Building Trust in Government: The Opportunities and Challenges of Adverse Shocks

Avidit Acharya | Associate Professor, Stanford University

Wednesday, January 27, 2021 12:15 PM



There is considerable variation in the extent to which citizens around the world trust their governments to uphold private property rights. At one extreme are countries like Venezuela under the Chavez and Maduro regimes, where the government expropriated hundreds of private enterprises across industries. At the other end are countries like the United States and those of Western Europe, where governments have maintained the trust of their citizens in preserving and honoring institutions that protect private assets, investments and income. This paper analyzes how adverse shocks that align the interests of state and society shape a government’s ability to build the trust of its citizens. These shocks could arise from foreign threats, financial crises, and natural calamities. When shocks are frequent and severe, government can have the incentive to be trustworthy, since it requires cooperation from its citizens to avert these challenges. But if the shocks are not severe, increasing their frequency can reduce the scope for cooperation between state and society. In addition, we look at the case where the public cannot tell whether or not a shock has hit (the case of imperfect monitoring). In this case, the government’s challenge of building a reputation for being trustworthy is complicated by the fact that if it tries to raise revenue to avert a real crisis, citizens lose some trust in government as they suspect that it may have collected from them opportunistically. This happens despite the fact that the interests of state and society are aligned during these crises. We show here that the opportunity to build a reputation for trustworthiness can enhance the government’s payoff beyond what is achievable in the case where citizens know that the government is playing strategically.
Co-Sponsored by: Department of Economics, Co-Sponsored by: The Batten School

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