The West's Biggest Problem Is Dwindling Trust
JAN 4, 2017 11:13 AM EST
Many Americans gasp when they see Donald Trump mockingly put the word “intelligence” in quotes when referring to the U.S. intelligence community; it seems heretical to challenge the wisdom and expertise of institutions charged with safeguarding their security and freedoms. As a Russian, I just shrug: I have never believed a word coming from my country’s intelligence services. This cultural gap is shrinking, though. Western societies are turning into low-trust ones, after the post-Communist, Eastern European model.
Two decades ago, Francis Fukuyama, the man who also blithely declared that history was ending and a liberal democratic paradise was at hand, connected trust with prosperity. He argued that societies with more trust among their members, such as the U.S., Japan and Germany, did better than those with a smaller radius of trust that rarely goes far beyond the family, such as China, Italy, France or Korea. Economic evidence hasn’t quite borne that out, but at least it can be said that a more trustful society is more comfortable to live in, primarily because you don’t have to jump through hoops to prove the purity of your intentions.
Communism destroyed trust in every country it touched. An all-controlling, mistrustful state set the tone for social interaction and practically invited people to fight it or cheat it. Trust nested in families and small communities of people who knew each other well, but even inside these units there was sometimes a snitch. This annihilation of trust has outlasted communism. Many researchers who have studied the phenomenon have concluded that this has to do with economic development: If institutions and interpersonal relationships fail to deliver well-being, they don’t merit much trust. But if people and institutions are not trusted, there’s no incentive for them to deliver. “There may be a complex, probably circular, self-reinforcing causal mechanism between the level of economic development and the general level of interpersonal and institutional trust,” Zsolt Boda and Gergo Medve-Balint wrote in 2014 in a paper exploring why all types of trust were lower in central and Eastern Europe than in the continent’s west.
Parts of the former Soviet sphere are caught in this vicious circle. Ukraine, where only volunteer organizations, the military and the church are trusted by more than half the population, has had major difficulties reforming because the government is seen as essentially self-seeking. Low-trust environments are ill-suited for boisterous democracy: It quickly descends into infighting and paralysis. This is not just a post-Communist phenomenon: Italians and Greeks, whose trust in their governments is as low or lower than in Eastern Europe, know it well.
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