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.
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.
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.