Americans’ trust in their government is abysmally low, according to both survey data and a more subjective reading of opinions about President Donald Trump and Congress. I hold a contrarian view: Trust in the actual operations of government is pretty high, and the real growing mistrust is of each other.
Consider first that the Trump administration’s record spending and deficits don’t seem all that unpopular, even among those who detest Trump or might favor different spending priorities. No major candidate is campaigning on a platform of fiscal responsibility and restraint, and that is a sign of high trust in government.
Now consider the largest government programs. Medicare is one of them, and most Americans end up quite literally trusting their lives to it. It is a highly popular program, and there is even talk of “Medicare for All.” Such a radical reform probably won’t happen, but that is because it might cost a lot or cause people to lose their private insurance — not because Medicare is disliked. Even fiscal conservatives who oppose the current program as financially unsustainable recognize that the problem stems from Medicare’s popularity, and the willingness to spend more money on it.
Medicaid traditionally has been less universally embraced than Medicare. Nevertheless, more and more states are jumping on the Medicaid expansion bandwagon, an indication of growing trust in the program and the ability of government to finance better health care for people.
Defense spending is another large part of the federal budget, and in polls Americans express a high level of trust in the military.
Social Security is one program facing real confidence issues. Many Americans express uncertainty about whether they will receive their promised level of benefits, with some justification, as there could be cuts in benefit trajectories. That does count as a real trust gap. Still, if you look at savings behavior, Americans’ aren’t showing many signs of panic. The U.S. continues to have a lower household savings rate than most other OECD nations.
Finally, interest rates on government debt have been remarkably low for years, probably the single best measure of trust in a government; less trusted countries such as Argentina and Turkey have to pay very high interest rates to borrow. The recent rise in U.S. rates is due more to an economic expansion than to rising fears of default.
So when you survey the actual activities of the U.S. federal government, you find a lot of them seem to be remarkably well-trusted. I would make exceptions for Obamacare (but only with some voters) and the so-called “Deep State” (again, only with some voters). It is striking that while people complain about the TSA and its procedures, they seem to think it is keeping air travel safe, and most Americans do not hesitate to fly. Even the complaints about the Deep State seem to come in partisan areas related to Trump, not the activities of the CIA and NSA in general.
So why then do the polls show such low trust in government? Maybe it is that many of the visible personal manifestations of the government are trusted less. This trend is easiest to see with the extremely mixed and atypically low approval ratings for Trump. But this is not the same as low trust in government per se.
In reality, as people get older, they rely on government for more and more. While that is indeed a form of trust, it also increases anxiety about those in charge, and their values and priorities. The higher level of anxiety exists precisely because there is, for better or worse, greater dependence. Don’t confuse the resulting nervousness with a lack of trust.
Furthermore, the data show that politically active, ideologically charged Americans trust each other less than they used to. Many Democrats and Republicans do not want their children to marry into the other political party, for instance, and these preferences are growing stronger. So when one branch of the government is affiliated with one of the parties, as it inevitably is, members of the other party will voice a low level of trust. But their complaint may be about the supporters of that branch of the government as much as the government itself.
When it comes to the actual activities of the federal government, trust in America is alive and well. The question, as ever, is whether the government deserves that trust.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.”