When public trust in government collapsed from 53 percent in 1972 to 36 percent in November 1974, it made sense. The Watergate investigation, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, was just the sort of ugly — and prolonged — episode to make public perception of government erode in a relatively rapid manner.
Ditto the historically low trust ratings reached in Pew polling in the early 1990s, as a series of congressional scandals — with the House Bank scandal being the most prominent — produced large amounts of media coverage focused on what the heck politicians were doing in the nation’s capital.
But the recent drop, which began in earnest after the goodwill toward Washington surrounding its actions in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks wore off, seems disconnected to any single notable event. There have been a fair share of legislative standoffs and scandals in recent years, but nothing nearly as heavily covered or broad as Watergate or the House bank.
End times? Good grief. Get off the ledge. The Fix bloggers continue:
The depressing reality of Pew’s long-term trend on trust in government is that there is no obvious cure for what ails the body politic these days. Without a clear cause, a sure solution isn’t available. It’s possible that we are simply in a new era in which trust in institutions like our government simply won’t ever approach — or come close to approaching — its historic highs.
How about this: Distrust of government institutions is a good thing. It's a fundamental component of the foundation of this nation.
Legal scholars have long remarked on the rise of the regulatory state and the extent to which law is not made by Congress but by administrative agencies supposedly acting pursuant to Congressional authority, i.e., with power "delegated" and, in theory, limited and defined by some law that Congress has passed.
To some extent, a modern state could not function without administrative rule-making. Not all of the particulars of a regulatory scheme can be specified in legislation and there may be circumstances in which the manner in which a law is implemented ought to be determined after administrative investigation into the relative merits of different ways of proceeding.
The problem is that, over the years, Congressional enactments have come to provide relatively little real guidance to administrative agencies and courts, in a misguided – and ironic – attempt to defer to the "democratic" process have gone too far in deferring to administrative agencies who act without substantial direction from the democratically elected legislature.
It has always surprised me that "clean government" types who become apoplectic over the campaign contributions of "special interests" are generally unconcerned about this growing administrative state. While open to public comment, administrative rule-making is technical and arcane and dominated by the regulated or those with a special interest in the subject of regulation. It is the ultimate insiders’ club.
The Framers of the Constitution settled upon a novel design for government, one that Madison said was "partly national, partly federal." For some purposes, Madison explained, we will be one people; for others, we will be multiple peoples. With respect to the national features—those things that concern the nation as a whole—the federal government will have sovereignty—complete and plenary power to accomplish the objects entrusted to its care in the Constitution. Those objects are principally found in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. National defense, for example, is exclusively delegated to the federal government. And since the exigencies that face nations in foreign affairs are unpredictable and innumerable, the federal government must have sovereignty to fulfill this delegated trust. And if that trust is to be fulfilled, the federal government must also be accorded the necessary means to achieve that end. If this entails large government—and today it surely does—then large government must be compatible with limited government. Similar reasoning applies to all the objects delegated to the care of the federal government.
The Declaration of Independence provided the authoritative statement of America’s political principles. For the first time, government was said to derive its legitimacy—its just powers—from "the consent of the governed." This was a turning point in world-historical consciousness: no longer would it be possible to argue that sovereignty belonged to governments or kings—even if kings claimed appointment by divine right.
In order to form just government, the people delegate a portion of their sovereignty to government to be exercised for their benefit. The fact that only a portion of sovereignty is ceded by the people is the origin of the idea of limited government.
Our founders were the ultimate skeptics when it came to trust in government.