Trust was a key issue in the 2004 Australian federal election. The Prime Minister appealed to the public to trust his government because of its ability to manage the economy. The Leader of the Opposition highlighted the government’s lack of credibility and honesty. These are two different aspects of trust. There is a vast literature on trust, but it does more to create confusion than to illuminate. On what basis do people trust government? Most theorists favour a rational view of trust based on people’s evaluation of government performance in providing public goods. They argue that if people trust government to perform in their interest, they will generalise this experience and develop social trust, or trust in strangers. One of the best known writers on trust, Robert Putnam, has used social capital theory to show that civic engagement creates social trust, which makes government more effective. However, he does not consider social trust a basis for trust in government. I test this thesis that civic engagement creates social trust, and that social trust generalises to trust in government. I find that while civic engagement plays a minimal role in creating social trust, the foundation of trust in government and its organisations is relational, based on what happens in our intimate circles. If people are trusting of others generally, they will continue to trust despite the poor performance of others. I conclude that rational and relational factors co-exist in creating trust in government and its organisations.
School of Economics and Political Science, The University of Sydney 2005