Suspicious Minds

Too much trust can actually be a bad thing—a polity of suckers is no better than a nation of cynics. But Americans' steadily declining faith in one another is a warning

Without trust, social life is all but impossible. We walk down the street unarmed, invest our money with strangers, and pay taxes—all because we trust that nobody will mug us, take the cash to Cancún, or use government revenue to enrich a family company. The only other way to coordinate complex activity is coercion—which, as the Soviets learned, is neither efficient nor pleasant. Today, when your credit-card number makes regular trips to Bangalore and Ghana, start-ups get their money from millions of pensioners and private investors, and you put your life in the hands of several federal bureaucracies whenever you fly or take a train, trust is holding up the world. We had all better hope this Atlas does not shrug.

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Further reading
Selected by Jedediah Purdy.

Yet in recent decades Americans have expressed declining confidence in government, business, civic institutions, religious establishments, and one another. Trust in the government has fallen by about half since its peak, in 1966. Sixteen percent of Americans—compared with 55 percent in 1966—say they have "a great deal of confidence" in major companies; and the share that trusts organized religion is down by almost half, to 23 percent. These declines embrace a fair amount of jumping about, but they are declines nonetheless. Meanwhile, the proportion of Americans who believe that most other people are trustworthy has fallen steadily since 1960, from about 55 percent to just above 30 percent.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "The Loyal Catholic" (July 24, 2002)
Garry Wills, the author of Why I Am a Catholic, talks about faith, scandal, and the importance of constructive criticism.

Flashbacks: "A Time to Change" (May 8, 2002)
Atlantic articles from the past forty years have considered the troubles and the institutional weaknesses plaguing the Catholic Church.

Trust in government peaked before the controversy over Vietnam got ugly and has since dragged through two troughs: 1974 to 1980 (the seven years after Watergate) and 1990 to 1994. It has recently been rising. Trust in business was very low in the late 1980s and bottomed out in 1991, following the Black Monday stock crash of 1987 and the savings-and-loan scandals. It rose smartly through the 1990s, until the NASDAQ collapse and the latest round of corporate-accounting scandals. Trust in organized religion was higher in the late 1990s than at any time since the mid-1970s, reflecting a general conservatism in cultural attitudes, although the scandals within the Catholic Church have since brought mistrust on all religious authority. Only trust in other people has steadily fallen.

"Trust," of course, has many meanings. Take trust in government. When people say they "mistrust" the government, they may mean that they are mildly skeptical, profoundly disaffected, or on the verge of revolt. Before 9/11 the public's trust in government was low, but in the first months afterward it soared to its highest levels since the mid-1960s. That suggests that the earlier mistrust was not a deep conviction but a casual attitude born of secure times. It is easy to mistrust what we think we don't need.

Mistrust is not bad in itself. A polity of suckers is no better than a nation of cynics. But both mistrust and trust should be thoughtful, not automatic. During the post-9/11 jump in trust one poll found that 80 percent of Democrats thought that Al Gore should not criticize President Bush; 39 percent of all voters and 37 percent of Democrats said in December of 2001 that it would be inappropriate for anyone to disagree publicly with the President's military decisions. Avoiding debate is never a sign of robust civic culture. The argument over foreign policy and domestic security that has returned in recent months is much better than a rote profession of faith in whoever holds power.

Collective mood swings about government are probably the norm for a modern democracy, which is designed to get along well enough while most citizens focus on their private lives. We look up occasionally from our own business, and what we see then—a revolution of civil rights, a distasteful scandal, a terrible attack—can shape our attitudes for years. If there has been a systemic change, it is that scandal-hungry reporting and a tell-all culture have drawn attention to the personal limitations of public figures, encouraging us to be smug in the conviction that the appetitive Bill Clinton or the inarticulate George Bush cannot deserve our confidence, even if their shortcomings have little to do with making sound political decisions. The American oscillation between glib cynicism and naive trust, though, is an old and basic habit.

Mistrust of business has always been driven by events, most recently the rash of corporate-accounting scandals. The unrecorded peaks and valleys from 1927 to 1931 must have outdone those of the past decade, but today the stakes may be higher. For more than a decade American business has been the world's gold standard, providing a model of successful low-regulation capitalism. For that reason we Americans have been able to rely on enormous foreign investment while saving almost none of our own money and maintaining a vast trade deficit. If the United States were perceived to have come down with a case of raging crony capitalism, investors everywhere would think about withdrawing their funds. Without foreign subsidy for American consumption, we could go into a long recession, which would also sink export manufacturers around the world.

The recent scandals raise that danger, and their genesis shows how important the difference is between intelligent trust and thoughtless trust. In 1994 the percentage of people who said they trusted the federal government most or all of the time reached by far its lowest point since 1958, when the National Election Studies—which asks questions about trust in government—began. At the same time, confidence in major companies was picking up, about to begin its strongest run in almost three decades. The following six years, full of reflexive skepticism about government and uncritical euphoria about private enterprise, produced a burst of deregulation and a wave of stock-market investment. The fashionable belief was that markets always got it right and government almost always got it wrong.

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Jedediah Purdy is the author of For Common Things (1999) and Being America (2003).

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