James Buchanan often expresses admiration for Italian political thought – and, by extension, the wisdom of the Italian in the street.  Why?  Because they take it for granted that politics is a corrupt game, and that all the flowery talk is pure hypocrisy.  So far, so good.  But why then don’t Italians also take it for granted that the government is best which governs least?  When irrational faith in government leads to socialism, at least there’s an inner logic.  The marriage of cynicism and socialism is simply weird.

Over at reason.com, Eggers and O’Leary argue that this weird marriage is a general pattern:

Today, only 23
percent of Americans trust government to do the right thing. At first blush,
this would seem to be an encouraging statistic for those opposed to “big
government.” After all, the less citizens trust government, the less willing
they should be to give it big new responsibilities, right?


An important recent academic study called “Regulation
and Distrust
” shows that, paradoxically, the worse government performs, the
more citizens demand greater government intervention. The authors’ explanation
for this curious finding is that in societies where people distrust large
institutions–whether government or big business–the demand for more regulation
and for more government is higher, even when government is incompetent or
downright corrupt.

I don’t think their summary of “Regulation and Distrust” is quite right; unless I’m mistaken, the paper doesn’t even measure government performance.  The paper also seems to take a rational choice interpretation of the pattern; I’m predictably more sympathetic to the irrational voter story that Eggers and O’Leary seem to be suggesting.  Regardless, though, I’m willing to buy the general point that economic freedom and trust go together. 

Still, this pattern is open to an array of other interpretations.  In the GSS, confidence in e.g. government and business has a strong positive correlation (though almost no correlation at all with trusting other people).  Maybe optimism causes both trust in government and support for free markets?  Could free markets work so well that they cause trust?  Could trustworthiness lead to both trust in government and lower perceived need for government?

Ideas?  Feedback from readers from big-government/low trust societies is especially welcome.