Americans' trust in their national government hovers around historic lows according to a Pew Research Center poll this month. The poll reports that "only 18 percent of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right 'just about always' (3 percent) or 'most of the time' (15 percent)." This is down from a post–September 11 high of 60 percent in 2001. In modern polling, public trust in the federal government was at its zenith at 77 percent, in 1964.
Americans are not just more skeptical of their government; their trust in their fellow citizens has also been declining. Since 1972, the General Social Survey has been asking Americans if "most people could be trusted." In 1984, 47 percent answered yes. In 2014, the last year for which data is available, interpersonal trust had fallen to 31 percent—the lowest level so far.
What is going on? Perhaps President Donald Trump is partially at fault. Now why would I suggest that possibility? That brings me the results of intriguing new study, "Do Lies Erode Trust?," just published in the International Economic Review. In that study, two economists from the University of California, Merced, conduct a couple of experiments to see how lying affects the way people treat each other. Without going into great detail, the researchers first have a set of subjects play a deception game such that the first player gets a bigger payoff by lying if the second player chooses to trust the offer being made is the best deal for both.
In the next round, all the first players are sent home while each of the second players now matched with a different player. The second players are given general information on how much lying took place in the first game, and some are told whether they had personally been lied to in the first game. In the first game, 60 percent of first players told the truth to the second players. In the new game, both senders and returners are given an initial stake of $4. If the sender gives his $4 to a returner, the amounts are combined with an added $4 amounting to a total of $12. The returner then has the option of returning $7 to the sender and keeping $5 for himself (win-win) or returning only $2 while paying a $2 fine, thus netting $8 for himself (lose-win).
It turns out that players who had been lied to in the first game were much less trusting or trustworthy in the second game. Only 32 percent of the lied-to players would trust sending their $4 stake to the second players for possible gains, whereas 49 percent of told-the-truth players did. In addition, only 39 percent of lied-to returners were trustworthy (choosing to return $7), compared with 61 percent of told-the-truth returners, a difference of over 22 percentage points.
Consequently, the researchers find that "being on the receiving end of a lie (vs. a truth) leads to an erosion of trust, even in interactions with those who have nothing to do with the initial deception." They further speculate, "Given the central role that trust is known to play in promoting economic interchange and growth, this conclusion suggests that social institutions that deter dishonesty and promote norms of truthfulness are of potential economic value." In fact, the invaluable Our World in Data site shows a very strong relationship between social trust and per capita income. Economic research has found that trust is the egg that hatches into the chicken of economic development and prosperity.
So what about Trump? It is true that social trust has been declining in the United States for a while now. That being said, there is no doubt that our president is a shameless and enthusiastic liar. As of November 14, the Washington Post fact checker has tabulated 1,628 false or misleading claims made by the president over the preceding 298 days: an average of 5.5 fibs per day. If he can keep the pace up, he'll have told more than 2,000 whoppers before the end of his first year in office. And his dishonesty may be having an effect on his plunging public approval ratings. Earlier this week, the Monmouth University Poll reported that the president's "current job rating stands at a net negative 32 percent approve and 56 percent disapprove." This is the lowest so far for that poll.
Surely it's not too much of a stretch to conclude that if lies do erode trust, that the torrent of lies coming from our president may be especially corrosive.
My colleagues over at Reason TV cogently explain that people who have the misfortune to live in low-trust societies tend paradoxically to want more, not less government. They note that "it turns out that government may be growing not in spite of our lack of confidence in it, but because of our lack of confidence in it. This self-defeating spiral will only get worse if the United States fails to stem its slide toward being a low-trust country." See "Why Libertarians Should Want More Trust in Government" below: