No One Trusts the Government—Which is Bad News for Libertarians

When public contempt for the feds increases, so do the size and scope of government.


Note: A version of this story appeared at The Daily Beast on July 12, 2013. Go here to read the original.

The second coming of disgraced and oversexed pols Anthony Weiner (quite probably the next mayor of New York City) and Eliot Spitzer (who has announced a bid for city comptroller) helps to explain widespread and growing contempt for government. Every grandpa in Peoria, every schoolgirl in Seattle, every cartoon of a crying Statue of Liberty is asking the same question: What the fuck do you have to do to get banished from government work?

The short answer: You can't. Government and the people in it can always get worse, less competent, and more appalling. As an ardent believer in what the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick and others called "the night-watchman state"—that is, the bare minimum in taxes and publicly provided services such as cops, courts, defense, and maybe some roads—I should be thrilled by the hollowing out of faith in government. It should be the first step toward punching Leviathan in the nose and squeezing him down to size.

But what if distrust in government perversely drives demand for more government? That's the implication of recent research, and it helps explain why the state keeps growing like an Anthony Weiner selfie even as our faith in it shrinks faster than George Costanza in a cold swimming pool.

Weiner and Spitzer may be punch lines, the more serious and unending litany of public-sector snafus is anything but a joke. In just the past few weeks, we've learned that the IRS improperly targeted conservative political groups (President Obama himself called that "intolerable and inexcusable")  and that the National Security Agency has been peeking at everything we all do all the time. The economy is still in the crapper despite—read: because of—unending government intervention and the president has unilaterally declared the employer mandate in his "transformational" health-care law inoperative until he says otherwise. The current crop of statesmen in Washington, D.C. has passed exactly one budget since 2009 while driving deficit spending through the roof.

Given all this and more, it's not surprising when Pew Research concludes that "trust in federal government remains mired near a historic low and frustration with government remains high." Just 26 percent of Americans trust the government most or all of the time, while 73 percent usually distrust it. Last month, Gallup found among the 63 percent of Americans who see "non-economic issues" as the biggest problem facing the country today, the top issue is "dissatisfaction with government."

In a comprehensive survey of public attitudes done last September, Gallup found that just 19 percent of Americans think they "can trust the government in Washington to do what is right" "just about always" or "most of the time." The latest CNN/ORC poll, from mid-June, shows large majorities convinced that Obama is failing on the economy, the deficit, foreign policy, civil liberties, and just about everything else. The one upside? He's still doing better than Congress.

Which brings us to the 2010 paper "Regulation and Distrust," written by Philippe Aghion, Yann Algan, Pierre Cahuc, and Andrei Shleifer and published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics. Drawing on World Values Survey data from the past several decades for over 50 countries, the authors help explain what they call "one of the central puzzles in research on political beliefs: Why do people in countries with bad governments want more government intervention?"

The authors make a distinction between "high-trust" and "low-trust" countries. In the former, most people have positive feelings about business and government and the general level of regulation is relatively low. In "low-trust countries," the opposite is true and citizens "support government regulation, fully recognizing that such regulation leads to corruption." As an example, they point to differing attitudes toward government-mandated wages in former socialist countries that transitioned to market economies. "Approximately 92 percent of Russians and 82 percent of East Germans favor wage control," they write, naming two low-trust populations. In Scandinavia, Great Britain, and North American countries, where there are higher levels of trust in the public and private sectors, less than half the population does. As a final kicker, Aghion et al. suggest that increased regulation sows yet more distrust, which in turn engenders more regulation.

It's this dynamic that has me worried. In the Pew data, which goes back to 1958, the lines for trust and distrust converged in 2002, as the essentially unmitigated disaster that were the Bush years got underway. Trust in government reached a post-9/11 high of 60 percent before starting its long slide toward 26 percent. Distrust over the same period has climbed over 20 points from around 50 percent back in 2001. In every way under Bush, the federal government grew massively. Spending increased by about 50 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars, "economically significant" regulations ballooned by  70 percent, new entitlements (Medicare Part D) and new bureaucracies (the Transportation Security Administration) were hatched. We entered a state of permanent wars (on "terror" and in Iraq and Afghanistan) and the government began secret surveillance.

All of that—and worse—has proceeded apace under Barack Obama, who piled on ineffective (by his own measures) stimulus spending, expanded bailouts, and still-to-be-written financial regulations in addition to his faltering-before-it-begins health care overhaul, presidential kill lists, and more.

It turns out that government may be growing not in spite of our confidence in it, but because of our lack of confidence in it to  This self-defeating spiral will only get worse if the United States fails to stem its slide toward being a low-trust country. The first step should entail the government and politicians recognizing that they've got a problem. As with any rehab plan, it would do the government—and the rest of us—well to start small and take it one day at a time.

Is it really too much for Congressional Republicans and Democrats to pass a budget for next year (a relatively scant $200 billion separates the House and Senate proposals)? For the president to honestly discuss domestic drone policy? For Anthony Weiner to find honest work?

If it is too much, we'll have no one but ourselves—and our ever-growing and god-awful government—to blame.

Note: A version of this story appeared at The Daily Beast on July 12, 2013. Go here to read the original.

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  1. That’s because the bigger government gets, the more authority and “duty” it has abrogated to itself. It always starts off with well meaning intent until the elite in charge decide they need to manipulate the masses to like what they are doing, and to punish those that stand in their way. Kind of like Team Obama has been doing?.

    1. It’s more than that. Government gives out so much free stuff that every one of us get some free stuff. Any reduction in free stuff is felt directly by those who currently get it, while the benefits to society of not giving out free stuff are spread so thinly that no one perceives the benefits. Net result: a few people screaming bloody murder, nobody saying THANK YOU, and the politicians get the message loud and clear.

      No matter how small government starts out, everyone can think of a few noble causes which require very little funding and only directly benefit a very few people — say, orphans with no relatives and expensive genetic conditions that no charity will touch — and presto! government starts handling it. Bit by bit, more noble causes are found and funded, and no one notices the frog in pot change.

      1. I had an epiphany the other day.

        The entire Democratic party platform is nothing more than “free shit for our constituents.”

        Why do the Dems like big government? Big government allows them to buy votes. If given the option to solve a problem via the private or public sector, most would realize the private sector is more efficient. Why go public? Because if they went private, EVERYONE pays the same price for a given service. If they go public, the service is paid for with tax revenue, which means, thanks to a progressive tax system, the rich subsidize the service for the poor.

        …free shit.

        So, insisting upon government provided services is essentially giving free shit to their constituents. The poor show their appreciation with their votes. The entire platform is immoral.

        This may have been obvious to many of you, but I never connected the dots.

        They have the entire country believing paying an income tax based upon RATE, is fair, and to point out otherwise is considered heresy. Good scam.

        1. Advance auctions on stolen goods, dude.

        2. I agree that Democrats are happy to give away other people’s money. They are also happy to give away other people’s opportunities – for example, flooding the country with illegal immigrants at the expense of those Americans who have to compete with them for low-wage jobs.

          However, I don’t see why you single-out the Democrats. Republican politicians (and Democrats) LOVE to give away corporate welfare money stolen from taxpayers and consumers (farm subsidies, no-bid contracts to their military-industrial complex contractor buddies, tax loopholes for zillionaires, etc. What’s the difference?

          1. “flooding the country with illegal immigrants at the expense of those Americans who have to compete with them for low-wage jobs.”

            Or maybe Americans are too lazy to do those low-wage jobs. I agree that most mainstream Repubs are just as bad in practice. The difference is that almost all Dems openly campaign on the “I’m going to give you Obamaphones and houses” mantra.

            1. Or maybe Americans are too lazy to do those low-wage jobs.

              I’d guess that most Americans would be too lazy to do a given job if they are going to get paid anyway.

        3. “I had an epiphany the other day.”

          OK, how old are your Frank that you just figured this out the other day? That’s been the DNC’s SOP for some 7 decades (plus) now, hasn’t it? It’s gotten in your face the last 6 or so, with the healthcare takeover, but shit, its old news.

          The sad thing is that team red is now trying this too since they see it works and without it they can’t compete. We are outnumbered by those that feel no shame or obligation when they suck at the government teat, and once that happens, society is on the road to implosion. The Greeks spoke of this precise scenario destroying their experiment with democracy some 3 millennia ago.

      2. It’s the special interest state: concentrated, ingrained benefits and widely dispersed costs, as Friedman the Elder pointed out eloquently and often. If agents of the state have the power to provide benefits for the special interest, they will–it’s in the politician’s financial and political best interest, and it’s in the financial interest of the lobbyist. The only loser is the tax payer, each of whom absorbs only a tiny fraction of the cost, is a likely beneficiary of a similar policy in one way or the other, and is, on average, ignorant of the dizzyingly complex machinations of the state. And so everyone has to bow and scrape and lobby if he’s to make a living.

        It’s the perverse and unavoidable consequence of broad government power.

  2. I think that the perverse phenomenon is the result of big government destroying non-governmental societal institutions as it arrogates more power to itself

    So, people may hate the government, but they see no other credible organizations to tackle problems: the government destroyed or absorbed them all.

    1. But what if distrust in government perversely drives demand for more government? That’s the implication of recent research, and it helps explain why the state keeps growing…

      But is that a result of the people demanding it or the government proposing it? The perfect example I think is the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The FBI didn’t do its job nor did any of the other various agencies. So do they get rid of the FBI as ineffectual? Hell no, they add another agency to oversee the ones that failed. They did the same thing with the SEC during the financial “crisis.” I don’t know that the people are necessarily demanding more government but instead it’s the only choice they’re given.

      1. Yep, the government is chock full of propagandaists who use Bernay’s Propaganda and Crystalizing Public Opinion as their bibles.

      2. If “Government is broken”, does it make sense to have Government fix itself?

        It’s like expecting a person with a brain injury to perform surgery on itself.

  3. People still have faith in Top Men. That, and govt failures create govt dependency – would old folks want more private enterprise if SS went under or would they want their checks?

    1. People still have faith in Top Men.

      It’s always easier to let someone else do it, especially if you have no idea what ‘it’ is. As long as it’s not too intrusive, you can justify surrendering a little bit more. And on it goes.

  4. A lot of this is people blaming the failures of government on freedom. That the bad actors in society have rights which tie the hands of government. You can see it in the reactions to Citizens United and corporate rights in general, and in areas like sexual harassment and rape law.

    1. Because freedom is thwarting justice in their eyes, government needs more expansive authority and the people fewer negative rights.

      1. They will say exactly this, I asked one to rank in priority Justice or Liberty. They chose justice, freedom is in the way of whatever it is they want.

  5. People don’t trust government because they’re afraid their checks will stop.

  6. This was a neat read that highlighted something I’d partially noticed as a political science student.

  7. It’s depending on what ‘people’ you are talking about. If you are talking about the lower race of the proglodytes, the bigger the government gets, the more they trust it.

  8. When this was 1st posted, someone kindly linked to a free, legit copy of the academic article it was based on. Find that link and look. Interesting data, decent but not overwhelming correlation, and they have a plausible explanation that they model mathematically. Fascinating if you’re into figuring out why things get the way they get.

  9. before I saw the receipt for $4155, I have faith …that…my cousin was realie erning money part-time from there labtop.. there moms best frend started doing this for under 6 months and as of now cleared the debts on their home and bought a great new Acura. go to, Go to site and open Home for details

  10. like Valerie said I’m surprised that a mom can earn $6978 in four weeks on the computer. did you look at this web site Go to site and open Home for details

    1. I never got what Eddie Van Halen saw in her.

  11. The problem is, no one wants to get rid of their own politicians. It’s the other politicians that are viewed as crooks, never yours. Either local or ones in your party.

    And beyond that, let’s not forget that political machines exist. Probably more so for Democrats (big cities), but even the Republicans, like in Alaska where that crooked lady lost the senate primary to a tea party candidate, but won the election thanks to help from the crooked establishment.

    1. She bought the Native vote.

      1. And you’ll never guess with whose money.

  12. Of course it gets bigger. We are idiocracy. Just give up and arm yourselves. We have a long way to go to hit bottom.

  13. This mess with Travon is proof enough that Americans are so very stupid that they will eco whatever NBC tells them to do. Not that many people have bothered to invoke an argument for rule of law to be something to consider in Zimmerman, snowden, drones strikes, etc…ad infinitum. Until the masses are miserable enough to actually doubt the perils of the Marxists in government, they will gladly protest for more government. This is why I wonder how far we are from empowering a complete and admitted tyrant to office. The communists were not given power over night. The masses supported it, remember?

  14. An interesting survey question would be: “Do you trust government to fix government?” Or, the more basic: “Do you think government, as it presently exists, can be made to work efficiently, effectively, and without corruption?” I’ll bet 60-80% would answer “Yes” … on the premise that only government is powerful enough to fix government.

    That is, very few people recognize that government power is the cause of the problems, not the solution.

  15. The only thing saving us now is the INefficiency of the government. Can you imagine if all those spy agencies etc. were efficient? 1984 would have been in place by 1984, rather than taking until 2013 to materialize.

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