When I was doing research for my 2009 book Distrust, American Style: Diversity and the Crisis of Public Confidence, I became aware of the considerable amount of data that tied social trust to the functioning of institutions–especially government.
What prompted that research, and the book that emerged, was my considerable skepticism of a widely-read study by Robert Putnam (author of the even-more-widely read Bowling Alone), in which he attributed America’s diminished levels of social trust to our growing diversity. I agreed that the erosion of interpersonal social trust had occurred, but I strongly disagreed about the cause, which I attributed to burgeoning evidence that much of government was untrustworthy.
I also saw the data as manifestation of a “chicken-and-egg” problem: were low levels of trust a cause or consequence of diminished trust in our government?
My research led me to argue that–partly because of the complexities of modern society and partly due to specific attributes of America’s political culture–generalized social trust depends on our ability to trust our social and governing institutions.
Fish rot from the head.
The issues are complicated, and I don’t intend to re-litigate the arguments I made in the book, but one clear lesson I took from my research was that social trust is incredibly important. (One of the reasons the collapse of a truly mass media is so consequential is that the rise of outright propaganda has contributed mightily to the erosion of that trust.)
We see the consequences of low levels of trust–in government, in medical science– in the refusal of too many Americans to get vaccinated, prolonging the COVID pandemic. We see it in the astonishing numbers who believe the “Big Lie” about rigged elections.
What prompted me to think about my former research was an article in the Atlantic, titled “A Trust Recession is Looming Over the American Economy.”
Manufacturer inventories. Durable-goods orders. Nonfarm payrolls. Inflation-adjusted GDP. These are the dreary reportables that tell us how our economy is doing. And many of them look a whole lot better now than they did at their early-pandemic depths. But what if there’s another factor we’re missing? What if the data points are obscuring a deepening recession in a commodity that underpins them all?
Trust. Without it, Adam Smith’s invisible hand stays in its pocket; Keynes’s “animal spirits” are muted. “Virtually every commercial transaction has within itself an element of trust,” the Nobel Prize–winning economist Kenneth Arrow wrote in 1972.
The article focused on the importance of trust to economic performance, and noted a little-remarked element of the remote work necessitated by the pandemic: one study found that the longer employees were apart from one another during the pandemic, the more their faith in their colleagues fell. The article reported on a number of other studies that found similar “trust erosions” in the workplace.
As companies have gone virtual during the coronavirus pandemic, supervisors wonder whether their remote workers are in fact working. New colleagues arrive and leave without ever having met. Direct reports ask if they could have that casual understanding put down in writing. No one knows whether the boss’s cryptic closing remark was ironic or hostile.
The article reminds us that “Trust is to capitalism what alcohol is to wedding receptions: a social lubricant.”
The economists Paul Zak and Stephen Knack found, in a study published in 1998, that a 15 percent bump in a nation’s belief that “most people can be trusted” adds a full percentage point to economic growth each year. That means that if, for the past 20 years, Americans had trusted one another like Ukrainians did, our annual GDP per capita would be $11,000 lower; if we had trusted like New Zealanders did, it’d be $16,000 higher. “If trust is sufficiently low,” they wrote, “economic growth is unachievable.”
My own research noted the effects of diminished trust on business and the economy, but focused more on the widespread, negative consequences for governance and social amity.
In a complex society, we can no longer rely on gossip and informal interpersonal networks to tell us who is trustworthy and who is not. We rely on our social institutions, especially (albeit not exclusively) government. As I wrote in the book, when government does not function properly–when it intrudes into areas that are inappropriate for government intervention, when it violates the terms of our original social contract, or when it performs its necessary and proper functions in an incompetent or corrupt manner–it undermines social trust and cohesion.
The corruption of the Mitch McConnells and the corruption and incompetence of the Trump administration–aided and abetted by propaganda outlets pretending to be “news” organizations–have decimated the already badly eroded social trust required for democratic governance.
I for one don’t have a clue how to grow it back.