[Restored from NLA site]
Over at his blog, Andrew Leigh asks a question he previously discussed in more detail in a book he co-edited, The Prince’s New Clothes: Why Do Australians Dislike Their Politicians?:
If you???re a classic small-government conservative, rising distrust of politicians is consistent with the Reaganesque ???government isn???t the solution, it???s the problem??? message.
I can see the logic, but it just hasn’t happened. There doesn’t seem to be any relationship between trust in politicians and attitudes on the size of government. For example, in the Roy Morgan series of polls on the ethics and honesty of various occupational groups, politicians have consistently done badly. Last year just 15% of voter rated them highly for ethics and honesty. And would we trust such rogues with our money? Yes! 68% of us would rather the politicians spend the surplus than give it back to us so that we can spend it ourselves.
The Roy Morgan survey is a bit demanding, wanting high or very high ratings. A better question has been asked in the Australian Election Survey, which asks whether people in government are looking after themselves or whether they can be ‘trusted to do the right thing nearly all the time’? With both ‘usually can be trusted’ and ’sometimes can be trusted’ options, in 2004 40% of respondents thought the politicans could at least sometimes be trusted. But that still leaves quite a few people who seemingly think that politicians are unstrustworthy and that they should spend surpluses rather than give them back.
Why has this happened? One theory, which I have advanced in Catallaxy posts that are inaccessible due to their server problems, is that the claimed distrust of politicians is a bit of a pose; a cliched response to questions about trust, but not actually an operational assumption when people think about politics. We can see this in higher trustworthiness ratings for specific politicians than politicians in general, and arguably it is showing up here as well.
Another possibility is implicit in the title of Andrew’s post, ‘ A place called Hope’. Yes, that’s Hope with a capital ‘H’. Perhaps the electorate, like social democrats, want to believe in the possibilities of government, even though it is an endless source of disappointment. It will be better the next time, or if not then the time after, or if not then either, the time after that… Classical liberals are the people who have given up waiting.
A third possibility is that though people do not think much of politicians, the people who deliver the government services that are popular spending items, such as nurses, doctors, school teachers, and police do score highly in ratings of ethics and honesty. So even though many people think that health and education services are getting worse and crime is on the increase, the problem is not the workers in these fields, it is that they don’t have enough money. This takes us back to the question of whether the distrust of politicians is a pose – perhaps they are not trusted much, but they are trusted enough to hand the cash over to people who enjoy high levels of trust.
It’s possible that distrust of politicians is a necessary condition of mass political support for small government (though intellectually it should not be; the problems of government are primarily to do with institutional structures, not the integrity of people within them). But it certainly isn’t a sufficient condition. People need to believe that the government is hopeless, and that there are better practical alternatives. There is no sign that the Australian people have signed up to either proposition.