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Definitions / November 12 2019

How definitions drive debates: What we mean by “loss of trust"

All illustrations by Kent Hernandez for Doha Debates

Public trust in governments is near historic lows, as confidence plummets and belief in institutions’ basic fairness and functions erodes each day, according to global studies. Three quarters of all governments are mistrusted by their citizens. How can we restore trust? Or should we not? Should we move trust to new social initiatives and technologies instead of the old formal bodies of government?

Solutions start with definitions, so here’s an overview of what we mean by “trust” in connection with governments, democracy and society. Keep these on hand for our debate on November 12, 2019, at the Paris Peace Forum.

Trust in government — a positive but subjective perception — represents the “confidence of citizens in the actions of a government to do what is right and perceived fair,” as defined by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Since “right” and “fair” are open to interpretation and personal preference, setting our expectations of government’s performance — and measuring trust against it — is a key factor in confidence in government. As people become more educated and better informed, expectations of government performance increase.

The reason trust in government and public institutions matters to society is that trust provides the legitimacy of democratic systems, a measure of how much citizens believe in their government to do what’s right, according to political scientist David Easton. Strong legitimacy can lead to peaceful public policies; weak legitimacy, as we’ve seen in mass protests like the Arab Spring and currently in Hong Kong, can lead to armed conflict. Without trust, democracy can’t function.

Many people have trusted governments throughout history to build roads, deliver mail, provide a social safety net for vulnerable and disadvantaged citizens, and apply the law when crimes or disagreements take place. But trust has declined rapidly for many sociopolitical and economic reasons: poor institutional performance (like governments’ decisions to invade other countries), large-scale “shocks” (like the 2007–2008 economic recession, the rise of disinformation, and global migration stirring tensions around race), political polarization, widening inequality, unchecked corruption, and narrowing economic mobility.

There’s a particularly strong link between income inequality and lack of institutional trust. Where inequality is higher, people in poverty feel less powerful and opt out of both civic and community participation. But even more concerning is the correlating decrease of trust in fellow citizens. A major study by political scientists Mitchell Brown and Eric M. Uslaner found that “when resources are distributed inequitably, people at the top and bottom will not see each other as facing a shared fate,” creating “less reason to trust people of different backgrounds.” When you can’t trust your own neighbors, how can you trust a much larger, faceless institution?

To rebuild trust in democratic institutions, we also need “a healthy distrust in order to hold those in power accountable,” according to the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy, which points out that democratic societies depend on free and reliable news media to expose misconduct at high levels of power. Taking distrust even further, rather than trying to improve the relationship between governments and their people — a tall order when you have millions of citizens — some changemakers advocate something more radical: a movement toward a trustless society, or a society that places trust outside of government, beginning with new technologies such as blockchain.

Can we brush off the cynicism of eroding trust and rebuild confidence in our institutions to improve society? Or is there an alternative, a more creative option? Join the debate right now @DohaDebates using the hashtag #DearWorld and let us know.