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Hayes argues that inequality feeds distrust, citing poll numbers indicating that Americans' opinions about their institutions have become increasingly negative since the Watergate era. He thinks the reason is clear: Institutions seem to benefit those in power, from the Supreme Court to Congress, from business to the mass media. We can see this disenchantment in the social movements that have arisen as a result of this mistrust. Hayes quotes a Tea Party activist as suggesting her movement is "an agent for angst"; the same is true of the Occupy movement.
To be sure, many institutions have recently faced scandals, just as they always have, from pious sex addicts to the Teapot Dome. But to what extent do these scandals have lasting and consequential effects? Less than might be imagined. When survey respondents say they distrust institutions, they may be giving what they take to be the expected answers, as opposed to expressing deep alienation. If we are told most Americans are mistrustful, we learn this is the normal attitude. It takes a brave citizen to express admiration for the U.S. Congress as an institution. People continue to obey institutional demands, such as paying taxes or other levies and voting rates have climbed since 1996, even while proclaimed cynicism abounds.
Public suspicion can even make institutions healthier by encouraging internal reforms aimed at combating this mistrust. Organizations from the Catholic Church to banks to legislatures have established ethics panels, which, while imperfect, are surely an improvement on the blindness of the past. While admiration of Congress has declined, blatant corruption (the hidden wads of cash of decades ago) is rare today.
Societies depend on those with talent and those with respect. The problem emerges when many of these elites are employed by the state (the Federal Reserve, the courts) or supported by state policies (business, social work, medicine). While this is not the case with entertainment, media, or religion, the elites that matter most are the ones we can't escape because they are backed by force. The problem deepens when the state increases its control of its citizens' choices, implicitly arguing that elites within a state system have more merit and more wisdom than their rivals outside it a belief seen, for example, in the president’s claim that government support means more to business success that the talent of the entrepreneur. When some elites wish to control other elites for "public benefit," we should be as nervous as a mouse watching elephants waltz.
Any model that gives priority to coercive control by a few, however well-intentioned, depends on a self-congratulatory elite. This is a system that deserves to be in its twilight.
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