Now Playing Tracks

What happens when citizens lose faith in government?

Tolstoy thought unhappy families were unique in their unhappiness.

But when it comes to countries, these days the world’s gloomy ones have a lot in common. From Fukushima to Athens, and from Washington to Wenzhou, China, the collective refrain is that government doesn’t work.

“2011 will be the year of distrust in government,” said Richard Edelman, president and chief executive of Edelman, the world’s largest independent public relations firm.

For the past decade, Mr. Edelman has conducted a global survey of which institutions we have confidence in and which ones are in the doghouse. In 2010, the villains were in the private sector — from BP, to Toyota, to Goldman Sachs, corporations and their executives were the ones behaving badly.

But this year, Mr. Edelman said, we are losing faith in the state: “From the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, to the government’s response to the earthquake in Japan, from the high-speed rail crash in China, to the debt ceiling fight in Washington, people around the world are losing faith in their governments.”

Even the Arab Spring, Mr. Edelman mused, was an extreme expression of the same breakdown in the people’s support for those who rule them.

After that, though, the global parallels start to break down. In our kitchens, on Facebook, and in our public squares, a lot of us, in a lot of places, are talking about how we long to kick the bastards out. But how we act on that angry impulse varies widely. Figuring out when and how our private anger translates into public action, and of what kind, is one of the big questions in the world today.

One answer comes from Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian political scientist. One of Mr. Krastev’s special interests is in the resilience of authoritarian regimes in the 21st century. To understand why they endure, Mr. Krastev has turned to the thinking of the economist Albert O. Hirschman, who was born in Berlin in 1915 and eventually became one of America’s seminal thinkers.

In 1970, while at Harvard, Mr. Hirschman wrote an influential meditation on how people respond to the decline of firms, organizations and states. He concluded that there are two options: exit — stop shopping at the store, quit your job, leave your country; and voice — speak to the manager, complain to your boss, or join the political opposition.

For Mr. Krastev, this idea — the trade-off between exit and voice — is the key to understanding what he describes as the “perverse” stability of Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia. For all the prime minister’s bare-chested public displays of machismo, his version of authoritarianism, in Mr. Krastev’s view, is “vegetarian.”

“It is fair to say that most Russians today are freer than in any other period of their history,” he wrote in an essay published this spring. But Mr. Krastev argues that it is precisely this “user-friendly” character of Mr. Putin’s authoritarianism that makes Russia stable. That is because Russia’s relatively porous dictatorship effectively encourages those people who dislike the regime most, and have the most capacity to resist it, to leave the country. They choose exit rather than voice, and the result is the death of political opposition: “Leaving the country in which they live is easier than reforming it.”

Nowadays, the Chinese find little to emulate in Russia. That includes flavors of authoritarianism: Theirs is the more carnivorous variety, including locking up dissidents, rather than encouraging them to leave, and censoring the Internet, rather than allowing the intelligentsia to be free but ignored.

Mr. Krastev’s thinking suggests a perverse possibility — that Mr. Putin’s slacker authoritarianism, while less able to deliver effective governance than the stricter Chinese version, may actually prove to be more enduring. The recent outburst of public rage in China over the high-speed rail crash is one piece of supporting evidence.

Mr. Hirschman came up with his theory of exit and voice in the United States, and he believed that exit had been accorded “an extraordinarily privileged position in the American political tradition.” That was partly because the United States was populated by exiters and their descendants — immigrants who chose to leave home rather than reform it — and partly because for much of American history the frontier made it possible to choose exit without even leaving the country.

For Americans, that sort of internal exit is no longer an option. Whatever you may think of the political agenda of the Tea Party, or of its wealthy supporters and media facilitators, it is at heart an ardent grass-roots movement whose angry and engaged participants have chosen voice over exit or apathy.

But when you look at what they are using that voice to advocate, you may decide that Mr. Hirschman was right after all about the American national romance with exit. The Tea Party’s engaged citizens aren’t so much trying to reform government as to get rid of it — the only possible version of exit when the frontier is gone and you already live in the best country on earth.

There is something, as Mr. Hirschman understood, particularly American about that impulse. But it may also be rooted in a theory about how to reform government that has been popular on both sides of the Atlantic in recent decades. That is the idea that creating competing, private-sector-operated alternatives to the public sector is a good way to force the state to raise its game. The charter school movement in the United States is one example. Prime Minister David Cameron’s advocacy of the Big Society is another.

Looked at through Mr. Hirschman’s lens, however, these private providers of formerly state services may have quite a different effect. If they allow the best and the most disgruntled citizens to exit the state, they might make the state-supplied option worse, rather than better. As Mr. Hirschman argued: “This may be the reason public enterprise … has strangely been at its weakest in sectors such as transportation and education where it is subjected to competition: The presence of a ready and satisfactory substitute for the services public enterprise offers merely deprives it of a precious feedback mechanism that operates at its best when the customers are securely locked in.”

The 21st century is the era of mass travel, open borders, instant communication and the affluent citizen-consumer. Russian oligarchs aren’t the only ones who can exit — a lot of us can. It is no wonder so many of us distrust our governments. But in this age of exit, do we have much chance of reforming them?


We make Tumblr themes