Breach of Faith: Towards a Political Genealogy of Trust

By Clifford, Michael | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Breach of Faith: Towards a Political Genealogy of Trust


Clifford, Michael, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Popular distrust of government has steadily increased. The undermining of the most fundamental of all democratic principles, the intimate connection between citizenry and its government, has encouraged alienation and disaffiliation from a state that modern revolutions had promised would become democratized, beholden to the people, and the instrument of their hopes and aspirations. Thus the paradox: the demos is becoming disenchanted with the form that claims it.

Sheldon S. Wolin.

In 1721, Thomas Gordon defined our relation to government quite succinctly, "What is Government, but a Trust committed by All, or the Most, to One, or a Few, who are to attend upon the Affairs of All, that every one may, with the more Security, attend upon his own? A great and honourable Trust; but too seldom honourably executed." (1) Today, Britain and the United States find themselves in a crisis of political trust rivaling that of 17th century England, which suffered through the turmoil of civil war, revolution, and even the beheading of Charles 1. From the old scandal of "rotten boroughs" in Britain to the recent gerrymandering by Tom DeLay in the U.S., not to mention the selling of political influence in both countries, government continues, it appears, to be a trust "too seldom honorably executed."

In his influential work, Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes famously describes Civil Society as being founded upon a "covenant," or social contract. When government meets its obligations under the terms of this contract, says Hobbes, "[its] performance is called keeping of promise, or faith; and the failing of performance (if it be voluntary) violation of faith." The idea that governmental obligation is established by a promise or oath can be traced back to Solon in Ancient Greece. (2) However, the political sentiments of Hobbes and others would not be formalized until the passage of the English Bill of Rights in 1689. This document, inspired nominally by the Magna Carta of 1215 (itself based in part on the Charter of Liberties of 1100) (3), would influence the American Constitution and indeed virtually all constitutional democracies in the modern world. What such documents insist upon above all from government is adequate representation, the failure of which constitutes a breach of faith or trust.

In this paper, I will conduct a political genealogy of trust. Of course, both British and American politics have a common philosophical ancestry, and indeed the constitutional politics of both stem from the same ideological tree, a tree rooted--almost literally, as we shall see--in a common soil. From this soil a view of representational government will emerge, after centuries of tenuous growth, reaching maturity in the 17th century. Can recovering 17th century notions of representation lead to a contemporary renewal of trust in government? Or, have the very conditions that necessitated representational government undergone such a profound historical change that political representation itself has become a principal mechanism of exploitation, misrepresentation and breach of faith?

The Ground of Trust: A Political History

Clearly, the waning of trust in government implies the violation of a trust, a trust predicated on living up to the terms of social contract. Indeed, it is only against this expectation that the notion of trust, or the "waning" of trust in government even makes sense. The difficult question, however, is determining the nature and limits of representation. Assuming that constituencies are diverse, with competing interests, to whom is government most obligated? Are there degrees of obligation? What happens when the good of the constituency is in conflict, when there are different interests or factions within the constituency? Or when the good of the constituency can be served by violating other laws or moral rules against, for example, bribery, or selling titles? In other words, are there times when government is justified in not keeping faith with the terms of the contract? …

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