The three leading theories of trust are applicable to individuals. We judge people to be trustworthy toward us in some specific context if we think they are committed to maintaining a trustworthy character; we think they have a strong moral commitment to fulfilling trusts that they have taken on in some sense; we think to have good reason to want to maintain good relations with us (or relevant others). None of these can be readily applied to trust in institutions of government. There is however a long-standing view that we should not trust government, as implied in many libertarian positions and as asserted explicitly in James Madison’s thesis of liberal distrust. Madison wished to weaken government, not enable it. We can suppose that an individual might have a rich enough relationship to be able to trust some agent or small agency of government, but not government per se.
Surveys suggest that those who know enough to be able to judge much of the government trustworthy might be only about five percent. Claims that government needs citizen trust if it is to function at all are therefore prima facie false. The underlying political issues have changed in ways that reduce confidence in government. And in the USA, the two main political parties have altered their stances away from social libertarianism.
Russell Hardin is professor of politics at New York University and the author of many books, most recently How Do You Know? The Economics of Ordinary Knowledge (2009), Hume: Moral and Political Theorist (2006), Trust (2006), Indeterminacy and Society (2005), and Trust and Trustworthiness (2002). He is also the editor of Distrust (2004), volume 5 in the Russell Sage Foundation series on trust. Hardin is a fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.