September 17, 2021

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Are Americans More Trusting Than They Seem? 

8 min read

The mechanisms of enforcement have correspondingly evolved. Evolutionary theorists have argued that worries about punitive gods aided our social expansion; even in the modern era, social scientists have observed that economic growth correlates with professed fear of Hell (though not, curiously, with rates of church attendance). This concept is made explicit in the Islamic notion of the kiraman katibin, or “the two honorable scribes,” angels who sit on the shoulders of man and document his every deed and misdeed—and submit their reports for the coming Day of Judgment.

Today in Pakistan, the agents of the all-powerful intelligence service, often clad in white, are fittingly called farishtay, or “angels.” But actual surveillance, as opposed to the divine type, reflects and produces the opposite of trust. States in which people are constantly watched are characterized not by mutual faith but by paranoia. Anna Akhmatova, the great Russian poet, so feared Stalin’s secret police that she would commit her verses to memory and burn the drafts. Recently, the Chinese Communist Party has been developing a “social-credit system,” which will vacuum up data about the online and offline behavior of citizens, and is intended, in the words of the government, to “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.” A genuine culture of trust is undermined by such attempts to manufacture trustworthiness.

In the midst of declinists, Ho himself seems guided by a form of trust—optimism. “We have always had our discourse dominated by pessimists in the face of change,” he writes, noting Socrates’ paranoia about growing literacy. “But taking a wider perspective gives me hope.” Consider the problem of violence, the worst outcome of broken trust: earlier in our history, one in six people died violently. Then there’s the circulation of trust within the scientific community, which has greatly extended human life. And the fact that free trade, industrialization, and the welfare state have vastly reduced global poverty and human suffering; that prejudice, though it persists, has declined markedly in recent decades; that currencies are relatively stable and economies career toward collapse less often; and that there are global accords, however modest, designed to mitigate existential threats like nuclear proliferation and climate change.

With all that trust-fuelled progress, why are Americans saying that they are more mistrustful than ever before? And is this self-reported mistrust distinctively American? The World Values Survey, an extraordinary social-science collaboration that has quizzed residents in scores of countries about their beliefs for the past four decades, provides the best hard evidence. The most recent data show that Americans have a bit less trust in one another than the Germans do, and a bit more than the Japanese and the South Koreans do. Across the world, trust in government and trust in the rule of law tend to go hand in hand. As low as American belief in government can seem, it is exactly as predicted by this global trend line. Accounts of aberrantly low American trust typically rely on unfavorable comparisons with Nordic countries, like Finland, Norway, and Sweden. But every other developed country also fails to measure up to the mutualistic miracles in the lands of hygge and lingonberries.

Besides, it’s unwise to take international comparisons at face value. To go by survey results, China maintains Swedish levels of interpersonal trust, much greater than those in America and Britain. Should we conclude that China’s formal and civil institutions are especially durable—that its far-from-independent courts, say, enjoy widespread legitimacy when it comes to the fair enforcement of business contracts? Maybe people in China just don’t trust the pollsters and are careful about what they tell them. There’s a further complication. Francis Fukuyama, one of the most prominent modern thinkers about trust, thought that low levels of it portend low levels of prosperity, and, in a book published a quarter century ago, he deemed China a low-trust country. It has become much more affluent since then, without an obvious gain in trust-generating institutions. Trusting countries do tend to be richer, but causation may flow in both directions: wealth itself may contribute to a certain amount of trust.

Even if we put an asterisk on such cross-national comparisons, though, America’s reported declines in trust over time still require explanation. One factor may be economic stagnation. In a paper bleakly titled “The Fading American Dream,” a team of social scientists tells us that ninety per cent of Americans born in 1940 could expect to make more than their parents; for those born in the nineteen-eighties, the rate had dropped to only fifty per cent. Across the developed world, the poorer and less educated you are, the less trusting you tend to be. (Again, there are complicated issues of cause and effect here.) Work was once a trust-reinforcing institution. For less educated workers in the West, in an era of atomizing gig labor and hyper-tracked warehouse work, that is no longer the case.

“Mom? For my birthday, can I have a jerk kid ride me in a circle?”
Cartoon by Lars Kenseth

Another factor that Ho identifies is an increase in ethnic diversity, which “exacerbates our tribal nature” and fuels mistrust for the Other. In the U.S., he suggests, the prospect of a nonwhite majority in a country that once enslaved Black people may be intensifying tribalism. And, once again, tribalism can promote trust internally and mistrust externally; what sociologists call “familistic” societies often exhibit high trust within clans and very low trust among them. Once the tribalistic impulse is primed, it is readily reinforced. Technology makes it easier for media outlets to cater to niche audiences, and, as Ho puts it, “it’s potentially quite rational to place more trust in news and news sources that confirm what you already know.” (Some readers may have nodded when I referred to conspiratorial Trumpism, but experienced a twinge of unease when I brought up leftist activists in Portland.)

Looking around our fractious political landscape, then, it’s easy to believe that trust is in bad shape. But that same partisan rancor actually makes it harder to measure trust. Some survey questions that have been asked for decades—eliciting an approval rating of the President or gauging a sense of optimism about the economy—have lately become much less useful because public sentiment hinges almost entirely on partisanship. When more than half of all Americans tell pollsters that they don’t trust banks, do they really fear that their deposits may vanish one day, or are they just expressing resentment over the financial crisis and discontent with their own economic positions? We may wonder how trustworthy our indicators of trust are.

Another explanation has been proposed for the paradox of trust in the modern age. In “Who Can You Trust?,” Rachel Botsman argues that extraordinary advances in information technology have upended the old hierarchical model in which trust was transmitted from institution to individual, as when the “CBS Evening News,” embodied by Walter Cronkite, exuded avuncular authority from millions of black-and-white TV sets. Instead, we’ve been left with a new paradigm, that of “distributed trust,” in which trust flows laterally rather than vertically. E. O. Wilson, the eminent biologist, once remarked that “the real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.” Digital technology has shredded the putative infallibility of once vaunted institutions: the holiest figures, the grandest politicians, the greatest newspapermen. “Whatever the headlines say, this isn’t the age of distrust—far from it,” Botsman writes. The ambit of trust has merely shifted. “Trust and influence now lie more with individuals than they do with institutions.”

Although Ho and Botsman are both upbeat about our social stocks of trust, they disagree on what to make of a recent technology that aims to disrupt, decentralize, and digitize it. A blockchain is a remarkable accomplishment of mathematical and computational elegance, proving that transactions can be verified and processed in the absence of a single, supreme entity. Data that might be stored in a financial institution can instead be copied and distributed to users around the globe. The most prominent application of blockchains is in cryptocurrencies, which swap faith in a central bank with faith in algorithms. New transactions are verified by a majority of cryptocurrency “miners,” making them difficult, though not impossible, to falsify. Blockchains can also be used to document the ownership of digital images (in the form of “non-fungible tokens”) and to enable automatically executing financial programs called smart contracts. Botsman thinks blockchain technology is so revolutionary that “a decade or so from now it will be like the internet: we’ll wonder how society ever functioned without it.”

Blockchains are sometimes regarded, a bit mystically, as “trust engines,” which promise to supplant interpersonal trust entirely. And the problem that cryptocurrencies were designed to obviate—the need to trust a central bank—may have seemed big in January, 2009, when someone (or some people) going by the name of Satoshi Nakamoto released Bitcoin to the world. Yet faith in the monetary system hasn’t looked as shaky recently. It’s no longer clear what problem blockchains are solving, aside from facilitating illicit payments for criminal networks and lottery-style investments by meme-stock enthusiasts. Bitcoin is shockingly inefficient—an absurd amount of energy (approximately that consumed by the entire country of Sweden) is required to power a network capable of only seven transactions per second. (Visa processes more than two hundred times as many per second.) Transaction times often exceed ten minutes. A revolution in financial trust might be in the works, but it will have to be made of stronger stuff.

If what looks like a trust deficit is, in large part, an entrenchment of partisan tribalism, it’s heartening that an economist, a practitioner of the supposedly dismal science, has been able to muster a convincing rejoinder to the temptations of declinism. In the end, though, trust isn’t a property that can be measured in the abstract, like some sort of social ether. It characterizes a relationship. And so the real question isn’t how much of it a country has; the question is where trust reposes, and when, and with whom.

Needless to say, the world is only just emerging from a vast experiment in collective trust. The triumph of the scientific community in the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines—starting with the Chinese researchers who shared the sequence of the novel coronavirus—represents perhaps the most successful transnational collaboration in human history. Going on lockdown during the pandemic was, in part, an altruistic task, and it was engaged in by the majority of the population. The financial fallout from the pandemic protocols in the U.S. was quite effectively cushioned—to such an extent that a main economic fear these days is that the economy will grow too quickly. What’s more, in America, it appears that most states will handle future risk not formally, through “vaccine passports,” but through the honor system.

And yet the management of the crisis has been, at every step, shadowed by conspiracy, doubt, and hesitancy, all of which have tended to swallow up the successes of scientific and fiscal policy. Last spring, it might have been hoped that America’s acrimonious tribalism would be suspended in the face of a national calamity. That the pandemic was so easily subsumed into the culture wars shows that the resolution won’t be easy. Don’t trust anyone who tells you otherwise. ♦

Idrees Kahloon
2021-07-19 06:00:00

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