Why Distrust of Government is a Good Thing

My colleague, Mr. Daniel Larsen, recently published an insightful article arguing that a government that cannot be trusted leads us to a Savior who can.  He poignantly articulates how the general lack of trust in American political leaders pushes us toward a better  hope in Christ.  That government deficiency illuminates Christ’s sufficiency.  I want to argue that the government’s questionable trustworthiness is not quite a deficiency, but a central strength of the American system:  Distrust of government cultivates unmitigated, self-revealing honesty.

As Americans, we are always looking for savior statesman to protect us from the vast pool of untrustworthy politicians.  We are distinctly aware that candidates tell us what our itching ears want to hear, not necessarily what their true intentions are.  By discrediting themselves individually, politicians have discredited the whole community of American political leaders.

From fear of the government’s power to spy on its own citizens to the deception of the Watergate Scandal, the government has shown one thing about itself – its questionable, if not absolutely compromised, trustworthiness.

However, by “government,” Americans mean government leaders, not standard government functions.  We subconsciously trust government responsibilities like keeping our currency credible, delivering our mail, and (most certainly) collecting our taxes.  But we do not necessarily trust our leaders’ actions in the wake of national emergencies, urgent policy-making, and other pressing issues.

Does this mean that our system of government is less trustworthy than other government systems?

Not necessarily.  Our distrust of government does not illuminate a structural deficiency, but an intentional efficiency, an efficiency that allows us to clearly perceive the shortcomings of government leadership.

Elected government officials repeatedly offend us, the voters.  Over and over again, candidates that seemed courageous and convicted at election time either compromise their previously nonnegotiable positions or pursue all kinds of scandals once they reach office.  And we are left wondering whether anything any leader or candidate says can be trusted.

Washington, in his farewell address, articulates this tendency as, “…that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates the human heart.” Men, even government leaders, are corrupt, seeking to further their own ends at the expense of, and by the deception of, those around them.  With power, this inner depravity becomes more apparent: leaders view their powerful position as a way to accomplish well-intentioned ends, without concern for the nature of the means, however dishonorable or misleading.

The really smart men who constructed the American form of government recognized this human depravity as the core element that the American political system must account for.  Madison famously said, “But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?  If men were angels, no government would be necessary” (Federalist Paper 51).

Madison therefore espouses a system in which, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

This counteraction, which plays out between the three of branches of government, more specifically structures the ways that individual leaders interact.  If I am a leader, and I want an easy way to reduce the power of an opposing or disagreeable leader, I can simply discredit him in the eyes of his voters.  This not only significantly reduces his trust-based power but also nearly eliminates his chances of reelection.

This does not mean that political leaders will not act deceptively and try to outsmart the system.  Neither does it seal the failure of deceptive leaders.  But the structure does motivate leaders to rat each other out.

If nothing else, the fact that we are aware of the government’s ability to spy on us or Nixon’s Watergate Scandal should lead us to trust the efficiency of the system’s built in lie-detector.  When everyone who disagrees with you is trying to figure out when you are lying, it’s difficult to get away with a lie.   Thus, our government leaders seem so untrustworthy because the structure of government encourages leaders to call out the untrustworthiness of other leaders.

The political system does not corrupt our leaders so much as it exposes a deeper corrupt nature already within them.

So, though we cannot necessarily trust our leaders, we can trust the system to make known their untrustworthiness.  The failures, shortcomings, and corruptions we continually see in our government should not make us despair in our government, by the very fact that we see these evils.  If we discover the untrustworthiness of our leaders, the government system is actually doing its job.  Therefore, my distrust of our leaders actually signals the system’s reliability; the American system deserves my trust because it naturally distrusts.

So, here’s a structurally dependable strength: my government will be transparent, even if it communicates its own lack of transparency.

Other government systems may portray themselves as better, more virtuous, or less corrupt, to which we should respond, not with praise and congratulation, but unease at the thought that men are so blind as to think they can deceive us about their own corruption.

Distrust is never a good thing; yet distrust of government is a good thing insofar as it exposes its own untrustworthiness for all of us to see.  I’m not advocating a blind distrust and cynicism of all American government action, but an open-eyed trust of what the government as a whole tells us we should trust it with.  The government structure is doing its job.  It’s our job to perceive the structure’s limits:  those things we should not entrust to the government, those spaces in government with no built-in motivations to self-expose hidden flaws.