The Erosion of Trust in Public Institutions

by Ken Burnside

Joseph Goebbels once said that the public would believe any lie if it were repeated loudly enough and often enough.

We’re seeing the consequences of such a lie now.

The lie began innocuously:  “Government isn’t the solution to the problem, government IS the problem.”  The lie is one of staggering government inefficiency, of corruptions both venal and criminal.

Any large organization is going to nurture inefficiencies.  The Social Security Administration’s telephone menu system and support staff are no better (and no worse) than Time Warner Cable’s.  It’s a function of organization size relative to the number of respondents, and it’s a known problem in scaling technical support and sales calls.

The call for privatization of public services always promises great bounding leaps in efficiency as the “bureaucratic fat is trimmed.”  Those leaps inevitably end up with insider dealing; the larger the number of people involved in the stakeholder group size providing a service, the likelier it is that the service will align with the public good, rather than the enrichment of the people making the decision.  Privatization, by its definition, is a reduction in stakeholder group size.

The lie about government being the problem has a secondary lie:  Anyone who believes otherwise is on the take of corrupt politicians, who, eventually, get so far insulated from the consequences of their action that they can “call for pizza” and get a child sex slave during a political campaign.

The “tar brush” of corruption (usually from people claiming they have a moral superiority) has been part and parcel of representative governments.  Nor am I saying that public servants aren’t corrupt.  Bill Clinton had sex with Lewinski.  The Clinton Administration gave out favors to friends; so did the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration. Rewarding the people who help you govern is how you do the job.  If you don’t reward the people who help you govern, they’ll leak information about you to the press, and they’ll undermine you.

The Clinton and Obama Administrations are the first two Presidential Administrations where no Executive Branch staffer has been brought to trial or “resigned to avoid being charged.” in the nearly 220 years of our Constitution.

Corruption happens.  What’s important is making sure that there are enough people involved in the process of governance that corruption gets aired out regularly.   Ironically, legislation meant to root out corruption has usually has the opposite effect, as it’s used to harass people out of the ruling stakeholder’s group when they want to shake things up.

What is unprecedented is the use of “Corrupt Clintons” as a tar-baby to append every ill of the American public upon them.  Friends I respect say that they voted for Trump because they couldn’t stand the air of corruption around the Clintons.

Given Trump’s behavior in the last 30 days, “irony” fails to suffice.

The degree of corruption in the United States political system is one of the lowest in the world, ranking 16th out of 168 nations tracked.  This is roughly where the US has remained, plus or minus three places, depending on current scandals or the contentiousness of an election.

Representative governments run on trust.  When “isolated kooks” shoot up pizza parlors to “rescue child sex slaves from the Clintons”, it’s not out of bounds to say that that trust has been eroded, and to a dangerous level.  The constant Benghazi hearings, the complaints that Clinton’s private email server ‘proved’ her to be ‘beyond the reach of mere prosecution’ have all been done to play the game of “keep Clinton out of the White House.”

She was exonerated in every Benghazi hearing.  She exposed classified information to the Internet, and the government refused to prosecute her on it, making up an “intent” loophole that will be problematic down the road.

But it doesn’t matter; to the people who’ve tribally identified as “against Clinton corruption,” nothing short of the two of them tearfully admitting to every crime on live TV and then dousing one another with gasoline, apologizing to the nation and lighting themselves on fire would suffice.

Well, no, it wouldn’t.  They wouldn’t suffer enough. They’d probably want live reaction shots of Chelsea Clinton watching this, holding her baby.

The Clintons are no more corrupt than any pair of politicians in the country, and less corrupt and hypocritical than many:  Every major Republican player in the Lewinski scandal has now been proven to have been having an affair, or concealing rape charges, at the time the investigation was running.

The problem with anti-corruption crusades is that they’re usually pretexts for removing political rivals from power, and only swap out who’s getting the graft, rather than reducing the graft. At worst, they open the door to mob rule.

Only one thing has ever been proven to reduce graft, and that’s to increase the number of people in the stake-holder’s group who make the decisions.  This is unpopular with the people in the stakeholder’s groups, because they have to manage and please more people, and their job security is generally reduced.


The good news is that our national government, even with the shifting importance to the Federal level, is designed to seize up. It’s not impossible to turn the United States Government into a kleptocracy; it’s happened in the past (read about the Hoover Administration in the 1920s as a primer), but it takes concerted effort that’s hard to conceal, and it’s proven to be damned near impossible to make those changes stick for more than one Presidential Administration.

We’ve created a mob of “anti-corruption” crusaders who want to believe the worst of the opposition and won’t settle for anything less.  Historically, that’s a bad sign for a Republic.

This is something that we, as citizens, can combat.  Apply Socrates’ Triple Filter before sharing things on social media:  “Is it True?, Is it Good?, Is it Useful?”  If it’s neither of these things, don’t share it – and don’t add to the noise drowning out the signal of civic virtue and engagement with other people.

Proactively engage people who are swapping out conspiracy theories, like #pizzagate. Ask them to quantify the harm or cite sources.  While Welch didn’t harm anyone, the time to confront this kind of thing is when it’s handled over keyboards on the Internet, not when an armed loon has shown up to “rescue children” from a restaurant, as a culmination of an Internet harassment campaign.