Larry Elliott wants us all to know that it’s very important that we kill off inequality so that we all trust each other again. The problem with the analysis being that, one, inequality’s not at anything like any historical high and two, it’s not other people that we’ve lost trust in in the first place. It’s the people who brought us the 1970s we’ve lost trust in and why the hell wouldn’t we do that?
There’s an elision here that makes Elliott’s argument. Without it it just doesn’t work:
From Adam Smith onwards, economists have recognised that trust is the glue that binds societies together. Nations in which people trust each other have stronger institutions, are more open, have less corruption, grow faster and are nicer places to live. Trust is notable by its absence in police states.
Entirely true, I’ve worked in more than one low trust society an it’s a bugger, believe me. It’s this next bit:
So it is a matter of concern that trust has become an increasingly rare commodity. In the US, there has been a precipitous drop in faith in the government.
A high trust society and one that trusts in government is not the same thing. Which is the elision that’s being made. We’ve just leapt from an assumption that trusting your fellow man to do well by you is equal to trusting that the bird four levels up in the bureaucracy is going to do well by you. With your money. These are not the same thing.
Almost four out of five Americans trusted Washington to do the right thing when Eisenhower and John F Kennedy were in the White House. Under Donald Trump, that has fallen to one in five. In Britain, Theresa May is trying to finesse a Brexit deal at a time when parliament is even less trusted than the banks.
Why in heck would we trust the people who brought us the 1970s?
The rest is predictable enough, it’s inequality that means we don’t trust each other, therefore let’s have much more government to crush inequality. That we don’t have high levels of inequality these days – no, really, inequality of lives as they are lived is low today. Even the TUC has claimed that the actual consumption of the top 10% of families is only 4 times that of the bottom 10%. Difficult to think of many earlier periods when that was true.
And that Holy Hand Grenade into that predictable argument is that it’s not our fellow man we’ve lost trust in, it’s government. Simply because we’ve been subject to government, seen what it does. Thus the answer must be less government, right?
Adam Smith was quite right, trust is an important institution leading to a good society. You don’t need a close contextual reading of Smith to note that trust in the output of governance was not high on his list of major beliefs. So let’s be those Smithians, before we do get that replay of the 70s. Hail Fellow well met and all that, but bugger the politicians.