Legitimacy and the Trust Deficit


Scott Rasmussen notes that the American people are losing trust in government for all sorts of (justified) reasons, which erodes the public sense that the government has any real legitimacy as a representative organization:

Until people can trust government, the government cannot enjoy the necessary consent of the governed. That’s true whether the distrust comes from a black teenager in Baltimore or a Tea Party leader in Texas.

For government in America to regain its legitimacy, government officials must change their behavior. People may gain power by winning an election, getting a badge or landing a job with the IRS, but legitimate authority is something that has to be earned every day.

This observation, at the national level, is evidence of my theory that the ills that plague Rhode Island, and similarly governed places, will eventually spread like an infectious disease if they are not cured at their source.  Rhode Islanders have long had a sense that they are locked out of government, that the rule of law does not exist (at least not in a fair, even way), and that things will never change.

There’s a reason people will be surprised if the public doesn’t help fund a second minor-league baseball stadium in the heart of Providence, on land that was promised to be a source of tax revenue and economic development.  This level of distrust is what happens when it’s clear that special interests will manipulate laws, as with the Central Coventry Fire District, in order to ensure that they never lose.

Although not to that level, yet, the “government versus the people” dynamic goes on in every city and town in Rhode Island, every year.  When voters approved, by nearly a two-to-one margin, an alternative budget that I proposed last year in Tiverton, holding the tax levy to a 0.0% increase, elected officials didn’t embark on a year of soul searching to figure out (or even ask) what people want.  They spent the year using their public meetings to attack me as if I somehow fooled the community, and they (apparently) worked in back rooms to come up with threats that might help them turn out the vote.  (This is nothing new.)  Now, we’ve got Town Administrator Matt Wojcik using a public forum (in front of other town employees over whom he has managerial authority) to snarl at me as if I’m a reckless deceiver simply for giving the people an alternative.

I think that’s what Rasmussen means about earning legitimacy every day.  In Rhode Island, and increasingly at the national level, the emphasis is on finding ways to give the people something the insiders say they need, but that they may not want and would not accept if they could actually make representative democracy representative.

  • Warrington Faust

    I have known many Rhode Islanders who were proud of the corruption in the state. That affirmation is usually accompanied by a wink, to let you know they are “in on it”.

    • ShannonEntropy

      So you know some guys who “know a guy”
      … zattaboudit ??

      • Warrington Faust

        As the state grows more suburban, there seems to be a decline in “I know a guy”. For instance, the former “hot suit” depot on Hope Street is now an Asian restaurant. The emporiums that specialized in largess from stolen trucks in Westboro, Mass seem to have disappeared. As a kid, I thought the state motto should be “Everything falls off the truck in Rhode Island”. Perhaps I just don’t know the sort of people I once did. OTOH, I have responded to a few “new in the box” ads on Craig’s List that left me wondering.

        • ShannonEntropy

          Hijacking trucks is small potatoes, just like digging thru trash to steal one identity is so 20th century

          Nowadays you hack into a major corporate database and steal a million IDs in one fell swoop

          … or you hijack the political process to get the State & LaProv to give you $millions$ to move a minor league baseball team a few miles down the road

          • Warrington Faust

            You’re correct. Higher level crooks have found larger, greener, safer pastures than roadside theft and arson. Lower level “soldiers” have found government jobs.