Trust and Institutions

Societies depend on trust to function. Any collective action needs trust so that transactions and exchanges are made efficiently and to encourage action by reassuring that others won’t cheat or free ride. That’s not at all a radical notion, but there are indicators in different countries around the world saying that, over time since the mid 20th century, trust is declining. Academic (World Values Survey), state (Eurobarometer), and private sector (Edelman Trust Barometer) research on trust in society are all pointing to the same trends: that sentiments that (1) "Most people can be trusted" is declining and feelings that (0) "Need to be very careful" is increasing.

Though most people already felt that you "Need to be very careful" in response to "Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you need to be very careful in dealing with people?" since the 1980s, there has been a general downward trend over the past three decades. It would be super neat/alarming to see Wave 7 results, set for release in 2019. If only the WVS folks kept their country participants consistent ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It is getting harder to imagine the community. Declining trust trends are also worrying because of the wild democratic outcomes they tend to produce or are related to. No matter what kind of political, economic, or social system you have, none of them work without trust.

So, how do you get society to start trusting again? What “creates” trust? What the hell is trust in the first place? That’s what I thought about in Fall 2011. The Arab Springs just happened, I had just got back from the summer abroad course in Berlin where we were warned against protesting a Eurozone Crisis I didn’t fully understand, and Occupy was happening in New York while people were just starting to pitch tents at St. James Park in Toronto. What got people to take to the streets like that? Why had I never seen a protest ever happen living in suburban Mississauga, while in Toronto just last year, we had the G20? At the root of it all, the questions morphed into: how did anyone get anything done together?

In my 4th year seminars, I started asking about “political culture.” I only really started this in 4th year because I only had University figured out in the last half of 3rd year. If only I had more time and knew like more than 3 people at UofT before 4th year. If only I brought these questions up in my first year comparative politics course, maybe I would have had better grades on my undergrad transcript?

TAs and professors started me off with Almond and Verba’s The Civic Culture and then on Putnam’s Making Democracy Work. They talked about families, churches and “social capital” (boiled down to trust, networks, and norms of reciprocity) as things that helped solve collective action dilemmas, but I didn’t find them completely helpful in explaining wider phenomena like transnational action in response to Globalization, why many Canadian newcomer communities sent remittances, or why people in countries with varied political cultures (i.e., Germany and Italy) still had the same opinions on things.  How could families that are never together still send money to each other? Filial piety in some cultures is not enough to explain that. Taking Stephen Clarkson’s 4th year seminar on regionalization, what made North Americans protest NAFTA in all three countries and why is approval/complacency/opposition for the treaty in flux?

In the Putnam edited volume, Democracies in Flux, Bo Rothstein talked about how economic and political arrangements facilitated social capital and that changes and pressures on these arrangements may have a hand in influencing trust in Sweden.  With a better quality of life, less inequality, and generally universal approaches to social programs, it can be easy to see how these indicators would also be related to higher indicators of trust. A bit after Democracies in Flux was published, Rothstein argued that there is a strong connection between trust and the mechanisms that lead to a better quality of life. Later picking up Elinor Ostrom's work, institutions seemed to be what steered trust, cooperation, and collective action.

Variations in the level of “trust in strangers” over time between countries can be explained, at least in part, by the equalizing political and economic performance of institutions that facilitate trust by creating networks and establishing norms/rules of reciprocity. The strength of institutions in their equalizing performance affects trust between individuals for collective action, transactions, solidarity, etc.

Okay, but what is an institution? It’s typically imagined as a hard, foreboding looking building that houses some sort of government service. It’s also imagined as a custom or legal looking document, hard-copied and leather-bound that people reference. Sometimes, an institution is imagined as a favourite place to eat food. The first sentence of Wikipedia calls Institutions “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behaviour.” I would agree with such a broad and vague definition. Institutions can be just about anything that facilitate collective action or purpose. They can be recognized books of reference, a social service, a physical building, a family, a legal document, a neighbourhood diner, an annual conference, or even a ritual practice.

From personal experience, I’ve even come to regard social media and group chats as institutions. Though informal and “softer” than say an office where you get your driver’s license renewed, they do (quite effectively) function as mechanisms that facilitates the exchange of information, the growth and maintenance of a network, as well as collective action. Watching Bourdain’s Parts Unknown Libya episode on Netflix, I think we all forgot how effective Twitter was in mobilizing entire revolutions. Today, we feel sour against Twitter and Facebook for (mis)informing voters that have led to undesired outcomes. We could basically call these institutions groups, but groups can also imply people without strong connections to one another, other than outward identifiers such as age or race. Millennials are a group, not an institution. An institution, however, can organize a group of Millennials for purpose.

Trust in “traditional institutions” like political parties, unions, big corporations, welfare services, taxes, the police is falling. People, whether they participate in an institution or view it from the outside, tend to trust an institution depending on the perceived capacity of impartiality, fairness, and redistribution (Rothstein & Stolle, 2008). That perception doesn’t always have to line up with reality (this bit you can find in my Master’s thesis with trust in big companies in Japan in light of labour market dualization). High trust institutions are typically universalizing, but this doesn’t have to match perception. Means tested institutions can be perceived positively if they are perceived to be impartial, fair, and redistributive according to the norms and networks people understand of that institution. Reciprocal norms like meritocracy, for instance, can dull negative perceptions of institutions lacking equalizing performance.

In my grad school studies, I wanted to make a stronger case for the link between trust and institutions and what that meant for policy and decision making. The relationship between trust and institutions is one way and likely self-reinforcing. Eek & Rothstein (2005) make the case that while trust in institutions can influence social (horizontal) trust in strangers, trust in strangers does not have any effect on institutional (vertical) trust. Therefore, high social trust is related to institutions in which people place high levels of confidence, while high levels of social trust can also exist alongside low confidence in other institutions. One institution can maintain a varying degree of public confidence than another, but general trust does not appear to affect trust in institutions.

I would tend to disagree with the latter parts of that thesis. Social trust as an outcome could influence the perception and efficacy of an institution. Say an institution like healthcare begins to perform less effectively than it used to. Cuts and maybe a newly tiered in-group damages perceptions that the institution is running impartially, fairly, and in a redistributive fashion. There are perceived free riders in the program. The declining trust in this institution, therefore, influences individual declining trust in strangers.

But if social trust declines, is there any motivation for collective action to fix the institution? Declining social trust is seen to be related to declining voter turnouts, so in this scenario how likely is it that people who perceive healthcare as becoming unfair would vote for a politician that promises to fix it? Would people at this point seek other institutions they can trust? We know that low trusting individuals typically don't participate in political activities and are associated with low productivity and human capital. Is it typically high social trusting individuals, that may not be immediately affected by healthcare cuts due to higher socioeconomic status and human capital, who fight for healthcare institution restoration? It could be that institutions are responsive to lower levels of social trust, but institutions can also be subject to other pressures like resources, increases/decreases in participants, and changes in culture. What comes first: (mis)trust or the (lack of the) institution?

If I had more time and money, I would want to explore these questions and dilemmas further. In my grad school work, I also argued that arrangements of institutions in states and markets could help explain the variance in trust in countries, but there was no way I was going to fit the whole theoretical framework in an already long thesis paper. Going to save the rest for future posts.