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.