Instead of turning our back on our institutions we need to reform them
Published 28/03/2014 | 02:30
PR firm Edelman publishes an annual 'Trust Barometer' which measures the extent to which people in a couple of dozen countries in different parts of the world trust their major institutions, specifically government, business, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and the media.
The 2014 report was published in January and it found that the countries with the highest levels of trust in those institutions are the United Arab Emirates, China, Singapore and Indonesia. In each case more than 70pc of people trust their major institutions, including the government.
But note something those countries have in common; they are either mildly or very authoritarian. I mean that in two senses. The first is that they simply trust authority figures and think authority is extremely important.
The second is that in an authoritarian country like China you will find very it hard to find dissenting opinions simply because dissenting opinions get crushed.
Globally speaking, trust has fallen by an average of three points since 2013.
In the latest survey a country gets placed in the 'trusters' category if 60pc or more of respondents trust the institutions they were asked about.
Canadians and the Dutch just about qualify as trusters. The Irish, on the other hand, are big time 'distrusters' and we've gotten worse since the last survey.
Only 39pc of us trust government, business, Non-Governmental Organisations and the media – down seven points on the previous survey. Only the Russians and the Poles are more distrusting than we are.
That 39pc is an average. Only 21pc of us trust government. Again, that's one of the lowest levels of trust in the world.
Our relatively high level of trust in NGOs (58pc) is keeping up our average. However, given all the terrible publicity the likes of the Central Remedial Clinic and Rehab have attracted recently, that is bound to have fallen significantly so by next year we might well have become the least trusting country in the survey.
For the record, trust in the media stands at 37pc and trust in business stands at 41pc.
The figure for the media is about where I'd have expected it, but I'd have guessed our trust in business would have been lower than 41pc given what has happened to the banks etc. It's hard to believe almost twice as many of us believe in business as believe in the government.
Several major institutions are missing from that survey including church, unions and police. (Maybe the first two are aggregated under NGOs. If so, that's too broad a classification).
Basically, almost every major institution of Irish society has taken a ferocious battering in the last few years.
It probably started with the Catholic Church which has fallen further and faster than any other institution in this country thanks chiefly, though not entirely, to the child sex abuse scandals.
Political corruption and cronyism have undermined confidence in our politicians while huge inefficiencies and the wasting of vast amounts of public money by the likes of the HSE have undermined confidence in the basic running of the State.
Having worshipped property during the Celtic Tiger with the full and active encouragement of the banks, our political leaders and most economists found out the hard way that that particular idol had serious feet of clay.
For their part the social partners during the boom, including the unions, proved themselves extremely adept at feeding from the public trough.
And in the last few weeks we've lost faith in the charities sector and now our trust in An Garda Siochana is being badly eroded.
George Bernard Shaw once said "a profession is a conspiracy against the public". He meant that professions tend to look after their own interests first and those of the public second.
The same thing happens with institutions and when it's found out, the loss of public trust is huge.
Is Ireland now one of the least trusting countries in the world because our institutions are particularly bad or have fallen particularly far, and did we place an unrealistic level of trust in them in the first place? Is Ireland, given that it is so small, especially prone to the sort of cronyism that has institutions looking after their own first, and everyone else second?
Whatever the truth of it, such a big loss of trust is potentially hugely damaging to society. If we decide that the institutions which are meant to serve us are really serving themselves, then we can easily adopt an "every man for himself" mentality.
That makes social co-operation much harder. It also means we demand more and more regulations and, past a certain point, regulations become economically damaging and furthermore stop people engaging in certain types of work, especially voluntary work, because the regulations are simply too onerous and too intrusive.
Personally, I'm never surprised when a given institution, be it the church, the State or An Garda Siochana, is found to have corrupt, self-serving or incompetent people working for it. That's human nature.
Instead of becoming cynical about those running the country, therefore, we need to be realistic. Instead of giving into a corrosive scepticism, we need to develop a healthy scepticism and instead of turning our back on our institutions, we need to reform them.
In that way we can become more trustful of our major institutions again because they'll be worth trusting. Then maybe we can join the Canadians and the Dutch in having a basic level of faith in our institutions, without overdoing it.