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Davis Journal

Without trust, democracy and public health will fail

Aug 12, 2021 10:29AM ● By Bryan Gray

A Nobel Prize winner once said, “It is trust, not money, that makes the world go around.”  The acclaimed early economist Adam Smith agreed, saying trust was the one thing that separated humans from animals: “Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog.”

Trust is the glue for an efficient and stable society. If we didn’t trust the U.S. Treasury, for instance, we would demand our employer pay us in gold bricks rather than greenbacks. We trust that our pharmacist will give us the proper prescription. We trust that other drivers will stop at a red light.

Yet numerous studies today show that trust is declining in almost every aspect of American life. Some examples:

Only 10% of Republicans and 30% of Democrats say they trust the news media…In 1964, 75% of Americans said they trusted the federal government; today only 25% do…Nearly 50% of active registered voters think people from opposing political parties cannot be trusted and are “downright evil”…Trust in politics, religious leaders, Congress, television networks, business leaders, and financial institutions are constantly declining according to pollsters (and trust in the veracity of polls is dropping as well).

Numerous studies say we don’t trust our neighbors to do the “right thing.” Is this because we don’t really know our neighbors? My son and daughter know nothing about the people living next to them. We no longer have “Welcome Wagons” to introduce people to neighborhoods. In Utah, the predominant church fills this gap, but not all neighborhoods are inclusive to non-members.

Politics has certainly shredded trust. A KSL radio program recently featured a study on how the normal “circle of friends” is now only a “triangle of friends.” A main culprit is the fiery political landscape which has broken up friendships and families. Only 33% say they have a great or good deal of trust in the political competence of Americans. Trust in the country is down as well. Only 45% of older adults and a mere 13% of millennials describe the U.S. as the world’s “greatest” country, a sharp drop from previous years.  

Another explanation is the growing economic divide. Too many politicians convince us that the country’s prosperity is a “zero sum game” in which one person is deprived when another person succeeds. Americans fail to see that helping a certain class of people may also allow all boats to rise. For instance, if universities educate more Black and Latino physicians leading to more access to and better health for minority citizens, all taxpayers regardless of race will be helped by lower health costs and the strengthening of Medicare.  

The polls may not always give a clear picture. While a huge segment of Americans claim they don’t trust banks, I don’t see a mob at the teller windows withdrawing money and stuffing it in their pillows!

Yet the survey findings should be a warning. We trusted vaccines and conquered polio and smallpox. Today, an unhealthy 25% don’t trust the COVID vaccine, having implications for all of us. Some 50% of conservative Republicans don’t trust recent election results and a sizable number of young voters worry that their votes won’t count. Trust me – without trust, the world may still spin around, but democracy and public health will fail.