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Whom should we trust?

Posted by Helen Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Arnold Kling, one of the best commentators on the political scene, has a piece on TechCentral Station about trust, possibly the most overused word in the English political language these days.

Apart from the fact that he quotes from The Anglosphere Challenge, a book whose importance cannot be overestimated, Kling also makes some very good points that need to be remembered whenever we discuss the supposed collapse of our society.

Should we trust the government?

In the case of government, there is good trust and there is bad trust. Good trust is trust in processes that promote public service. Bad trust is trust in the virtue of leaders or the wisdom of voters.

If you can trust the processes of government, then that is a good thing. Good trust in government is based on processes that provide for accountability, checks and balances, equal protection, and punishment of official corruption.

Trusting the virtues of government leaders is a bad thing. It leads one to cede rights and powers to government that are easily abused. The more that our ideology demands virtue from leaders, the more likely it is that our leaders will prove to be evil. Authoritarian Communism illustrates Lord Acton's maxim that "power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Trusting the "will of the people" is also a bad thing. Democratic majorities can support inferior policies, infringement on people's rights, and even genocied. Popular voting is useful as a check on elites, but not as a tool for over-riding the principle of individual liberty.
I recall a series of highly inadequate Reith Lectures given by Onora O'Neill, Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve (the last time I listened to those talks), whose subject was "A Question of Trust" and whose theme was a prolonged moan that people in authority were no longer trusted and were constantly checked and tested.

I prefer Arnold Kling's comment:
My idea of a high-trust society differs from that of many elites. Elitist journalists think that a high-trust society is one where we trust the mainstream media. Elitist politicians and activists think that a high-trust society is one where we trust legislators, regulators, and experts to exercise broad authority. In contrast, I believe that a high-trust society is one in which processes ensure that elites are subject to checks and accountability. It is particularly important for legislators, regulators, and experts to have their authority limited and their accountability assured.
Read the whole piece.