John Robson: The Decline of Trust Has Dangerous Consequences

John Robson: The Decline of Trust Has Dangerous Consequences
The justice statue at the Supreme Court of Canada on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 17, 2021. (The Canadian Press/Justin Tang)
John Robson
The other day on reading “Cardi B tosses microphone after concertgoer throws drink at her on stage,” I muttered “we’re never going to balance the budget.” And if you’re questioning my capacity to read the Zeitgeist, the connection is the precipitous, ominous decline in trust in our society.

People sometimes believe what makes a society flourish is material: natural resources, favourable geography, wealth. But history furnishes plenty of sad examples of places that squandered such things.

Others, wiser, say ideas matter. And they do. A society with a degraded vision of human personhood is in big trouble. But history furnishes plenty of sad examples of reformers who knew what changes were needed but couldn’t get them to stick.

What really matters is habits that ingrain healthy abstract ideas in the conduct, consciences, and expectations of ordinary people. And very high on that “cultural capital” list is trust.

If people can trust one another to keep their word, and behave well when surprised or unobserved, everything works, from commerce to family to government. If not, you get chaos.

So how did the budget get into that drink? This summer, Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer asked our federal finance department why the 2023 budget raised our debt-to-GDP ratio past 45 percent after Finance Minister/Deputy PM Freeland in 2022 used the Nixonian “On this point let me be very clear” to insist “our debt to GDP ratio must continue to decline.”

She radiated sincerity: “This is our fiscal anchor, a line we will not cross.” So the PBO asked Finance what the heck was going on instead, and had this drink thrown at him: The department’s budget forecasts “should not be viewed as a prediction of the future.”

What? Every year you fill hundreds of budget pages with econometrics ministers cite to prove how grand they are. And when challenged you say yeah, we used a Ouija board?

A major problem in this regard is institutions, from universities to governors-general, demanding respect instead of earning it. Recently in Mercatornet I criticized the U.S. Supreme Court posing above the fray while mixing tendentious rulings with acrimonious bickering, partisan raving, and questionable conduct. And while I agree with the late Andrew Breitbart that “politics is downstream from culture,” and add that it’s always been ugly, it doesn’t help to have government institutions relentlessly grinding down our expectations.

Or suddenly shattering them. Including the “Freedom Convoy,” a spectacular demonstration of trust exhibited then betrayed. Its members were sometimes inarticulate. But the whole premise of going to Ottawa was a naive faith that if they could tell the nation, and the politicians, how upset they were at what they considered a breach of the social contract, they would be heard respectfully and heeded.

Instead they were grossly insulted en route, misrepresented while there, bank accounts were seized, and the Emergencies Act invoked without cause. Such conduct poisons the well. Including research institutions insisting that coral is dying worldwide and denying the science showing otherwise. Or the sneering refusal to admit that COVID lockdowns did far more harm than predicted for far less good, compounded by unsavoury manipulation of the debate.
Instead NBC chirps, “The new CDC director Dr. Mandy Cohen is focusing on rebuilding trust in America's top public health agency, including fighting vaccine misinformation.” Jagmeet Singh blasts real estate investors while married to one. We’re insulted by David Johnston’s patronizing unreport on Chinese communist election meddling, and we’re lectured by an article in Nature that “Morality is declining, right? Scientists say that idea is an illusion.”
No, it’s not. The Cardi B incident was just one example of “a troubling new habit of concertgoers throwing objects at performers” and sometimes the other way. And a recent piece in Vox headlined “People forgot how to act in public” tried to explain “Why concertgoers keep throwing things at celebrities and no one can shut up at the movies.” But it’s not that “people have forgotten how to behave at concerts.” It’s that they’ve learned to “be yourself.”
Like the new president of the American Library Association tweeting she’s a “Marxist lesbian” then getting all huffy when people denounced her as a Marxist. And like the “Harvard professor who studies honesty accused of falsifying data,” it’s not abstract knowledge but ingrained habit that matters.
They still think the next time they say “frog” we’ll all jump. But a recent poll showed that Canadians deeply distrust their government. Blacklock’s says “Only ‘large media organizations’ and celebrities scored lower.” Is anyone surprised?
To end with a positive note rather than a drink in your face, a Public Health Agency of Canada report did concede that the pandemic had badly damaged trust and said, “Asked what the remedy might be for restoring trust, participants suggested being honest and admit your mistakes.”

Gee. Imagine that. Why, it might become… a habit.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, contributing editor to the Dorchester Review, and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus. His most recent documentary is “The Environment: A True Story.”