Allow me to give you a look inside the Mackinac Center. I gave our editor a draft of this column on March 2, just as the COVID-19 coronavirus began upending everything. My editor now tells me I should revise the piece to reflect the extraordinary current circumstances. My original topic was how elected officials can improve trust in government, which is still relevant. The only difference: In a crisis, you don’t have much time to make decisions or explain yourself. You hope you’ve built a reservoir of goodwill, because you’ll need it.
It is commonplace for people to lament declining trust in government. I recently saw a nationwide survey by Morning Consult that said people are roughly five times more likely to trust Amazon and Google than the federal government.
In one sense, this is not new, or surprising. We the people have always had a healthy distrust of government and unfettered power. The Bill of Rights wasn’t written out of an abundance of trust.
But in another sense, the erosion of trust could have consequences for people, property and markets. We don’t want to discover what level of distrust would trigger widespread reactions in which people refuse to participate in elections, abandon civil behavior or engage in vigilantism.
Today’s viral outbreak, and the enormous government interventions seeking to contain it, will stress test the American people’s trust in government. Apart from the public health implications of the coronavirus, the market jitters over it and the economically devastating policies meant to contain it create additional, equally sobering implications.
Perception is never perfect, but it often tracks closely with reality. If public servants fear that trust in government is waning in this critical time, they should ask what they can do.
Here’s my suggestion: Govern in a way that recognizes that political power comes from the people. Embrace government transparency and accountability.
Most laws address how people in the private sector act, so we have criminal laws and, as recent events have reminded us, laws concerning public health and public emergencies. In contrast, another category of law limits what government officials can do. For example, the Freedom of Information Act says that Michigan residents deserve to review public records: “[A]ll persons … are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government….”
Unfortunately, government agencies routinely delay and obstruct requests for records, complaining about the burden on overworked agencies. (Violating the FOIA law is a bipartisan reality. In the last few years, the Mackinac Center has had to sue both the Snyder and Whitmer administrations to obtain public records.)
FOIA is one example; there are numerous laws that place restrictions of government power: term limits, tax limitations, school accountability measures, to name a few. Each plays a role in buoying public confidence in government, but more often than not, government officials resist these ideas.
These policies all deserve a robust debate over their short- and long-term effects. But elected officials and public employees should frequently ask: “If we complain about these laws, lobby against them, weaken them through litigation or neglect … does that improve or harm trust in government?”