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No One Trusts the Government—and That's Bad News for Libertarians

No One Trusts the Government—and That's Bad News for Libertarians

The second coming of disgraced and oversexed pols Anthony Weiner (quite probably the next mayor of New York City) and Eliot Spitzer (who has announced a bid for city comptroller) helps to explain widespread and growing contempt for government. Every grandpa in Peoria, every schoolgirl in Seattle, every cartoon of a crying Statue of Liberty is asking the same question: What do you have to do to get banished from government work?

The short answer: you can’t. Government and the people in it can always get worse, less competent, and more appalling. As an ardent believer in what the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick and others called “the night-watchman state” – that is, the bare minimum in taxes and publicly provided services such as cops, courts, defense, and maybe some roads – I should be thrilled by the hollowing out of faith in government. It should be the first step toward punching Leviathan in the nose and squeezing him down to size.

But what if distrust in government perversely drives demand for more government? That’s the implication of recent research, and it helps explain why the state keeps growing like an Anthony Weiner selfie even as our faith in it shrinks faster thanGeorge Costanza in a cold swimming pool.

Weiner and Spitzer may be punch lines, the more serious and unending litany of public-sector snafus is anything but a joke. In just the past few weeks, we’ve learned that the IRS improperly targeted conservative political groups (President Obama himself called that “intolerable and inexcusable”)  and that the National Security Agency has been peeking at everything we all do all the time. The economy is still in the crapper despite – read: because of – unending government intervention and the president has unilaterally declared the employer mandate in his “transformational” health-care law inoperative until he says otherwise. The current crop of statesmen in Washington, D.C. has passed exactly one budget since 2009 while driving deficit spending through the roof.

Given all this and more, it’s not surprising when Pew Research concludes that “trust in federal government remains mired near a historic low and frustration with government remains high.” Just 26 percent of Americans trust the government most or all of the time, while 73 percent usually distrust it. Last month, Gallup found among the 63% of Americans who see “non-economic issues” as the biggest problem facing the country today, the top issue is “dissatisfaction with government.”

In a comprehensive survey of public attitudes done last September, Gallup found that just 19 percent of Americans think they “can trust the government in Washington to do what is right” “just about always” or “most of the time.” The latest CNN/ORC poll, from mid-June, shows large majorities convinced that Obama is failing on the economy, the deficit, foreign policy, civil liberties, and just about everything else. The one upside? He’s still doing better than Congress.

Which brings us to the 2010 paper “Regulation and Distrust,” written by Philippe Aghion, Yann Algan, Pierre Cahuc, and Andrei Shleifer and published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics. Drawing on World Values Survey data from the past several decades for over 50 countries, the authors help explain what they call “one of the central puzzles in research on political beliefs: Why do people in countries with bad governments want more government intervention?”

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