Perhaps the most positive legacy of the Clinton administration will be that it further eroded the public’s trust in the federal government. Trust has declined significantly since the Great Society programs of the Johnson administration. According to University of Michigan surveys, the number of people who responded that the federal government does what is right “always” or “most of the time” has dropped from 75 percent in 1964 to less than 30 percent in the mid-1990s.

Our view is that this decline in trust is a good thing because it mirrors rather accurately the performance of a government that has become less trustworthy. However, before making our case for less trust in government, we acknowledge that most people see the decline in this trust as a serious problem.

The Cart Before the Horse

People have worried about lack of public confidence in government for a long time. For example, Benjamin Franklin fretted that “Much of the Strength and Efficiency of any Government, in procuring & securing Happiness to the People, depends on . . . the general Opinion of the Goodness of that Government.”

This was no doubt a legitimate concern in Franklin’s day, when the federal government was undergoing a controversial birth and controlled little of the people’s wealth. But today, with the federal government commanding over 20 percent of our income directly through spending, and significantly more through regulation, some are still concerned that confidence in government might be too low to allow it to seize more of our resources. For example, Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, worries that “if people believe that government is incompetent and cannot be trusted, they are less likely to provide [critical] resources. Without [these] resources, government can’t perform well.” Studies investigating the decline in trust, and fueling concern about the consequences, have been published recently by the Kennedy School, University of Virginia, and Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

These studies sometimes admit that government’s performance leaves something to be desired, but suggest that the best way to improve its performance is by restoring trust in it. This puts the cart before the horse. Where is the advantage in placing more trust in an organization whose performance does not justify trust? How many people needing heart bypass surgery would trust a surgeon who kills most of his patients on grounds that he will become a better surgeon only if more people trust him?

The only sensible way to restore trust in government is by making it more trustworthy. And a trustworthy government is more likely to be undermined by too much trust than by too little. Indeed, a major reason government performs so poorly is that persistent political influences encourage citizens to put far too much trust in it.

The Arithmetic of Voting

Public trust is easily transformed into political power that will be used to promote private advantage at public expense. The reason is rooted in the simple arithmetic of voting. Voting is an important civic responsibility, and nothing here is meant to suggest otherwise. But in state and national elections, the probability of your vote deciding the outcome is far less than that of being injured driving to the polls. This means that favoring one candidate or proposal costs you almost nothing in terms of sacrificing the alternative. Only in the rare case of a tie is your vote decisive; only then does your vote for one alternative cause you to sacrifice the other.

This arithmetic is important because it explains why charisma and emotion can trump substance in politics. Registering support at the polls for a superficially attractive candidate or a superficially compassionate proposal allows a voter to identify with the glamorous or feel virtuous with little concern about cost or effectiveness. For example, if voting for a proposal to combat “global warming” (or for a candidate who supports the proposal) makes you feel good, you might be tempted to shelve any doubts and vote regardless of the cost to you if it passes, since your vote is not decisive. The more people trust government, the more virtuous they feel when voting for a wide range of government initiatives that end up costing far more and delivering far less than promised.

Exploiting the Public’s Trust in Government

The nature of government programs enables well-placed interest groups to capture private benefits at public expense. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has increased the size of its budget by championing command-and-control approaches to reducing pollution. Market-based measures are more effective and cheaper, but require fewer bureaucrats and have been resisted by the EPA. Industry groups (such as the eastern coal industry) have also supported command-and-control approaches to protect themselves against competition (from low-sulfur western coal), at the expense of consumers (higher electricity prices) and environmental quality (more sulfuric oxides in the atmosphere). The list of government activities supported by well-intended citizens, but perverted by organized interests, is painfully long.

Every interest group wants to convince the public that government can be trusted to promote the general well-being by increasing some spending or regulating. The result is a steady stream of rhetoric aimed at making people feel good about trusting government to solve almost every imaginable problem.

Unfortunately, a widespread belief that discretionary government power can and should solve every social problem is incompatible with government’s performing well. Such trust leads to politically compelling demands for government to do lots of things it has no business doing, with the result that it does poorly the few things it should be doing.

The best way to make government more trustworthy is for voters to resist the temptation to achieve a cheap sense of virtue by voting for every “virtuous” proposal that comes along. The real virtue is in voting against most government programs (and the politicians who support them), no matter how virtuous those programs are supposed to be.

We need plenty of public skepticism toward government to counter the voters’ tendency to support government activities that purport to “do good” with power that will invariably be captured and corrupted by special interests. A trustworthy government requires a healthy measure of public distrust.