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The Dutch Family Men and Trust in Politicians

- March 14, 2010

Friday I blogged about two Dutch male politicians who announced that they were leaving politics to spend more time with their families. Both of these men were relatively young and both were credible candidates to become the next prime-minister. The immediate response to such an announcement in the U.S. is to ask what scandal they are fleeing. Did it involve sex, corruption, or drugs? Or even better: all three?

In the Netherlands, however, the debate has mostly been about the extent to which these choices for family over high-profile public careers reflect a turning point in the struggle to make men equal caretakers. Some use national statistics to show that there is still an enormous gap in caretaking responsibilities while others argue that a similar choice by a female politician would lead to quite different reactions (“she’s giving up!” as opposed to “what an enlightened man we have here!”). Yet, most people do not question that these men are indeed sincere in their desires to forego a realistic opportunity to become the most powerful man in the Netherlands in exchange for more time with their families. (This discussion at Crooked Timber is revealing of the different responses by people from different political cultures).

I must admit that my immediate response to the “family reasons” was skepticism; perhaps influenced by having lived in the U.S. for a dozen years and/or by studying politics for a living. Yet, I find the Dutch response kind of refreshing and not in the “oh look at those cute, naïve Dutch” kind of way. As far as I can tell, there is no evidence pointing to scandalous endeavors by either of these two men. The only reason to presume that they are lying is that they are politicians. Now, this may be a very good reason indeed. Yet, if we always assume that politicians are lying simply because they are politicians we give them very poor incentives to do otherwise. Surveys generally show that the Dutch are more trusting than are Americans. On the one hand, this may give politicians more opportunities to get away with lies but the flipside is that politicians who honestly want to take a break from politics for family reasons can do so without too much suspicion. That is: it rewards honest behavior as well.

So, I congratulate Wouter Bos for making this decision and I hope he will enjoy seeing his three young children grow up. It is a marvelous and unique experience indeed; well worth the sacrifices he is making.

ps. For anyone who wants serious and high quality political science analysis of trust and politics, I refer to our to resident expert’s excellent book on the topic.

ps2. I had wanted to point out that these types of “low-stake’ trust issues may be particularly interesting for scholars of trust. It is a low stakes issue because it is not about policy but just about whether we believe a politician is doing something for the reason he/she offers/

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