Voters who trust their government — and each other — are more supportive of ambitious welfare states than those who do not. Across nations, high levels of social trust correlate with high levels of social spending. The relationship between these two variables is so consistent, many researchers have concluded that it is causal; or, as the economists Gianmarco Daniele and Benny Geys write in the European Journal of Political Economy, “it appears that preferences towards public welfare policies require both high inter-personal trust and high trust in institutions.”
This sociological insight has attained the status of popular fact. On the left, it inspires calls for national service programs aimed at reviving the sense of social solidarity and collective mission that (ostensibly) undergirded mid-century expansions of welfare provision. On the populist right, it functions as a rationale for restricting immigration, so as to foster the “cultural” homogeneity that sustaining a robust welfare state presumably requires.
All of which makes these recent findings from Pew Research a bit startling. By now, you are probably aware that the millennial and “Gen-Z” generations are far more supportive of “socialism” and redistributive economic policies than any of their elders. And yet, according to Pew’s new survey, Americans under 30 are also way more distrustful of their fellow citizens and government than any other age group. Some 73 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 say that “most of the time, people just look out for themselves,” while 71 percent believe “most people would try to take advantage of you if they got the chance,” and 60 percent contend that “most people cannot be trusted.” Among Americans over 65 — the most conservative cohort in the U.S. — those figures are 48, 39, and 29, respectively.
Meanwhile, kids these days also have less faith in their elected officials than previous generations do, although here the gap is notably slimmer.
And yet, even as they regard their government as corrupt — and their fellow Americans as selfish schemers who can’t be trusted — millennials and Gen-Zers nevertheless believe that the state must provide those untrustable leeches with universal health care, free college, and a wide variety of other social benefits (if not fully automated luxury gay space socialism).
How can we reconcile these findings with the literature on social trust and redistribution? One answer is that said literature is simply wrong — the apparent causal relationship between social trust and redistribution is actually a mirage produced by flawed methodologies. A separate possibility is that millennials’ distrust of the state is eclipsed by their disillusionment with the adequacy of alternative institutions to facilitate collective action and social protection.
Historically, socialism has been a utopian creed marked by its faith in humankind’s capacity for altruism. But Pew’s research suggests that America’s most socialistic age bracket is also its most misanthropic. Sometime between the “end of history” and the onset of climate disaster, our nation ostensibly birthed a generation of “dystopian socialists” — Americans whose comfort with state intervention derives less from faith in human goodness than fear of our species’s rapacity. Interpersonal distrust might have fueled antipathy for “big government handouts” among the boomers. But a Hobbesian view of how individuals will treat each other in the absence of coercion by a democratic state only makes millennials more contemptuous of free-market ideology. Kids these days might not trust their elected officials. But they take an equally dim view of “business leaders.” And while previous generations could imagine churches and communitarian institutions as viable substitutes for the welfare state, the most irreligious generations in American history — whose members came of age amid the most atomized and ruthlessly individualistic phase in capitalism’s unfolding — see little shelter in (what remains of) civil society. Life in late capitalism is nasty, brutish, and in the United States, increasingly short. Only Bernie Sanders’s Leviathan can save us from ourselves.
Or so a socialistic millennial misanthrope might hypothesize. A definitive explanation of this paradox in public opinion will probably require a more credentialed authority. Lord knows, I wouldn’t trust me if I were you.