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Conservatives and Collapsing Trust in Government

According to a recent Pew Research Center study, only 26 percent of those surveyed say they can trust government always or most of the time, while 73 percent say they can trust the government only some of the time or never. “Majorities across all partisan and demographic groups express little or no trust in government,” according to the study.

It’s clear that the Obama years, rather than deepening public confidence in government, has had the opposite effect. A president who has almost limitless faith in government is having a corrosive effect on its reputation. To some of us this is not an irony but an inevitability.

In this environment, conservatives can offer several arguments, the most obvious of which is this: Right now the federal government is doing far more than it should, doing very little of it well, and doing outright harm in far too many circumstances.

Beyond that, conservative lawmakers could respond not by saying they’ll dismantle government, which is neither realistic nor wise. Rather, they could present themselves as those best equipped to re-limit, reform and modernize government–including our tax code, entitlement and immigration systems, regulatory regime, and schools. Many of these programs were designed decades ago, when circumstances were profoundly different, and they are badly out of date and out of touch. One example: our current immigration policy, passed into law the same year (1965) the Beatles met Elvis and The Sound of Music was the biggest grossing film in America, created a bias toward so-called family reunification. Today we need to alter our approach by tightening family reunification and substantially increasing visas for high-skilled workers.

I’d add two other points. The first is that conservatives in the 1990s experienced remarkable success against three seemingly intractable problems–welfare dependency, drug use, and violent crime–not by scaling back government’s involvement but by implementing better public policies at both the federal and local level. The massive drop in crime, for example, was attributable to several factors, including higher incarceration rates, an increase in police per capita, improvements in policing techniques, and addressing urban disorder and vandalism, which have a magnetic attraction to criminals.

The second point is that conservatives should recognize that the hemorrhage of trust in government is harmful to a liberal democracy (as well as something of a self-indictment). Skepticism toward government is one thing; outright hostility is quite another. It is hard for citizens to fully love their country if they have utter disdain for its government. Indeed, sustained contempt for America’s government often leads one to feel ashamed of America.

The 19th century economist Alfred Marshall described government as “the most precious of human institutions, and no care can be too great to be spent on enabling it to do its work in the best way.” Thinking of government as a precious human institution doesn’t come naturally to many modern-day conservatives. It’s easy to understand why, given the damage government is doing on a daily basis. Still, there’s an important truth in Marshall’s insight. And there’s a world of difference between showering dismissive contempt on government versus restoring respect for government by re-limiting and reforming it.

It seems to me that conservatives should, for philosophical and practical reasons, make the case that they will give Americans a government, and therefore a country, they can once again take great pride in.



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