Who Can We Trust?

The Indianapolis Star has been advocating rather forcefully for laws to tighten restrictions on the lobbyists who exercise increasing power at the Statehouse. The Star argues that such restrictions are necessary if we are to restore a modicum of trust in our legislative body.

 They’re right.

 My most recent book—“Distrust, American Style”—was an inquiry into the current American “trust deficit.” I learned a lot.

In recent decades, old-fashioned corruption and greed combined with regulatory dysfunction to undermine business ethics. Enron, WorldCom, Halliburton, the sub-prime housing market meltdown—these and so many others are the stuff of hourly news reports. Many business scandals were enabled by failures of federal regulatory agencies; others were traced back to K Street influence-peddlers.

But it goes well beyond Wall Street greed and government incompetence.

Religious organizations haven’t been covering themselves with glory, heavenly or otherwise. Revelations ranging from misappropriation of funds to protection of pedophiles to the “outing” of stridently anti-gay clergy have discouraged believers and increased skepticism of organized religion. In that other American religion, major league sports, the news has been no better. High profile investigations confirmed widespread use of steroids by baseball players. An NBA referee was found guilty of taking bribes to “shade” close calls, and others have been accused of betting on games at which they officiate.  Michael Vick’s federal  indictment and guilty plea on charges related to dog fighting was tabloid fodder for weeks.

Scandals have even involved charitable organizations; a few years ago, United Way of America had to fire an Executive Director accused of using contributions to finance a lavish lifestyle, and other charities have been accused of spending far more on overhead than on good works.

In short, the institutions of our common civic life have seemingly unraveled.

Perhaps—as my more cynical friends believe—things have always been this way. But in earlier times, we did not have 24/7 cable news, millions of blogs and assorted broadcast pundits constantly telling us about it. If Americans are less trusting than we used to be, it’s no wonder.

Unfortunately, when citizens don’t know who they can trust, everything becomes fodder for suspicion and urban legend. Eventually, government grinds to a halt, and even the most routine tasks fall victim to conspiracy theories and fear-mongering. We are perilously close to such a meltdown in American civic life.

Our system of government was deliberately structured around the notion of checks and balances. The founders recognized that not all public servants would be trustworthy; their response was to create structures and competing power centers that would force accountability and transparency—to create a system we could trust, even when some people in that system weren’t trustworthy.

Perhaps the Indiana legislature is filled with the innocent do-gooders that Pat Bauer and Brian Bosma touchingly describe. But many of us have our doubts. The modest reforms supported by the Indianapolis Star would be a welcome step toward removing those doubts and restoring a measure of  trust in our governing institutions.