A new book by Harvard scholars suggests that the reasons people don't trust the federal government are deeper than bloated bureaucracy and wasteful spending. Nor, they contend, is distrust of Washington simply a product of the Vietnam era, the end of the Cold War, or changes in the economy.
In Why People Don't Trust Government (Harvard University Press), edited by Joseph Nye, Jr., dean of the Kennedy School of Government, leading scholars explore the 30-year decline in public trust in government that has politicians on one side of the aisle demanding smaller government and those on the other calling for better government. But the authors suggest that the fixes being proposed may have little effect on the public faith.
"Many people are proposing a wide variety of remedies for the current discontent with government," Nye writes in the book's introduction. "But some remedies may prove feckless or even counterproductive unless we have a better understanding of causes."
The authors argue that four primary trends have contributed to government's fall from grace.
Ronald Inglehart, a University of Michigan professor, describes an erosion of respect for all institutions, not just government, in most Western democracies over the past few decades. Inglehart attributes the fallout to what he calls "postmaterialist values." As people start to take their physical security and well-being for granted, they develop higher expectations for their leaders and for institutions. They begin to demand better services and become "less amenable to doing as they are told and more adept at telling their governments what to do," Inglehart writes.
A second cause the book identifies is fear of economic change. Globalization of markets scares people and limits the national government's control of the economy. And the shift from an industrial society to a services and information society destroys opportunities just as it is creating them, leaving a lot of people anxious.
Harvard professor David King suggests there is also an expanding gap between political elites and most Americans. Voters become cynical of campaign promises to clean up Washington, he writes, when the politicians making them collect political contributions and pander to the extreme wings of their parties.
The fourth major factor the book identifies is the role of the mass media. Negative political ads on television and a more critical and intrusive press reinforce people's cynicism and distrust, the book argues.
To restore the public's faith in government, Republicans in Congress propose pruning the bureaucracy and Vice President Gore wants agencies to act more like businesses. The authors note that shrinking the bureaucracy goes against the public's belief that government should play a role in many aspects of their lives. And, they argue, waste is often not a product of poor management, but of poor design, including pork-barrel projects, underfunded programs, and bad strategies.
While the scholars do not yet suggest solutions, saving their recommendations for a future book, they admit that the effects of distrust of government are not completely negative.
"A certain level of mistrust of government is a long-standing and healthy feature of American life," they write. However, Nye and his contributors say they are "uncomfortable with uncertainty about something that matters so much--the health of our institutions of democratic governance as we enter a new century."