If we don’t trust government, we resent (and often evade) its laws. If we don’t trust charities, we stop giving. If we don’t trust the clergy, we lose respect for religion. If we don’t trust the media, we tune it out. The problem is, when distrust and cynicism become too widespread, society comes apart.
Political scientists tell us that “social capital” is an essential foundation of society because it promotes “norms of trust and reciprocity”—a fancy way of saying that communities cannot function unless we can trust most of our neighbors to play by the rules. The safety of our morning commute depends on the willingness of others to drive on their own side of the road; the pleasure of playing football or baseball depends on our belief that both sides are “playing fair.” When the other guy cheats, we may feel entitled to break the rules ourselves—or we may abandon the game entirely.
Social institutions work on the same principle. If we don’t trust government, we resent (and often evade) its laws. If we don’t trust charities, we stop giving. If we don’t trust the clergy, we lose respect for religion. If we don’t trust the media, we tune it out. The problem is, when distrust and cynicism become too widespread, society comes apart.
Unfortunately, danger signs are multiplying—and they go well beyond athletes on steroids.
Example one: we rely upon reputable news organizations to be fair and factual. Most people understand that total objectivity is impossible; reporters and columnists, like all humans, bring their own worldviews and perspectives to the issues they cover. The people at Fox News see the world differently than the people at NPR do. But we trust that conflicts of interest will be disclosed, that opinions will be labeled and clearly differentiated from facts. When government pays ostensibly independent and reputable journalists to promote its agenda, that’s cheating, and public trust is undermined at the most basic level.
For several years, administration critics like David Brock have accused the Bush political machine of “buying the news” as part of the very effective media “echo chamber” they’ve constructed—like issuing daily talking points to Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and similarly friendly outlets, and paying partisans to write letters to the editor. Most of us have dismissed such accusations as left-wing versions of right-wing conspiracy theories. (Wing-nuts come in all flavors.)
But we now know that Armstrong Williams took nearly a quarter of a million dollars to “independently” favor Bush Administration priorities; Maggie Gallagher and Michael McManus—clearly poorer negotiators—were paid 21,500 and 49,000 respectively to “independently” endorse the administration’s marriage initiative. Further disclosures are rumored.
These pundits and the politicians who paid them violated very clear rules. But they are hardly the only ones betraying the public trust or demonstrating contempt for the rule of law. Here in Indiana, our legislature is advancing several measures clearly intended to circumvent or defy court rulings—among them, bills to prohibit flag burning, prevent women from aborting, require drug testing of welfare recipients, and impose religion on students in public school classrooms.
When we can no longer trust the integrity of the people entrusted with our most important public institutions, if we no longer believe that they will play by the rules, how long until the game is over?