my own trust in institutions

Gallup has asked representative samples of Americans about their trust in various institutions since the 1970s. For instance, the proportion who expressed a great deal of trust in the medical system fell from 44% in 1975 to 14% in 1993 (recovering to 20% during the pandemic year of 2020, only to return to 15% last year). Between 18% and 31% say that they have a great deal of trust in the police each year, without a clear trend over time. Lately, only 11% express a great deal of trust in the Supreme Court, and that record-low rating has been widely noted.

My own levels of trust reflect my life experiences–which have been privileged and comfortable–plus my best efforts at understanding institutions more objectively. For what it’s worth, this is how I tend to think about them …

In affluent societies with economic and political competition, major institutions basically work as advertised. They do what they are widely described as doing, which is generally to serve people who can afford to pay. For instance, the health system dispenses effective treatments, banks protect depositors and deliver returns for shareholders, schools prepare most students for basic participation in the economy and society, and oil companies pump carbon to be burned.

If you believe that these institutions are scams or run by fools, you are naive and you will make yourself a mark for con artists. Or you may simply miss opportunities, e.g., by putting your money under the mattress instead of earning interest in a bank, by not getting vaccinated, or by failing to attend school.

On the other hand, these institutions are not designed to do very important things, such as preserve the environment, generate full employment, serve people in high need, or empower marginalized communities. So the problem is our array of institutions and their missions, not their basic reliability.

Truly predatory schemes occur. David A. Fahrenthold and my former student Talmon Joseph Smith report that restaurant workers are often required to “pay around $15 to a company called ServSafe for an online class in food safety,” and their money helps to “fund a nationwide lobbying campaign to keep their own wages from increasing.” This is deeply unjust. It is consistent, however, with my basic premise that our institutions serve their explicit constituencies as they advertise. The restaurant business offers competitively-priced food and profits for its investors; it is not set up to protect its own workers or the earth.

Institutions sometimes claim benefits that they clearly fail to offer. For instance, Royal Dutch-Shell claims to be committed to carbon-neutrality while actually boosting its capacity to pump oil, which harms affluent people along with everyone else. Such examples indicate that institutions lie outright, even to advantaged constituencies. However, I never believed that oil companies help the environment, nor are they widely described as doing so. Institutions tend to do what serious sources, such as major newspapers, say that they do.

By the way, the reason that individuals continue to invest in Shell is that they view the financial returns for themselves as more important than their share of the harms of global warming. It is not that individual investors have been fooled by “greenwashing” propaganda. (Institutional investors, such as pension funds, offer an opening because their members may rank protecting the earth as more important.)

My stance poses a circularity problem. I generally believe what I read in The New York Times but not propaganda from oil companies or social media from QAnon. I use words like “serious” and “mainstream,” as in “Mainstream media describe oil companies as contributors to dangerous global warming.” However, not all of us regard the same sources as mainstream. There is no View from Nowhere that sorts out the reliable from the unreliable. The view I am disclosing here is a form of ideology, in the sense of an overall orientation to the social world. It is subject to counter-examples, and I should be open to dropping it entirely. But the only alternative is to adopt a different overall orientation, and this one seems to me to fit the facts pretty well.

See also: vaccination, masking, political polarization, and the authority of science; mixed thoughts about the status of science; confidence in local institutions–new data; judgment in a world of power and institutions: outline of a view; we should be debating the big social and political paradigms; etc.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.