From the Editor: The Public Trust

These liars have decided that society's rules don't apply to them. Yet even those who lie assume others tell the truth.

Opinion | Dardis McNamee | October 2011

In Europe, the Monetary Union may be unravelling as Greece teeters on the edge of bankruptcy and others may follow; Vladimir Putin has announced his return to the Russia Presidency; French Socialists have regained a majority in the Senate for the first time in 50 years. In the Middle East, the upheavals of the Arab Spring have brought as much uncertainty as hope, yet in Saudi Arabia women, still forbidden to drive, have astonishingly been granted the right to vote.

The news seems monumental on every side. And this without even addressing the longer term challenges of climate change, humanitarian crises in Africa, or tiger economics in India or China. We are cursed with interesting times, which makes for great reading and very high risk. So it matters more than ever that we are all paying attention, working together, and working smart.

Not here, of course. In Austria, we have chosen one of the most precarious times in the entire Second Republic to sink into a quagmire of political corruption, involving embezzlement and abuse of power, a pattern of obfuscation and deceit. And the details do make good reading [see our lead story "Something Rotten in the State of Austria", by Natascha Eichinger ps. 1 and 3, and my accompanying commentary, "Schüssel’s Bad Bargain", p. 14].

They do not, however, make good government. In fact they may well make it impossible.

Austrians have long enjoyed one of Europe’s most successful social democracies, and one of its most envied social market economies. Here somehow, it all seemed to work, the fairness and the prosperity, high culture and common enjoyment. In good measure thanks to Bruno Kreisky, but certainly not only, ordinary Austrians could live very well, while the rich could still be rich, but not at everyone else’s expense.

This was the legacy of the Social Partnership, all parties around a table, whose assignment it was to be sure that public policies worked in the public interest. The result was Public Trust, and it was real.  It’s why everyone buys U-Bahn tickets and waits patiently at the corner for the light to change. Austrians believe the rules are in their interest and that they work.

It is this Public Trust that is at risk today. The series of scandals we are now witnessing – the culmination of a pattern of behaviour that began with the coalition in 2000 of the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the far right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) – go right at the heart of the social contract in a representative government, that public officials are there to serve the electorate, not themselves. [And that they don’t lie.]

We have been lied to, not just once but again and again. And we don’t like it.

In fact, a new survey established that 75% of the Austrian public no longer keep up with public affairs, half as many as a decade ago. More men than women keep up with the national news, and levels are higher with more education. And among the young, knowledge and involvement was as good as nil. From 56% actively following the news with the EU sanction of the new government in 2000, the equivalent number is now 26%.

"Never has the public been so little interested in politics," reported IMAS, a leading social research institute in Vienna. But this is what happens when the Public Trust is broken. Without trust, in fact, no society is possible.

This became clear to me when I first read philosopher Sissela Bok’s inquiry Lying, shortly after it was published in 1978.

"Imagine a society, no matter how ideal in other respects, where word and gesture could never be counted upon. Questions asked, answers given, information exchanged – all would be worthless," she wrote. "There must be a minimal degree of trust in communication for language and action to be more than stabs in the dark." 

So a modicum of truthfulness has always been understood as essential to human society. These liars, like all liars, have simply decided that society’s rules don’t apply to them. Yet even those who lie do so assuming others tell the truth. Otherwise their lie has no reference point, and gives them no advantage. All successful societies have known this; all philosophers have known this, from Socrates to Samuel Johnson:

"The devils themselves do not lie to one another," Bok quotes Johnson, "since the society of Hell could not subsist without truth any more than others."

There is even honour among thieves.

Can there be honour again among Austrians?  Now amidst the turmoil of monumental change in Europe, and the world beyond, the Public Trust matters more than ever.

Other articles from this issue