Why Libertarians Should Want *More* Trust in Government

Paradoxically, government grows because of our lack of confidence in it.


According to Gallup and most other other polling organizations, Americans have record or near-record low rates of confidence in government.

Just 39 percent of us approved of Donald Trump's performance in his second quarter as president, almost 25 points off the historical average. A mere 36 percent have a lot of faith in publis schools. Only slightly more than a quarter of us trust the criminal justice system and just 12 percent of us say we have a "great deal of" or "quite a lot of" confidence in Congress. Trust in most major institutions is lower than it was a decade ago.

A lot of libertarians and other skeptics of government see this trend and believe that people are finally waking up to reality. But there are good reasons to be concerned about persistently low levels of trust and confidence in government.

Researchers routinely find that "people in countries with bad governments want more government intervention" in all aspects of their lives, even though they don't trust the government to be fair or effective. One 2010 study found that 82 percent of former East Germans and 92 percent of Russians–two famously "low-trust" populations–favored wage controls. Residents in Scandinavia and North America–which are "high trust" regions–were far more trusting of market forces.

So 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.

The solution to this doesn't have to be nihilism or anarchy. Instead, we need a government that does fewer things but does them better. Government spending is at an already swollen 21 percent of GDP and is predicted to climb to 30 percent over the next three decades. Libertarians rightly want a limited government and we should fight like hell to end cronyism, drug prohibition, and regulatory overreach that does nothing but increase the cost of doing business. We need to keep pushing back against defense spending wasted on elective wars and national security measures that put us under surveillance without making us safer.

But we should also point to places where government action is both legitimate and effective and praise policies–like school choice, for instance–that deliver better results at cheaper costs. Ironically, if we can get more people to trust the government, it just might be easier to shrink the size, scope, and spending of the state.

Produced by Todd Krainin. Written by Nick Gillespie. Cameras by Jim Epstein.

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  1. There are big government types who just want government to further their agendas and government is not currently furthering their agenda. That is why they don’t have confidence in it. These people do not want less government at all.

    Then you have Libertarians who want a lot less government and don’t really have any agendas for the government to further. Besides, rule of law, national defense, secure borders, and other things the constitution enumerates.

    1. Say, bud, where’d you find them libertarian ideas in the constitution? You seem to think libertarians want those constitutional things because, hmm, is that what defines libertarians?

      1. Pretty much Article I, II, and III of the Constitution.

        Being Libertarian means something. We can vary on say how much government should be limited but it still needs to be very limited government.

        1. Limited to building pointless trillion-dollar walls to protect our precious genetic heritage, amirite?

          1. There is already a wall to protect America.

            This just makes it more secure and then funding to boot illegals out.

            Man, you must really hate Trump for getting rid of all those illegal 2018 voters.

            1. You think that joke of a wall protects ‘Murica? From what? People who want to work hard?
              Go back to the Federalist, Con-Tard.

              1. Well this is obviously someone to be taken seriously!

        2. My objection is to the ides that libertarians want those things you listed because they are in the constitution. Quite a few would consider your list far too expansive.

          1. Which Libertarians?

        3. > Pretty much Article I, II, and III of the Constitution.

          I think you mean Articles in Amendment, one through 10.

        4. We can vary on say how much government should be limited but it still needs to be very limited government.

          I’m for zero government. Is that limited enough?

    2. Besides, rule of law, national defense, secure borders, and other things the constitution enumerates.

      It enumerates that the federal government will provide defense against invasion. Are people coming across the border looking for work invaders?

      Here, this article does all the work for me so I’ll just link it:

      1. “This assertion is erroneous because the individual States, as sovereign political entities, have the absolute right to protect their borders from illegal aliens irrespective of the Constitution or any power granted to the federal government.”
        This is erroneous, so I stopped reading this nonsense.

        The states gave up some of their sovereignty and power to a federal government as listed in the Constitution. These federal enumerated duties and power actual preempt state power.

        If Congress fails to make a law to regulate immigration then states could theoretically protect their borders. Congress HAS made laws and does try and protect borders and controls immigration, so states are preempted.

      2. One could argue that since the come in without permission, then yes. If you add in the use of social services, housing subsidies, and that they are able to illegally vote in some states (looking at you California), then yes. They have violated the sovereignty of the country and taken resources from its citizens. It’s not an invasion like Germany moving into Poland in 1939, or the US into Iraq in 2003, but it is an invasion in some form.

        I’m all for greatly expanded legal immigration, and lowering barriers to obtaining work permits for people entering legally. If you sneak in, I’m much less enthusiastic about your presence.

    3. Good point: They make no distinction between different motivations for lack of trust in the state. Without this breakdown, the confidence level can indicate different probable outcomes depending on how it’s spun, making it meaningless.

  2. People with bad government don’t want more of the same. They want a bigger better government to slap down the bad government.

    It sounds silly, but government is corrosive as hell. It is so all-pervasive that people can’t get their heads around the concept of no or even less government; witness all the jokes about no government means no roads. People actually believe that shit.

    So when faced with a bad government, the only option they see is a bigger government which will right the wrongs. It’s one of the reason governments never shrink, only grow.

    1. Here in California we have very big, expensive and intrusive government and bad roads.

      They are going to fix that by adding a carbon tax and raising pump taxes for gasoline. Then at last we will get really bad roads, but the will cost more.

      1. Plus really bad medium speed rail service to nowhere, if they ever finish. It’s like a giant money laundering scheme.

    2. witness all the jokes about no government means no roads. People actually believe that shit.

      Nonsense. What non-libertarians believe when anarcho-libertarians prattle on about privatizing roads is:
      1. Roads will no longer be free to use.
      2. Property owners who live near road access will receive all the benefits of existing roads (increased land value) while no longer paying for them.
      3. Poor schmucks who don’t own property but who need to use roads will get screwed.

      And they are right. That is exactly what will happen.

      1. edit 2 – the property owners don’t actually need to live near the roads. They merely need to own the property. So the benefit can as easily accrue to a hedge fund in Kuala Lumpur.

      2. 1. They aren’t free now.
        2. If so, then so what?
        3. No, they won’t. Supply will meet demand and price will be determined.

        Also, as a property owner, I’m not exactly “benefiting” now that the government has stolen 60 ft (by 1/4 mile) of my land.

  3. I promise I won’t hit you again

  4. I have lots of trust in government. I have zero trust in the people running the government. It’s like trusting the guns I’ve got locked in the gunsafe – put them in the hands of a drunk monkey and they’re the most dangerous thing imaginable.

  5. I do think many of our friends overestimate how public distrust or dislike for the current government translates to less reliance on the state and more civic engagement. I’m not sure if more distrust causes a ratchet effect in government power, because I figure government will grow in either case. That’s what it does, y’know?

  6. Why Libertarians Should Want *More* Trust in Government

    Perhaps it would be better to say that libertarians want a government that is more worthy of trust.

    In the few areas where government should be involved (e.g. police and courts, basic national defense) they have already way overstepped any reasonable boundaries. So I really don’t see much in the way of areas where government deserves any kind of trust.

    1. For a guy with awful taste in beverages, you do make good points.

    2. Perhaps it would be better to say that libertarians want a government that is more worthy of trust.

      Better than the article’s title, yes, but perhaps it would be even better – and less confusing – to say that libertarians shouldn’t not want a government that isn’t not more worthy of trust.

      1. I don’t not agree!

    3. If I may quote Lysander Spooner, either the constitution permits such a government as we have had, or it is powerless to defend against it. Either way, it is not fit to exist.

  7. Sorry Nick and Tim, but this is Time Magazine level stuff. Take one poll and fill the page with lot’s of “may” and “could” and “possibly”.

    The last time I read something so underwhelming was on a flight where all they had was a leaflet titled “Famous Jewish Sports Legends”.

    1. You’ll be here all week?

      1. Try the fish, and remember to tip your waitress.

        1. That will depend on whether she’s hot.

    2. Hank Greenburg and Sandy Koufax ain’t for nothing.

  8. RE: Why Libertarians Should Want *More* Trust in Government

    Trust the government?
    Isn’t that what Custer asked the Indians to do?

  9. Fuck, no. Government should be watched like a hawk by the entire population, and it should be smacked down hard whenever any politician or bureaucrat attempts to increase its power.


    1. +1 yup.

  10. Statists don’t care if you trust the government or not. They don’t want you to have a choice but to trust it. The ones who don’t trust it right now are predominantly progs because they don’t like who is in power. The next time there’s a dem white house and congress, it will be the cons turn not to trust it. For both, only when the other side is eliminated will everything be right and just.

  11. “For both, only when the other side is eliminated will everything be right and just.” – common symptom of one central ( Federal ) government taking control of EVERYTHING on EVERYONE. There will always be contention as long as people carry a “one size fits all” ideology of federal government.

    Follow the Constitution and give states BACK the power they were given from the beginning – only then will the contempt between parties wither away.

  12. Wow, how naive when you say: “we need a government that does fewer things but does them better.” Government entails the initiation of force, so when is that a good idea?

    What about school choice, you ask? Meaning: use taxpayer money to subsidize the schools chosen by parents? Really, who do you think will determine which schools are eligible? How much money should alternative schools be given? Why should taxpayers be robbed to pay for what politicians think education deserves or requires? What should their curricula contain? Who decides? That’s just another trap for the unwary and the gullible.
    Belief that government can make things better will never result in things getting better. Governments are well-suited to destroy, but not to build or create. Those who seek power will lie to get it and exercise it destructively when they get it. That’s just the nature of the instrument.
    Just abandon coercive solutions. Celebrate freedom!

    1. It’s a necessary evil. We need a government to keep foreign invaders out, and as bad as Fedgov is sometime, I’d rather put up with their BS than the BS from Beijing or Moscow. Government is also useful in acting as a way to settle disputes without resorting to might makes right.

      Our current government has vastly exceeded that mandate.

      1. That’s just more naivete. Take the myth that government is useful in settling disputes without resort to . . . violence.

        As anyone who has been to court should know, courts are nothing but institutionalized violence, mediated by the judge. Courts act through violence and threats of violence, whether dealing with civil or criminal matters. Those who wield the power of the court most effectively, gain the most from the processes. Court actions induce participants to lie to win – i.e., to gain power. A subpoena is a court order backed by cops with guns; discovery “requests” are backed by court orders which are backed by cops with guns; court judgments are backed by cops with guns; judges have arbitrary power which is backed by cops with guns. This all applies to civil cases and criminal cases are just orders of magnitude worse.

        Everyone who professionally participates in the legal system seeks access to the court’s power to coerce.
        Governments are not useful in protecting rights and liberty.

        1. Hence “nessary evil”. the use of force is lementable but nessary in civil society. to inforce contracts, protect personal properity/life ect… all intail the use of force at some level. now each of us could in theory take that responsibility on ourselves BUT due to the alienation and subjectivity of the human condition conflicts and contradictions occur. Now, in order to approch a level of imperfect OBJECTIVITY, we set aside our rights to exact recompence to settel our disputes with law, courts, police.

    2. Just abandon coercive solutions. Celebrate freedom!

      I would like to enroll in your ‘How to Make a Libertarian People worthy of True Libertarianism’ Reeducation Center. Can you please provide the contact info.

  13. Of course we should want ‘more’ trust in government, achievable mostly by having less of it. That’s a given, no?

    And yes, people are waking up to the fact that politicians have been gilding their own lilies at the expense of ours. It was like coming off 50 years of that bad brown acid at Woodstock.

    And it appears Donald Trump was their antidote. Whether he’s better than a healthy dose of Thorazine remains to be seen. But it does appear Trump is moving in the right direction inside the regulatory arena, one of those legitimate and effective policies Nick mentioned as deserving of praise.

  14. this country was founded on not trusting government, unfortunately most people forgot that part

    1. Amen to that – from a non-believer, no less.

  15. Plot summary. People are dumb.

  16. …we need a government that does fewer things but does them better. Government spending is at an already swollen 21 percent of GDP and is predicted to climb to 30 percent over the next three decades.

    No one needs a government that does anything. The government’s percentage of GDP should be falling every year, because the government has a few constitutionally authorized functions and those functions should be a smaller and smaller percentage of the economy over time. Ideally that percentage would be 0, since organized theft on a massive scale is clearly worse than whatever justification it supposedly has.

    1. Better brush up on your Mandarin. I don’t think your new communist bosses are going to like your counter-revolutionary ideas about the role of government.

  17. What I read from this is that advocates for limited government need to reframe their message if they’re going to get the results they want.

    Another thing to consider … The GOP has been banging the drum of “don’t trust government” for decades. They have been in constant control of Congress since 2011. During that time, we’ve seen increased spending, increased debt, increased foreign intervention, and increased violations of civil liberties. Let that sink in.

  18. I suspect the issue has more to do with the disproportionate amount of trust given to the presidency and the courts compared to congress. In essence we have neutered the power of congress, who most closely represents the individual, for the empowerment of the presidency and the courts.

    1. I think you’re on to something. Another thing is the level of corruption in historically authoritarian countries like Russia. People put all their faith in the man they see as being at the top of the pyramid, because only he has enough power to battle entrenched problems like corruption. This is often in spite of the fact that corruption usually does more to keep such a leader in power than genuine public support. Silencing the opposition is normally the other key to holding on to power, since there is no alternative if there is either a cowed opposition or no opposition at all, and so the only figure that you can hang your hopes on is the man in power.

      I think that the only thing that can bring about trust in government is an independent local government that is beholden to the voters. But those things are another threat to strongmen.

  19. The most compelling libertarian arguments are ones that tend to reinforce a general mistrust in government, for some reason or another. No point in making dishonest arguments that will inevitably be refuted if not laughed at, but B does not necessarily mean A just because A means B.

  20. ” Ironically, if we can get more people to trust the government, it just might be easier to shrink the size, scope, and spending of the state. ”

    Ironically??? there is nothing ironic about it. That is counter-intuitive. And it’s also the most mindless thing I’ve heard.

    With our governance as it is, how do you “get more people to trust (it)” ? Employ the ‘Stockholm Syndrome,’ maybe?

    Beware dear readers. Rampant idiocy is alive and well on the libertarian side, too.

    1. Gillespie is a little bit more “libertarian” than Bernie Sanders. The man is more full of shit than the sewage plant.

  21. I find this to be very unpersuasive. High trust gets you criticism-impervious, Messiah-like politicians, like Obama, or support for increased government control. IMHO, that’s the most common seed of Banana Republics.

    Low trust is most likely a consequence, not a cause, of authoritarian, corrupt and inept government. The cause is the abysmal track record of government. Frustration with the republican process is often followed by over-confident populist idols with their own cult. No argument there.

    But Trump is precisely a product of that thirst for big leaders. And that’s what he’s failing at, beyond his cult of personality. He’s struggling big time in selling the “successful and trustworthy leader” role. That’s why so few people trust in him, and the government that he leads.

    Yes, Trumpists will always want him to do more stuff his way, but Trumpists are not all right-wingers. Moderates are growing ever more hopeless, and the Left is rapidly recovering their distrust for government, protesting and reporting abuse, being critical (sometimes even paranoid) of government abuse, all while losing hope in getting saved by their politicians, and taking strides in learning how to protect themselves from government abuse.

    All that comes from distrust in the system, and distrust in saviors. And that is a healthy thing.

  22. No surprise – I disagree with every anarcho idjit commenting on this even though I’m not exactly sure what point the article is trying to make.

    I think the article could have been far shorter.

    Libertarians need to accept the existence of government if they want to have any prayer of changing it for the better. If they don’t accept the existence of government, then who gives a shit what they think about the particulars of government.

  23. A true jump the shark moment for Reason and Gillespie. The written piece ends by citing school choice as good government. School choice should be no government. By the way, any roll back of Government overreach is always painful, slow, and hard fought.

    I can’t think of a sillier idea of giving our trust to thugs in hopes that they will stop being tyrants.

    1. “I can’t think of a sillier idea of giving our trust to thugs in hopes that they will stop being tyrants.”

      Actually, I can. Thinking that these thugs actually have some sort of “authority” to abuse us, let alone thinking they can be convinced to be nicer about it… that’s a long way past silly. That’s insane, and so obviously self destructive that it is very hard to understand why so few people can see it.

  24. When some people are given power/control/authority over other people, who have no real option to withdraw or resist, tyranny is the inevitable result.

    Self government, self control, self responsibility in voluntary association/cooperation with others of like mind. That is the ideal starting point for society based on individual and individual liberty. Trust and respect are earned, and always subject to re-evaluation. Self and mutual defense against those who prefer aggression is the only rational answer to those who say, “well, not everyone is going to be responsible.” No kidding.

    Selling one’s liberty, self determination, for the illusion of safety, security and “less bad” non-voluntary government is terrible enough. Trusting in those who have given their entire lives to control of other people, believing that those abusers have some kind of legitimate authority for their theft, assault and murders… that, my friends, is insane.

  25. Could it be that people want to expand government when they have less trust in corporations? (Especially big, multi-national corporations). Rent-seeking, mergers and near-monopolies make people feel that they can’t depend on private enterprise to look out for them, only for shareholders. Unfortunately most people not in the, say top 10% of the income brackets aren’t shareholders.

    1. Lester, why do you think it is the function of the free market to “look out for” you? The market, free or otherwise, is not an entity with volition. It is more like the atmosphere around you. Breathe it if you wish, or hold your breath. The atmosphere has no part in your choices.

      You are responsible for your own choices and actions, and how much better is it to interact, trade with and cooperate with others… and refuse to do any of that with those YOU think might harm you in some way. Why would you want anyone else to dictate that anyway? You have a choice to deal with, or NOT deal with any business.

      Multinational and every other kind of “corporation” are the invention of that “government” you seem to prefer, and supported by it to allow every kind of abuse. They are no part of the free market or private enterprise.

      Now, this “government” actually doesn’t care in the least about what you want, like, need, etc. It isn’t geared to “protect” you from the abuses of their crony corporations. Ever try to ignore dealing with government? Ever try not “paying” your taxes? Is that a trade? Or do they not come after you with guns?

  26. “But we should also point to places where government action is both legitimate and effective and praise policies–like school choice, for instance–that deliver better results at cheaper costs.”

    School choice is good because of the government schools. This article is a bunch of fluff. Government will ALWAYS be untrustworthy. Government will always become corrupt by it’s very nature. The author is confusing trust with vigilance and action.

    80% of people in America or any other country, will ALWAYS want more handouts and direction, they are sheep.

  27. With all those letters after your name, Jacket, have you ever taken a course in logic?

    Correlation is not causality.

  28. Everybody knows that sometimes you have to grow the government in order to shrink the government.

  29. This is the most irrational article I have ever read at REASON. First of all, if the lies of our politicians are continously being exposed, how can we trust them? Are we supposed to FAKE trust in them as a manipulative tactic? Second, if we trust the politicians without their earning our trust, obviously they will continue lying to us–and how can America be a government of the people if they don’t really know what their representatives really represent. Third, the entire history of mankind has shown that power-seeking individuals (e.g. politicians) strive to attain as much power as they can, so it is NEVER a good idea to trust politicians in any capacity: by allowing them to invade our privacy, confiscate our guns, control our health care and education, and manipulative our money with artificial interest rates and quantitative easing.

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