What does it mean to trust? One of my favorite, counter-intuitive definitions of the term comes from Margaret Levi and Laura Stoker’s 2000 Annual Review of Political Science article which identifies “trust” as an individual “making herself vulnerable to another individual, group, or institution that has the capacity to do her harm or betray her.” This is a knowing definition of trust, a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam look back at a mythical time before people became suddenly aware of the government’s capacity to betray. It reminds me of someone reflecting pensively on a failed marriage, looking deeply into a coffee cup and entertaining nostalgic, gold-tinged visions of happier days. I imagine political scientists scanning the internet talking heads while humming a sad version of “Ike, Ike, Ike for President.”
I think the trust literature in political science is tremendously interesting and important. However, it is rarely used as a call to arms. Scholars have plumbed the fact that trust in government is a complicated thing because of the many immediate and historical, emotional and rational reasons for variation in generalized political trust. Naturally, perception of a corporate entity like government is a complicated thing. Meanwhile, there are many other corporate entities which also have a vested interest in things going well. In private companies, however, nobody just sits and wonders pensively, “where did the love go?”
Private corporations operate at a distinct disadvantage to the US government in terms of opportunities to create trust. Every child growing up in this country is instilled with basic positivity towards government through formal education. The existing governmental structure holds an entirely legitimate monopoly over its functions, which it abdicates only when it itself decides to do so. Everyone in the country is a paying customer, beneficiary, and constituent member of our extended corporate entity.
Without this baseline assumption of trust, private corporations have become the entities that have learned to actively go out and cultivate it. The development of trust has become an enterprise dominated by private entities, which, perhaps because they can place a dollar value on it, understand the importance of creating and maintaining a consumer’s belief in the efficacy and reliability of their work. Looking around this morning, I found that some ambitious public relations agencies have even moved beyond trust: here, Millward Brown argues that trust alone is less valuable than trust which is augmented by a consumer’s willingness to actively recommend a consumer brand. Private companies are moving to “trust plus” while the US government continues to struggle to find ways to explain itself effectively on individual policies, let alone recapture a positive corporate image.
Somebody could use a consult.