The Simple Reason Trust in Government is Falling Worldwide – And in the U.S.

All around the world, people are increasingly frustrated with their governments.

A new report from Transparency International tries to identify the causes in its 2013 Global Corruption Barometer. The report does a good job of tracking the worldwide phenomenon of corruption and falling trust in public institutions.  At its core, however, is a more stealthy problem than any type of actual crime. It’s a problem of access and lack of accountability — the idea that our institutions are no longer beholden to the people, but to special interests looking out only for themselves.

Bribery is a very real aspect of falling trust, but doesn’t get to the heart of it. Among the big results from the Transparency International report was the fact that one in four people surveyed admitted to having paid a bribe in the past year to a public service. However, looking closer at the data reveals that the U.S. is doing relatively well on this particular question. Seven percent surveyed in the U.S. admitted to having paid such a bribe. Sure, that’s not the <5% category that a lot of the first-world countries were in, but it’s not necessarily terrible either. It’s certainly better than most other countries. In spite of this, however, we are still one of the countries that think that corruption has increased nationally. An explanation of this requires looking at some other data in the report that is getting overlooked in some of the news reports.

For one thing, the institutions perceived as the most corrupt are not necessarily the ones that are reported as getting bribe money. The institutions receiving bribe money around the world are the police and the judiciary. However, there is a close five-way jumble for the most corrupt institution, with political parties in first, police in second, and a three-way tie for third between civil servants, the legislature, and the judiciary. In the U.S., by the way, political parties are first, with the media and the legislature tied for second. This pretty closely echoes Gallup’s polling, where Congress received this year the lowest level of confidence from the public for any institution since Gallup began keeping track.

Here’s the crux of our problem. In the percentages of OECD countries who think that their government is run by a small group of special interests mostly looking out for themselves, the U.S. ranks among the worst, with 64% of the population saying that it was true “to a large extent” or “entirely.”

What should we take from this data? While a lot of other countries have a large bribery problem to take care of, in the United States, it’s not quite as pressing. The U.S. needs to look at corruption in a broader framework in order to understand its political malaise. Our problem isn’t the stereotypical money that greases the palm. It’s the people who feel alienated from a government that isn’t taking the time to listen to them, because they’re being crowded out by special interests.

While money plays a huge role in this, it’ has more to do with the time legislators spend listening to people who give large sums of money perfectly legally, in comparison to average Americans who don’t have a special interest machine to rely on. It’s a media that panics the moment computers have a small glitch on Wall Street but happily declares the sequester to have not caused much of an impact, completely ignoring the havoc that is being wreaked on programs for the poor who can’t afford their own SuperPAC. And it’s a political party machinery that is more interested in how to sell the American public on its platform du jour than in listening to what the public actually wants. We need to have a serious talk about these issues, once we can find someone with deep enough pockets to spur our institutions toward it.