Trust to Thrive?

By Robert Bernstein   |   November 22, 2022

Do you want to be rich? To live really well? Then you will want to live in a society with high trust. Our World in Data detailed this in an article “Trust” by Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser. Much of the data comes from the World Value Survey.

The World Value Survey plotted per capita GDP versus how many agreed with the statement “most people can be trusted.” In the lower left corner are countries like the Philippines, Brazil, and Uganda: Single digit levels of trust and incomes below $15K. In the upper right is Norway with trust at 75% and income at $65K. The U.S. is in between with 40% trust and $50K income.

Trust takes many forms. Trust between people and trust in institutions are two key factors. In the past 60 years, trust between people in the U.S. has declined a bit from 40% to 30%. But the big decline has been with trust in government: Down from 75% to 20%. With a slight bump up with Biden.

Trust in government plummeted during the U.S. war in Vietnam and Nixon’s 1972 election crimes called “Watergate.” Reagan deliberately kept trust low by promoting the idea that government cannot be trusted. He made this prophesy self-fulfilling: he cut investments in technology and social capital, he sold weapons to terrorists and stole the money to fund other terrorists, and he made the U.S. a debtor country for the first time.

How does trust build wealth? In low-trust countries, people put all their trust in their families and in a small circle of friends. Making poor people dependent on other poor people. Enlarging that trust circle allows poor people to borrow from wealthier people to invest in agriculture or manufacturing. And it allows wealthier people to benefit from these investments.

Trust also allows a longer time horizon for investment. A micro loan can allow a destitute person to buy wool to knit a sweater and sell it for a small profit. But it takes long-term investing to build a textile mill that can employ many people with high productivity per capita. It then takes trust for that productivity to be redistributed to the workers and not all be taken by the owner.

So, how is trust built in a society? Individually, it is a virtuous cycle of taking a risk of trusting and then seeing a benefit. It starts by broadening one’s circle of connections. Before we trust someone, we first have to get to know them. And before we get to know them, we have to meet them. It means getting out of one’s comfort zone and getting involved in new activities to meet new people.

But trust is also built top down by governments and organizations. A corrupt government only serves those with money and power. But if the people are engaged in government, the government can trust that the people are there to support them and hold them accountable. In return, the government can provide good infrastructure, social services, and investment in technology.

Trust is not all about economics. It starts with community engagement. Here in Santa Barbara, we have huge community events like Solstice and Fiesta that bring people together for a common purpose. As people come together for such events, they go on to create lasting relationships and organizations for wider community enrichment. We have groups to promote environmental protection and enjoyment, performance arts, cultural events, and sports.

Education and trust feed each other. People with more education have higher levels of trust. Higher trust leads to greater wealth and investment in education. Investing in education is not just about the direct economic benefit of a skilled population. It is also about increasing trust.

What can you do? Individually, get out of your comfort zone and widen your circle of connections. Collectively, engage with government and organizations to strengthen them and hold them accountable.

A key graphic in the World Values Survey shows whether trust is increasing or decreasing in each country. The highest-trust countries continue to increase in trust. But even a few low-trust countries are getting better. The U.S. right now is declining in trust. Fortunately, this can be turned around. Imagine if we organized to demand investment in universal healthcare, high-speed public transit, sustainable energy, and scientific exploration. High-trust countries already do this, and this increases trust even more. We can do this, too!  


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