Cambridge University Press, 2022

The choices people make about drinking water reveal deeper lessons about trust in government and civic life.

The burgeoning bottled water industry presents a paradox: Why do people choose expensive, environmentally destructive bottled water, rather than cheaper, sustainable, and more rigorously regulated tap water? The Profits of Distrust links Americans’ choices about the water they drink to civic life more broadly, marshalling a rich variety of data on public opinion, consumer behavior, political participation, geography, and water quality. Basic services are the bedrock of democratic legitimacy. Failing, inequitable basic services cause citizen-consumers to abandon government in favor of commercial competitors. The shift away from public services and toward commercial markets reduces the incentives for citizens to engage with government and, in turn, government officials’ incentives to deliver quality services. This vicious cycle of distrust undermines democracy while commercial firms reap the profits of distrust—disproportionately from the poor and racial/ethnic minority communities. But the vicious cycle can also be virtuous: excellent basic services build trust in government and foster greater engagement between citizens and the state. Rebuilding confidence in American democracy starts with literally rebuilding the basic infrastructure that sustains life.

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