Trust in government and corona virus deaths

The scatterplot above shows the association between trust in government in EU countries as measured by the Eurobarometer 92 back in November 2019 and the publicly available count of corona deaths per 1M inhabitants as of March 6th, 2021 in those countries (data).

A standard regression (solid line) shows a negative relationship with each percentage point of trust being associated with a decrease of about 15 deaths per 1M inhabitants. (A more robust regression procedure – dotted line – shows even steeper association.) The share of this association is about 15% of the total inter-country variance in corona deaths prevalence in the EU, and about 25% of the variance when the outlying data point of Cyprus is removed.

There are at least two possible mechanisms that could be offered to explain the association. The first is that both trust and corona deaths are affected by government competence. Lower competence is associated with lower trust and with higher pandemic death prevalence. To the extent this mechanism is really at work, this is an impressive testimony to the public’s ability to estimate government competence. The ability to predict on general principles alone somewhere between 15% and 25% of the variance in the corona deaths prevalence – a statistic that is surely influenced by a myriad of noisy factors – is a far from trivial achievement and indicates significant insight into the nature of government. This provides some evidence regarding the question of how able the public is to make a general assessment of government performance – a question that has been discussed before on this blog.

A different mechanism is also plausible: trust in government could be associated with citizen behavior that could affect corona deaths independently of government policy. A public that mistrusts governmental policy could be less likely to follow regulations and in this way increase the risk of infection, regardless of the government’s efforts. If so, this portends poorly regarding the ability of electoralist governments, with their low trust ratings, to handle issues that require the public’s cooperation. Naturally, some combination of the two mechanisms – the analytical and the behavioral – could be at play.

16 Responses

  1. This is a survey of Trust in (My) Government amongst the impeccably democratic regimes in Europe. It couldn’t include the ‘authoritarian’ PRChina regime because the axis for Trust doesn’t go high enough!

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  2. And the axis for corona deaths doesn’t go low enough.

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  3. Very interesting…

    Two other conceivable mechanisms are the local financial incentive to over-count corona death, under the assumption that this form of “cheating” would be more prevalent where there is low trust, as has been suggested by some politicians and conspiracy theorists, and the national incentive to downplay the effects of the pandemic, which is also in the realm of conspiracy, but seems plausible, especially in countries with low trust to begin with.

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  4. Very intersting Yoram. I wish there was a way to do this againt some (real) democracy index. Freedom House & Polity would be useless, meaningless. Is there a way to put the US and Brazil on here? Trust in gov has often been in the single digits in the US over the past 20 years.

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  5. Thanks!

    Regarding adding non-European countries: there are various worldwide surveys of trust that could be used. That said, there may be too much geographic variation along various axes to make comparisons useful.

    Regarding “real” democracy index: IMO trust in government is a pretty good indicator of whether citizens of a country perceive its government as serving their interests – which is pretty much what democracy is about IMO. There are also surveys (WVS) asking people whether they think their country is democratic.

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  6. *** The idea of “trust in government” is ambiguous. Two different ideas.
    TRUST 1: I trust the established powers to be efficient for common targets: to fight a foreign invader; to fight an epidemic; to get economic overall prosperity.
    TRUST 2: I trust them to be fair, and not to care too much for some social groups, and not to give them more than necessary for efficiency.
    *** These are different trusts. I don’t have much trust for the French State management of Covid, low TRUST 1, but I don’t think they try to protect some social groups more than others, high TRUST 2 (for this issue !!!).
    *** I imagine a time traveler polling peasants of Ancient Egypt. Maybe he will find high TRUST 1 about the ability of Pharaoh in giving peace and managing the hydraulic system, and the ability of priests in placating the gods. But maybe some peasants will dare to think that the Palace people and the sacerdotal cast could take a somewhat lesser share of the products of the peasants work; these incorrect minds could have high TRUST 1 and a lower TRUST 2. And this is not an absurd opinion.
    *** Supposing TRUST 1 very high, and TRUST 2 reasonably high, maybe the time traveler could speak of “pharaonic democracy”, it is a question of definition. Personally, to avoid confusion, I prefer “ortho-democracy” to translate the classical Greek dêmokratia as understood by the inventors of the word and of the corresponding model. And whatever the levels of TRUST 1 and TRUST 2, which unfortunately I don’t know, I am sure that the pharaonic system was not an ortho-democracy.

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  7. Leaving aside age and co-morbidity, the strongest correlation with Covid-19 deaths is obesity (see link below). How to ascertain levels of trust in authoritarian societies is tricky — it generally depends on anonymity and who is asking the questions. Japan and China both come in at the low end of Covid-19 mortality statistics but have very different levels of trust in government. When my son was a PhD student at Tokyo University he had a girlfriend from mainland China who told him that, whatever people might say in a public opinion survey, most Chinese citizens had little trust in party and government officials (particularly at the local level) and it was even worse for older people who lived through the Cultural Revolution.

    https://www.bmj.com/content/372/bmj.n623

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  8. Andre,

    “Trust” like any other term, certainly like any other abstract term, is a complex of ideas and connotations. Just like you broke it into trust1 and trust2 you could break it further into an infinite number of components. And yet, people do have and do express a level of “trust in government” which in one way or another is compositions of all those components.

    If people trust the government to act in their interests and according to their values, then we need to believe that these people cannot represent their own interests and values to assert that the system is not democratic. Some situations would justify this belief, but those would be extreme situations, such as that of deep indoctrination. It may be argued, for example, that some oppressed people in the West are so well indoctrinated and manipulated that they see their oppression as legitimate.

    However, unless we have some reliable objective way to decide when such manipulation is in place, then the claim that because such a manipulation is possible then people’s judgement should be ignored or discounted is more likely to reflect the claimer’s prejudices than to be useful systematic analysis. It is better in such a situation to stick with the objective facts even when they lead us toward surprising, and even toward disconcerting, conclusions.

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  9. *** I was distinguishing two different trusts, along what I think basic differences.
    *** I was not discussing whether these trusts are justified by facts, or if they depend more or less of indoctrination. It is another problem.
    *** Supposing TRUST1 and TRUST2 of my pharaonic peasants were high, were they justified by facts? I don’t know. Let’s suppose they were justified. I say that anyway the pharaonic system was basically different from the dêmokratia model invented in Greek cities, and therefore using the word “democracy” for it is not intellectually sound. It puts confusion.
    *** Distinguishing TRUST1 and TRUST 2 is important for the debate about dêmokratia (ortho-democracy), because there could be a strong difference. The common citizens will trust easily the system not to have bias towards specific elite interests (high TRUST 2). But some could think the system will not be efficiently governed (low TRUST1), and could prefer some kind of elitism-heavy system, polyarchy (“representative democracy”) or autocracy (“representational democracy” says Wang, about China). Even biased towards elite interests, a more efficient system could be better for common citizens. It is not a stupid idea.
    *** Therefore the supporters of a modern dêmokratia model must argue that it will have at least some strong points (for instance diversity, as in Landemore’s discourse) and thus warrants a good level of TRUST 1. TRUST 2 will not be enough.

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  10. Yoram:> It may be argued, for example, that some oppressed people in the West are so well indoctrinated and manipulated that they see their oppression as legitimate.

    This is all getting very “metaphysical”. And why is it that only citizens of Western democracies are subject to false consciousness? Surely indoctrination is part of the experience of living under totalitarian regimes. Or is that just part of the mythology of oppressive electoralist oligarchs? At least in liberal democracies one can give an honest answer in public opinion surveys.

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  11. Andre,

    Your hypothetical “Pharaonic regime” scenario is the standard “benevolent dictator” scenario. It is a system which serves the people (as judged by the people themselves), but which (by hypothesis) provides no mechanism by which people’s views can impact policy. We may (or may not) also want to add an anti-democratic ideological dimension, where the regime insists that it is insulated, that it determines policy by its own standards and methods (e.g., by divine inspiration, or by arcane scientific considerations), and denies that it is affected by public opinion in any way.

    So we are led to the question of whether it is policy outcomes that matter, the policy-making mechanisms that matter, or official ideology that matters. Under your hypothetical scenario, these 3 parameters are independent of each other and thus we need to decide which of these defines “democracy”. In reality they are far from independent so the question may not be that meaningful.

    In any case you have certainly put forward an interesting set of questions which is worth considering in more detail. Thanks!

    Regarding your distinction between two types of trust: I don’t think that most people make this distinction in a very explicit manner, and I don’t think it makes sense for them (us) to do so. This goes back to the competence-vs.-representativity issue. Without the latter, the former is useless or even meaningless. Without the former, the latter is nice but may not be very helpful. It is only the combination of both that is worthwhile and it is this combination that generates trust. Democracy must deliver both, but until we attain a measure of representativity, discussing competence is a distraction.

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  12. *** Yoram Gat answers to me: “Under your hypothetical scenario, these 3 parameters are independent of each other and thus we need to decide which of these defines “democracy”.”
    *** What I think, actually, is that taking for the word “democracy” in our languages a meaning different from Classical Greek “dêmokratia” puts confusion. But, if Yoram insists, it is not for me a big problem, I will use the word “ortho-democracy” as translation. Discussing years about words is not very productive.
    *** I did not say the 3 parameters were independent, if we consider leanings. I wrote: “ the common citizens will trust easily the (ortho-democratic) system not to have bias towards specific elite interests (high TRUST 2).”
    *** The problem is TRUST 1, trust in efficiency. Let’s suppose many French citizens think that a mini-populus in charge of protection against potential epidemics would have been less efficient than the French State (maybe the deep State). Or (different thing) that a mini-populus in charge of managing the COVID crisis would have been less efficient than President Macron, actually dictator for this issue, and I think benevolent dictator (for this issue). That would be a strong argument against dêmokratia, and not a stupid one.
    *** Yoram Gat says “discussing competence is a distraction”. But practically the competence argument will not disappear from the debate, even if we prefer ignoring it or dismissing it.

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  13. > Yoram Gat says “discussing competence is a distraction”.

    What I wrote is that “discussing competence is a distraction” – “until we attain a measure of representativity”.

    It seems that at least on the issue of addressing the pandemic you believe that government represents the interests of the public at large. If this is indeed the case then competence is a meaningful question in this context.

    It more realistic and useful, however, to think of government as trying to achieve its own ends – which are only partially aligned with those of the public on any matter, including the issue of the pandemic. What appears to be government incompetence is often in fact the result of government competently pursuing its own objectives that are divergent from those of the public and from the government’s stated objectives.

    For example, in Israel government kept financial assistance low, kept a lot of non-essential businesses open and continued air travel going during much of 2020. As a result, thousands of people lost their lives. Would it make sense to think about this as incompetence or as non-representativity? Can the two be reliably distinguished?

    > But practically the competence argument will not disappear from the debate, even if we prefer ignoring it or dismissing it.

    My point is not that we should ignore the competence argument. We should address it – which is exactly what I am trying to do. But addressing the competence argument does not have to be done by accepting the framework within which this argument is offered – the framework in which objectives are common and competence is the primary issue. The argument should be addressed by prioritizing competence as secondary to representativity.

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  14. Yoram>: For example, in Israel government kept financial assistance low, kept a lot of non-essential businesses open and continued air travel going during much of 2020.

    Your assumption being, presumably, that fiscal probity is only in the interest of the governing class. But perhaps the despised “neoliberals” are (rightly or wrongly) concerned about the need for our children’s children to repay all the fruit gathered from the magic money tree. It’s businesses (essential and otherwise) that pay people’s wages and provide the tax income for public services. And we have yet to see the consequences of the Biden $1.9tn package of financial assistance. Public policy decisions cannot be simply reduced to class interests.

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  15. […] post continues the inquiry in a few previous posts, regarding how democracy can be measured. Thanks to various commenters for the discussions that […]

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  16. Never, ever believe any over-reaching entity. The foundations of freedom are people thinking for themselves, doing for themselves, making their own decisions, and never giving up that freedom (with responsibility) to anyone else. Ever. The day you give your constitutional rights to others, you have agreed with tyranny.

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