THE QUALITY OF GOVERNMENT
Earlier chapters have discussed a sample of the ways by which the federal government could try to increase well-being and relieve distress: a more vigorous campaign to alleviate mental illness and chronic pain, a comprehensive effort to strengthen marriage and family, a series of measures to enhance people's peace of mind by giving them greater protection from the financial risks arising from retirement, illness, and the loss of a job. The focus of this chapter, however, is not on new programs to im- prove lives but on people's feelings about the government itself. One of the interesting findings from the recent research on happi- ness is the discovery that how government functions and how citi- zens think it functions have significant effects on their well-being. Hence, it is worth asking whether opportunities exist to give people greater satisfaction with the way their government is performing.
If popular impressions of government have a bearing on hap- piness, there is ample reason to worry about the situation in the United States. For most of the past 30 years, a majority of Ameri- cans have believed that the country “is moving in the wrong di- rection,” and they blame the government for much that has gone wrong.1 According to opinion polls in 2007, fewer than one-third of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing all or most of the time.2 A survey of people's confidence in 25 dif- ferent sectors of society ranked the federal government next to last.3 For a number of years, more people have felt that the federal government, rather than big business or organized labor, is the greatest threat to the nation.4 Large majorities have believed that Washington creates more problems than it solves and that its ac- tions usually make problems worse rather than better.5