Intangible trust produces tangible goods

Tim Wilson

Tim Wilson

Auckland, September 6, 2023

Elections are a contest not solely for power but also for trust.

Politicians know this. 

That is why National has portrayed the government as profligate (translation: untrustworthy with money).

Here is Leader Christopher Luxon: “For six years, Labour has mismanaged the economy and relied on extra taxation and borrowing to pay for its wasteful spending.”

And that is why Labour has deemed National, ACT and New Zealand First prone to culture war agendas (code: don’t believe them).

The Prime Minister: “Labour’s message this election will not be fighting imported culture wars but fighting economic wars against inflation.”

That is also why the media often frames political offerings in trust terminology.

Sample headline: How Labour’s “no-frills” Budget Can Earn Voters’ Trust.

So far, so familiar.

Intangible Trust

The somewhat intangible nature of trust is crucial because it produces numerous tangible goods. As Oxford academic Tom Simpson notes, “There are many societal benefits that come from high trust…” Economist Cameron Bagrie has also connected the dots. At a recent public discussion, he observed that political polarisation causes poor economic consequences. Without trust, collaboration simply cannot happen. This is not only true for small businesses but for the entire economy as well.

Of course, our economy is suffering at present. And sadly (but unsurprisingly), trust in institutions is declining in Aotearoa New Zealand. The bad news is that this is not new news.

We cannot wholly blame Covid (though the pandemic has not helped).

A survey from 2016 said that only 8% of New Zealanders trusted MPs. Ouch.

Want more ouch? The last Edelman Trust Barometer survey showed that New Zealanders trust businesses more than the government.

As for the media, a recent survey of that landscape found “alarming” declines in trust over past years because, well, the government has been propping it up.

The causes are hydra-headed, but structural issues are also at play.

In a recent radio interview, ex-Speaker of the House Sir Lockwood Smith noted that he spent much of his time as an electorate MP helping people who probably did not vote for him.

Cohesion vs Partnership

A virtue, but also a case of opposites being united, trust is built personally as well as organisationally. Sir Lockwood says that MMP has meant that a politician’s first loyalty is often to her or his party rather than a community.

That doesn’t build cohesion; it builds partisanship.

Though social cohesion is “straining at the seams,” fortunately, our nation is historically a high-trust environment; alarming trends can be reversed. No one wants to end up like the Disunited States of America.

Tom Simpson again: “There is a very strong correlation between high trust societies and economic growth, and governments in these societies tend to be effective, with low levels of corruption.” It’s a correlation we need to strengthen right here, right now.

The election looms. When you vote, ask yourself: How much do I trust this person? How much are they contributing to an atmosphere of trust? Are they building or destroying?

Much hinges on your answer.

Tim Wilson is the Executive Director of the Auckland-based Maxim Institute, an independent think tank working to promote the dignity of every person in New Zealand by standing for freedom, justice, compassion, and hope.

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