatest trust in government at a time when media was at its most concentrated and controlled -- dwindling newspapers, a few heavily regulated broadcast networks, a muzzling Fairness Doctrine and no Internet. These days, a handful of politician-friendly editors won't keep government misdeeds from being reported and critiqued far and wide, since even the smallest publications have wide reach online. The result is the graph above, showing a fairly steady decline in trust over the years, offset only by the brief post-9/11 panic.

So if trust is falling, what's rising? Try anger at government, which has risen from 12% in 1997 to 21% today. And, logically, also rising is a desire for less of what people don't trust: about half of Americans now consistently say they want smaller government.

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Blogger Fred said...

So CNN has one of their polls up right now asking, "Should the FDA set national standards for salt added to processed foods and prepared meals?".

At his point, 70% say Yes.

Go figure.

April 21, 2010 6:41 AM  
Anonymous TJP said...

If it's a standard of commerce, it's legal under Article I, Sec. 8 of the Document Which Shall Not Be Named. No powers are described for enforcement. That's where state assemblies come into the picture.

I don't understand the meaning of "distrust" in the post. Thousands of years of recorded history show that government is entirely predictable. Even without history as a reference, it's pretty easy to know what it will do: just listen to what people are asking it to do.

This shtick is getting tired. At what point do the people stop being "Shocked! Shocked, I tell you!" when government proceeds in precisely the way the people have demanded?

April 25, 2010 10:29 AM  

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