Before I get off the subject of infrastructure, I want to make a more general point about the nature of governance at this point in the 21st century, which has to do with social trust. I wrote a whole book on this subject back in the 1990s, but a lot has changed since then.
It is a well-known fact that levels of trust in governments have been dropping almost everywhere in the world, not just in recent years but over the last several decades (see Ethan Zuckerman on this point). In some cases this is because they have screwed up big time—the Iraq invasion, euro crisis, and disastrous handling of covid in the US and Brazil come to mind. Some of that mistrust is exaggerated and pathological, as is the case of conspiracy theories so prevalent on the American right today. But I don’t think it’s the case that governments are doing worse across the board in ways that merit the bad ratings they get; there’s something much more complicated going on. Countries like Chile and South Korea, which by objective standards are doing well in the global league tables, are nonetheless part of the same broad phenomenon.
There are many reasons for this decline in trust, and in some cases they reflect ways in which the world is getting better. Levels of education are higher in very many countries when compared to 50 years ago, and educated people tend to think more critically. They don’t automatically believe what they are told by people in positions of authority. Many countries, beginning with the United States, have become more diverse. Trust in the old days was based on old boy networks of well-to-do white men with similar backgrounds and social networks; trust comes less readily in a more diverse but also more equal society. Finally, we have much more access to much more information than ever before, thanks to the rise of the internet and a general demand for transparency. It is doubtful that sexual abuse by Catholic priests is more prevalent today than in previous centuries; we just know a lot more about the inner workings of the sausage factory than we used to. Indeed, as I’ve noted in previous posts, we have too much information today, much of it of very low quality that undermines our trust in what should be respected authorities.
But a particular reason that trust in government has declined has to do with the fact that people’s expectations for what governments should do and how they should do it has risen much faster than the ability of states to deliver. I can illustrate this by reference to two infrastructure cases that we teach in our Leadership Academy for Development, Stuttgart 21 from the Kennedy School and one that we developed on the Toronto Waterfront.
Both of these were massive projects, the first to build a high-speed rail terminal and line into Stuttgart, Germany, and the latter to transform a large part of the Toronto waterfront into a “smart city.” Both were eagerly promoted by governments at state/provincial and national levels, yet both engendered huge controversy, protests, and opposition. Despite 30 years of planning, Stuttgart does not have its HSR station, and the Toronto project was canceled outright.
Our evolved democratic theory tells us that citizens participate by voting for representatives in periodic, free, and fair multiparty elections; those representatives then go on to enact policies that implement their wishes. This is not how things work in the present world, however. Citizens demand a much higher level of active participation in governance, not just through voting but by helping to shape detailed proposals, setting budgets, contributing ideas, and, if necessary, publicly protesting against outcomes they don’t like.
Citizens are no longer amorphous blocs of voters; they are organized into civil society groups led by activists who pay close attention to policy issues. They also care intensely about the form that participation takes. Both the Stuttgart and Toronto project organizers sought citizen input, but in a highly managed way that didn’t throw into question the desirability of the project as a whole. The sense of being manipulated stoked anger and broadened the circle of opponents. In the case of Stuttgart, this led to regular mass protests, heavy-handed efforts by city authorities to control them, and resultant injuries to protesters which provoked further anger.
In Toronto’s case, the project was proposed by Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of the giant American internet platform Alphabet (formerly Google), whose data protection policies and honesty about the scope of the project were called into question. There was also an element of Canadian nationalism, as both Alphabet and Sidewalk were both run by Americans.
The ironic thing about the outcomes of these projects was that poll data suggested majority public support for both of them. The state of Baden-Württemberg (which contains Stuttgart) in fact held a referendum in which a majority of voters approved Stuttgart 21. Nonetheless, activist groups were more passionate in their opposition than ordinary voters were in support, so neither project developed the momentum to carry through to completion.
These cases point to the sources of contemporary distrust in government. The municipal authorities in Stuttgart and Toronto promoting their respective projects were neither corrupt nor incompetent; indeed, they both began with the assumption that they needed to secure public buy-in. They were democratically elected and perfectly secure in their legitimacy. Yet they made mistakes in the way that they approached the consultation process, such that the manner of participation rather than the underlying policy became the main focus of controversy.
We do not today have an evolved theory of public participation that is adequate to guide public authorities in difficult cases like these. Modern democracies have been pushing steadily for more direct citizen involvement, under the theory that more participation is always better than less. Yet it is not clear that a system that allows activists to represent the broader public will necessarily lead to better outcomes, as my colleague Bruce Cain has suggested. Infrastructure in particular represents a public good that is of general benefit, yet infrastructure projects inevitably produce concentrated losses on certain stakeholders who then use the system to stop them. The inability of the United States, Germany, and Canada to manage infrastructure properly points to a long-term challenge for democratic governance, one that has not been adequately addressed to date.
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