In this ninth episode of our series on liberalism, Ben Klutsey, the director of academic outreach at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, speaks with Kevin Vallier about the connections between declining social and political trust as well as possible solutions for rebuilding faith in our neighbors and establishing a broad-based civic friendship. Vallier is an associate professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University. His interests lie primarily in philosophy, politics and economics (PPE); ethics; and the philosophy of religion. He is the author of Liberal Politics and Public Faith: Beyond Separation, Must Politics Be War? Restoring Our Trust in the Open Society, and Trust in a Polarized Age.
BEN KLUTSEY: Today our discussion will focus on trust. How do we build trust in a pluralistic society, particularly when we are so polarized? We’ll delve right in, Kevin. When people talk about trust in society, they mean different things. What do you mean by trust? Can you distinguish between political and social trust? Can you unpack that for us a little bit?
Defining Trust and Examining Trends
VALLIER: Sure. These are pretty common concepts in the literature, but they aren’t always well defined. A lot of what I’m trying to do is give some precision. Here’s what I think about what social trust is. Very simply, it’s faith that strangers will follow established norms. Just to unpack that, what we’re essentially doing is we’re trusting representative members of our society, that is, the average person we encounter in our day-to-day lives, to follow certain kinds of social norms or basic moral expectations that we have that people will do things like not steal from us, not lie to us and defraud us.
Maybe they’ll help us out if we need them. You left your phone in Starbucks—they bring it back to you, or something along those lines. Social trust is trust that most people most of the time will follow most of those central norms. It’s trust in society, held by society, but placed in people as individuals. It’s not just, do I trust society to act, but do I trust you and you and you and you and you to act?
Political trust is trust in institutions. Unlike social trust, we trust political institutions to perform certain functions, to do things, not just to follow general moral rules but to, say, increase economic prosperity or preserve economic equality—or more specifically, say, to protect the environment or to collect revenue or to enforce immigration law, or something along those lines. Social trust is trust that most people will tend to do what we collectively understand is the right thing most of the time.
Political trust is trust that institutions will tend to perform their functions in a way at least, I would add, that seems to reflect concern among members of those institutions for the good of the public. Maybe people would just perform the function because it’s just a robotic thing, or they have some malicious intent, in which case it would be hard to trust people if we knew that. It’s something like trusting people to perform outcomes out of goodwill.
KLUTSEY: When you look at current trends in trust in American society right now, what are you seeing?
VALLIER: Well, the commonly understood thing is that political trust in many institutions has been in decline. Particularly since the ‘60s, we’ve seen—do most people trust, in particular, Congress? Numbers have gone down from 80% to 20%, or something along those lines. A radical decline. That’s fairly well known. People know that trust in the presidency is very polarized. Your person’s in, you trust the government a lot more than if your person’s not in.
What’s less well understood, because people are less familiar with the concept of social trust, is that social trust has been on the decline since the early ’60s in fits and starts. We’ve gone from around half of people saying most people can be trusted to about a third. Now, what’s wrong with that? Is that a big change? Well, one thing—and I point this out in a Wall Street Journal article—is that we’re the only established democracy with that kind of precipitous, statistically significant decline.
There are some new democracies that have seen big declines, ones that have transitioned from fascism or communism, like, say, Romania or Chile. We don’t know exactly why this is. Part of it is people may feel freer to say they don’t trust. They may have more mass communication so that they can see more people aren’t necessarily doing what they ought to be doing. It could even be that people were overpromised the benefits of democracy and they’re disappointed, or that people start to blame political outcomes on people who voted for the other party rather than just the military cadre or whatever it would be. We don’t know why.
But in an established democracy, social trust is very stable. For there to be this big of a decline is pretty unusual. Now, why do we care about that? Well, social trust is connected to all kinds of empirically well-established social goods: economic growth, economic equality, lower corruption in the legal system, even things like psychological well-being. In losing social trust, we’re losing all kinds of things that everybody cares about.
What’s Causing America’s Decline in Trust?
KLUTSEY: The decline in trust in American society is quite substantial, and you alluded to the fact that it’s not very clear why that’s been the case. Do you have any intuitions at all about why we’ve seen this steep decline?
VALLIER: Well, we tried to look at some data in addition to intuition. I cover these in the book, but also there’s just a very accessible version on The Wall Street Journal. There’s a couple of things that people sometimes cite that I think don’t work. I’ll just talk about those. One is there’s more ethnic diversity. It turns out that ethnic diversity doesn’t have very much, if any, negative effect on social trust just in itself.
You have to divide it up geographically, not by area, but by how easy it is to encounter the racial diversity. Let’s just give an example. Suppose we admitted Puerto Rico as a 51st state. That would increase U.S. ethnic diversity, but it wouldn’t affect social trust at all because the ethnic diversity is isolated. It’s on an island somewhere. All the same, if you’re in an interracial marriage, let’s say, that kind of interracial contact, that diversity, is not going to reduce social trust. It’s also the case that workplace diversity doesn’t look like it decreases social trust either because people have to work together on common projects.
Here’s what really matters: local segregation. If there’s the Jewish block and the Italian block and the Irish block, then you can get real problems. You’ve got a lot of ethnic diversity residentially, within 75 to 100 meters in particular, you can get real declines in social trust. But that degree of ethnic segregation hasn’t changed very much. If anything, it’s gone down. We still have a lot of effective residential segregation through things like redlining, but it just hasn’t changed that much, so it’s not the thing to explain the decline. Even that very specific kind of ethnic diversity.
Other people cite increases in economic inequality, and indeed there have been increases in economic inequality. It’s not entirely clear why. People dispute how much of it is a measurement error that comes from there being more single-family households now. But even when you adjust for that stuff, there’s been a real increase in economic inequality.
The idea is that people should look at those indicators. They say, “Oh, well, my society is less fair, so I don’t trust it as much.” Well, there’s a bunch of problems with this. First, if nationwide racial inequality isn’t affecting social trust very much, I think it’s harder to see how economic inequality is somehow doing a huge amount of work at the same time. Lots of people could say, “Look, the other racial group has got it better than me, so I trust my society less.”
The idea that one’s going to move things in a huge way and the other’s not going to move it much at all is not very plausible. It’s going to probably be local increases in economic inequality. It’s like your neighbors getting richer than you are. Someone down the street, down the block, is much richer. I think most people don’t say, “Oh, Bill Gates, he has so much more money. Now I’m going to trust everybody less.”
It’s also the case, though, in pretty careful analysis that it looks like the causal direction goes from more trust to less inequality. When you trust people more, you tend to have a stronger preference for redistribution because you don’t think the recipients of the transfers are sneaky people who are going to misuse it on booze and alcohol. So societies that are higher trust just don’t mind redistribution as much and tend to support it more. There is a correlation between economic inequality and social trust, to be sure, but that’s the better directional explanation.
Those are really the two main things that are cited that I think don’t work. Now we’re trying to look at factors that do. There’s been some very interesting research that’s come out in just the last couple of weeks looking at employment scarring. People who are unemployed for periods of time may become less trusting. But I think there’s evidence to suggest that actually people’s social trust attitudes don’t change very much after they’re, say, 30 or so.
Maybe if they experience bad unemployment when they’re young, that can cause a problem. I do think in the lab you can show that people’s trust attitudes temporarily can change, but we don’t have evidence yet, and we’ve got good counter-evidence that social trust attitudes tend to be pretty stable once you reach adulthood. There’s something going on in people’s experience when they’re younger. Something’s happening.
Some people think that declining trust in political institutions is having an effect. There is some evidence of this, but I think it’s actually because political trust is highly polarized. I think what’s going on is that the gradual dissolution of the cultures of the country, of the groups of the country, from seeing themselves as having one national interest to there being kind of two tribes is actually having an effect. I think what people are thinking is, “Well, I can trust my tribe, but the other tribe, I’m doubtful.”
There is extreme partisan distrust. I mean, 2017, 70% of Democrats say they distrust people who voted for Trump. That’s not just distrusting Trump; that’s anyone who voted for him. The exact reverse was true: 70% of Republicans said they distrust most people who voted for Hillary. My basic thought is just that you can see in lots of situations where in-group, out-group dynamics are trust-decreasing. Something’s going on on a national scale.
We’ve seen a great increase in political polarization unheard of in other countries to this degree. There have been a few countries that have gotten a little bit more polarized, like the U.K. They haven’t become less socially trusting. There’s one country that seems to have experienced some increases in polarization and some decreases in social trust at the same time, but they’re very mild, and that’s Switzerland.
So we’ve got this unique pattern. There are other things that don’t explain it. There’s some plausible underlying mechanisms. My view is that distrust and increasing polarization are making each other worse. There’s lots of mechanisms I could review, but that’s the basic idea.
Surveys and Experiments on Trust
KLUTSEY: I want to come back to that because I want you to place that in the context of the trust divergence hypothesis that you talk about. Before that, if I wanted to learn more about where trust is trending, where do I go? Do I look at the General Social Survey? World Values Survey? What’s the best way to learn about trends?
VALLIER: I have a little blog post on my blog “Reconciled,” which I’m about to pick back up on pretty regularly. There, I have a little chart where I average the World Values Survey, the General Social Survey and the American National Election Survey. If you just Google “values, Reconciled, social trust declines,” you’ll see the graph where I averaged everything. It’s the only graph I’ve ever seen where somebody averaged all the numbers.
I don’t know why, but it’s mostly because people just look at the General Social Survey or just the World Values Survey, or if they’re looking regionally, they look at what’s called the Eurobarometer for European countries or the Latino barometer, Latin American countries, and so on. I put together the numbers in the United States from the three survey banks.
KLUTSEY: What about lab experiments?
VALLIER: This is very interesting. What’s going on in the lab is that essentially you’re put in a kind of prisoner’s dilemma, which is a basic situation where it’s in your collective interest to cooperate but it’s in your individual interest to defect. What is mutually beneficial is not individually rational. But, if there’s a certain level of trust, the thought is, you’ll engage in the cooperative behavior despite your individual incentives because you trust that other people are going to act cooperatively.
What happens is in a trust game, you play a sequential prisoner’s dilemma. You split a pod; you cooperate. If the other person cooperates, you’ll get more, but if the other person defects, there’s a smaller payoff. In essence, what’s going on is someone’s offering a certain sum, they’re being trusting and they’re making an estimate of someone else’s trustworthiness based on how they respond to the next move. It’s just a prisoner’s dilemma; you’re playing two steps.
Now, that’s supposed to also be a measure of trust. It’s one that economists place more stock in generally because of the political science literature survey data and the economist’s attitude: “Put your money where your mouth is. Talk is cheap. Let’s trust the lab results more.” And the political scientist says, “These are totally devoid of context. There’s lots of other considerations going on for people in the lab that are oftentimes robotic. You’re not expecting consistent interactions. There’s no cultural norms at stake in the same way that there are in the surveys.”
Here’s the nice thing. While the data between the lab and the surveys don’t correlate well at small stakes, it looks like they start to converge at higher stakes. It looks like the two modes of measurement do seem to start to be related, but there’s not been a lot of work on this yet. The main thing I cite is a 2014 paper that tried for higher stakes in the trust game, and then there’s a better correlation with the survey data.
My sense is people aren’t playing very seriously at lower stakes, but then when you ask them their view, they give their honest view about most people. Most people are willing to complain about most people. That’s the hope, that those two measures converge at higher stakes. I think that makes a certain kind of sense.
The Distrust Divergence Hypothesis
KLUTSEY: Right. Can you talk about the trust divergence hypothesis? You said a little bit about it earlier, but if you can unpack that for us, it’ll be great.
VALLIER: Sure. The distrust divergence hypothesis is that trust is falling because of increasing, what I call, partisan divergence and vice versa. What’s partisan divergence? Well, partisan diverge is a term I use for many kinds of polarization in what are called sorting. Polarization is you change your mind in some way, whereas sorting is you just start to hang out with people that are more like you. There’s two kinds of polarization: issue-based, where we change our minds on issues, and affect-based, where we become more hostile to the other group.
We’ve seen some issue-based polarization primarily among elites, and we’ve seen a huge amount of affective polarization in the general public, but especially among elites. There’s also issue-based sorting, where you hang around people that agree with you more. There’s less of that. But there’s an affect-based sorting, where people hate the other group and so start to congregate only with their own group. I refer to all four of those phenomena as partisan divergence.
My claim is that social and political distrust are feeding into partisan divergence. Partisan divergence is feeding into lower and lower distrust. I think we’re caught in a kind of feedback loop. That’s the hypothesis for which I provide some evidence. The difficulty with the evidence is that a lot of the data on trust that’s fine-grained enough to do anything with is new, and a lot of the data on polarization where people are really looking carefully at measures of affective polarization is pretty new as well.
The further trouble is that there’s no one—and I’ve looked; I’ve said this on other podcasts, that people have looked and reached out to me and can’t find anything—that tries to line up the trust data and the polarization measures to really run the numbers, to do some pretty serious regressions. But I’m working with a co-author right now on that. A lot of what I say is bringing together all the evidence we have, even up to 2019, and I think that supports the hypothesis, but we’re going to start getting really good, solid, robust empirical tests of the hypothesis as well.
Maybe I turn out to be wrong. I’m okay with that. The hope is, though, that even if trust and polarization aren’t making each other worse off, the solutions I suggest in the book will still restore trust, which is still great. I think there’s plenty of evidence for that. But it might be the case that polarization just gets worse and worse and worse, even if we restore trust. That’s almost unimaginable to me because I think cognitively, when you trust people, it’s harder to be polarized. It’s harder to hate people you trust. It’s also harder to ignore the opinions of people that you trust.
It just seems so intuitively plausible to me that more trust would mean less polarization of either variety, and so intensely also plausible that if you have high trust, or if you have less polarization, it’s easier to trust people. The less different you are on certain issues and the less you hate each other, the easier it is to form trust attitudes. It just seems to me, psychologically, things like hate by affect and trust are so intimately connected that they ought to really be going together to some degree.
Again, I could be wrong. But the hope is we can look within our current institutions, find the modes of reform to increase trust, and that would also help to break the cycle if, as I believe based on I think good evidence modeling, they’re connected,
KLUTSEY: They’re reinforcing each other. Very interesting.
VALLIER: Yes, that’s the idea.
Trust and Political Leaders
KLUTSEY: You talk about what facilitates social trust. There were a few that were a little surprising. You’ve already talked about a couple of them—diversity and so on. Monarchy is a robust determinant of social trust, and I was quite surprised by that. I’m sure you wouldn’t find anyone advocating for bringing a monarchy in our society, though.
VALLIER: I’m actually writing my next book on the new Catholic integralists, many of whom are monarchists, but there are very few of them. These are some of the new-right intellectuals, like the folks behind a lot of the Trump stuff. They’re not the same as the Neo reaction crowd that are also monarchists and stuff, but your point’s well taken. Unfortunately, I do know monarchists. Monarchy being a robust determinant—there are almost no actually effective monarchs that are politically powerful. All the data is from societies that have relatively toothless monarchs. Why would that matter? They can’t even do anything.
Well, I think here’s the explanation. You have a head of state that’s expected to be politically neutral for historical reasons. They have been disempowered so the country can be a democracy. And folks like Queen Elizabeth just don’t talk politics. They don’t get involved. So you have a head of state and everybody can say, “Hey, there’s someone we all like. I don’t know what they think politically, but they’re pretty good.” We don’t have that many people in the U.S. We’ve basically got Dolly Parton. That’s, like, it.
There’s nobody who hasn’t taken a side. We don’t have any high-status people that are robustly and rigorously neutral. Many of the most popular people are people like Michelle Obama, who obviously has a view. Or just extremely popular celebrities—you just know that they’re going to be on the left. You just know that. I gather Queen Elizabeth is quite personally conservative. I’ve come to understand that she’s quite pious, takes her role as the head of the Church of England quite seriously. She’s extremely self-controlled. I think her reign, as it is, is a way to say, “There’s somebody above the fray. There’s somebody who’s not taking sides.”
KLUTSEY: Very interesting. On political trust, though, and the things that facilitate that, you say that democracies depend on a certain degree of political distrust so there’s a healthy skepticism about political leadership. Then low political trust may not lead to crisis of legitimacy for democratic governance? Is that the silver lining?
VALLIER: Yeah. The real problem is a decline in social trust. But the real problem with that is we don’t have a theory about how social trust is formed. I have this one new project on these new-right intellectuals for my very next book, but the book after that I want to be developing a theory of social trust learning because we don’t have a good one. I just want to bring a whole lot of different disciplines together to try to get it figured out. We don’t know much.
But in determinants of political trust, we know quite a bit more. It does turn out, though, that in a democracy, what you want is a lot of people to trust in democracy. They trust the democratic processes as such. That’s why the voter fraud stuff is so pernicious, because you want people to be able to trust in the system so there can be peaceful transferals of power and we don’t have a revolt in the Capitol every time there’s an election. This is supposed to be one of the advantages of having a democracy—peaceful transitions of power.
If you have someone sowing massive distrust, that’s a problem. You want people to trust the system, broadly speaking. Like, “Okay, we’re going to keep democracy. We like democracy.” Most people are pretty big fans of democracy. The problem with the Capitol rioters isn’t that they hated democracy. It’s that they had wildly irresponsibly false beliefs about whether democracy had performed correctly because they put their stock in the wrong media sources for reasons I’m still trying to sort through.
Because media trust is the main thing I left out of the books. We don’t know enough, but it’s incredibly important. So you want people to trust in democracy, but you don’t want them to completely trust the officeholders because the worry is if you have total trust, you’re just not going to reassess what they’re doing, and you’re not going to pay as much attention to when they’re bad. What you want is very high trust in the democratic process, but you want middling trust in officials.
Now why not say, well, don’t trust them at all? I’ve been a libertarian a long time, and I’m telling people to trust the government. They’re like, “Well, what’s wrong with you?” I’m saying, look, if you trust a politician zero, that doesn’t mean they’re going to behave better. It doesn’t mean they’re going to be friendlier to markets. You just give me a very simple example. Take a politician who is distrusted who argues in favor of deregulation versus a politician that is trusted. Who is going to be more effective at getting us closer to markets? The one who’s at least somewhat trusted.
Libertarians spend so much time sowing distrust in the government, but the truth is, how come market reforms are unpopular? You want there to be pro-market politicians who are trusted so they can say, “Look, I know, maybe it’s not obvious how this will work, but I’ve thought about it. I’ve listened to the experts.” This is really how Sweden was able to move sharply away from democratic socialism. They didn’t cut social spending, but they privatized, deregulated, cut taxes. They have a public school voucher system for the schools. They moved in the market direction in a big way.
In our country, if someone said, “Let’s cut taxes. Let’s have a voucher system. Let’s privatize things. Let’s deregulate massively. Democratic socialism isn’t working for us,” people would say, “Oh, you must be a servant of the great Koch.” In that country, in Sweden, people can say, “Okay, I don’t agree with this. You say what you think, and we’ll just have an election.” It’s not like everybody trusts each other. In fact, political trust in Sweden isn’t all that high, but it’s fundamentally different than in the U.S. It’s not like Swedish politics is perfectly peaceful, but there’s a sense where someone can propose something.
Even in the ’70s, people can come forward and say, “Yes, the Civil Aeronautics Board is really inefficient. We’ve listened to the economists. Deregulating the airlines is probably a good idea.” Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy say, “Hey, let’s abolish a department of the government.” Who does that? Losing political trust is bad from a limited-government perspective. Now, if you have more trust, people may trust more in redistribution or something like that. The countries that tend to be high in political trust that we think is not based on propaganda and lying, as I think it is in China, they tend to be capitalist welfare states.
You get pretty good markets, and you get a lot of redistribution. Libertarians, you kind of have mixed feelings. My view is that capitalist welfare states are pretty good because you can get quick growth, and in the end, what matters in the long run for human prosperity and innovation is just broad-based economic growth and experimentation over time. Maybe some redistribution slows things up, gums things up, reduces incentives, so maybe that’s a problem.
But a lot of the way that Sweden does things is actually a lot more efficient because there’s higher trust. There’s just so much less corruption. It’s also the case that they have these universal benefits programs so that rich people are invested, so they get on the phone and complain if something goes wrong, or people anticipate that they will. You don’t have a bunch of poor people just having to figure out how to work everything by themselves.
We could redistribute in more effective ways that are more efficient. It’s also the case that there are lots of subtle ways in which state pension systems can appeal to market prices and things that it’s not just the welfare state. Sometimes we think that these things are too—we say, “Oh, there’s markets and then there’s socialism,” when there’s all these subtle combinations.
Some combinations of the two are terrible, like our healthcare system. But there are other combinations like Singapore’s healthcare system, which is magnificent and cheap. The truth is that libertarians and limited-government people have to have a subtler attitude towards trust in government. They just have to. Also, we just shouldn’t sow distrust in government in general.
It should be like, “Okay, can we trust this or that?” Don’t trust ICE! Park Service, hey, you can trust the Park Service. They do a pretty good job. They’re not so bad. We need to be subtler. But in a democracy, you want big-time trust in democracy and the process. You want middling—not low, not high—trust in officials. That’s what’s I think socially optimal.
Trust, Economics and Poverty
KLUTSEY: Great. Now, you also talk about individual economic performance. When it’s strong, you become more politically trusting. When people observe low-quality governance, political trust falls. You also find that trust divides along racial lines. When there are certain minorities whose economic performances aren’t so strong, you see that trust declines in those communities.
VALLIER: Yeah. One thing that people expect the government to do is to bring about prosperity for them. Their estimates of their subjective economic performance, which is not always accurate, does affect their level of trust in government because that’s something they expect. Now, if you go to folks on the left, they expect a little bit more. They expect more equality as well as more growth, whereas people on the right are less concerned about that, which isn’t surprising at all.
As societies get richer, they also tend to care about nonmaterial stuff more, like the treatment of racial minorities and things like that. As societies get more post-materialist, they start to care more about social and cultural goals. Actually, for a while when people were writing on this, they were thinking about post-materialists primarily adopting left-wing values, where I think now with populism we’re seeing actually the adoption of more right-wing cultural values and people trusting government based more on whether they fight cancel culture or Big Tech or something like that.
The main thing right now still is the sense that the government’s performing, in particular that it’s producing economic growth for people, economic prosperity for people. There are some people who’ve prospered less and who trust less. I’m going to be working on some research on poverty and trust levels, working for some grant in a major metropolitan area to look at trust levels and poverty in different minority communities.
KLUTSEY: That would be interesting too because we tend to hear that locally trust is higher than nationally.
VALLIER: Yes, that’s right. But if you look at social trust levels in the Black community in particular, about 17% of Black Americans say most people can be trusted, which is about 44% of whites. If you look at the breakdowns of trust levels by state, the farther south you get, the worse things look. Mississippi and Alabama and Louisiana are low, and that’s because Black trust is low. Now, Black Americans trust each other a great deal. But it is a really dramatic negative effect because essentially here’s what I think the dynamic is. The distrust of the population is well grounded in many ways in a history of massive harms.
This is actually true in different countries. If you live in parts of China where there was massive famine, those people are still less trusting to this day. Negative trust experiences harden in early adulthood; they affect your entire life. As long as kids are experiencing racial discrimination in really, really obvious ways—from police, from jail, from people trying to take away their votes—you’re just going to have low trust. The horrible thing here—and this is what in philosophy you might call an epistemic injustice—is that because the Black community is less trusting, it hurts them economically.
One of the things we’re trying to figure out is how can you get communities out of poverty that are low trust, but communities being low trust means that they’re going to take fewer economic risks because they don’t know who they can depend on. It’s a horrible, horrible situation, where you get poor marginalized communities that are low trust and they can’t get out of it, and it hurts them and they’re lower trust.
That’s one of the things we’re trying to figure out: How is social trust learned and transmitted? If we had a theory on that, then maybe we could start to solve that problem. That goes beyond the current book. That’s the next big social science-y thing we’re going to do.
Trust and Media
KLUTSEY: Immigration, that’s an interesting one with regards to political trust, and you note that perceived size of immigrant groups has negative effects on political trust, but actual size does not.
VALLIER: Yes, as far as we can tell. We’re really only getting good data recently that’s really compelling in terms of there being vast numbers of refugees and people really rigorously testing trust levels out there. And the way the news draws attention to it, it’s just a really big deal. Think about it. Suppose that there was just no way to know who was emigrating. Then just gradually over time you live somewhere, and all of a sudden, there’s just more and more and more Latinos. Probably for many native whites that’s going to be trust reducing. But no one reports on that.
Now, imagine the reverse. Imagine there’s a very, very, very, very, very small number of severe criminals among immigrants, and a certain news channel decides to report on them all the time. All the time. That will probably be more trust reducing in government than the reverse. You could probably have a million immigrants from Mexico come in over a 10-year period, and it would reduce trust less than a single gang getting in and killing two or three people and the media reporting it.
This is one reason why media trust is so central and one reason I’ve become more pessimistic since I started writing the book, because I don’t know how to reform the media environment to get it to report more accurately on stuff. It’s one reason I’m preferring local news more these days because I think it’s both easier to trust it and it’s easier to verify when it’s wrong because it’s reporting on local stuff. But then where do you get good national reporting? The answer is, I don’t know.
I don’t have good policies. I’m flirting with some weird ideas, but I don’t really know what to think. I’ve been starting to think about social media reforms and what will be legitimate and what wouldn’t, but my thinking has only just begun on these things.
KLUTSEY: You advocate for liberal rights practices that create and sustain trust for the right reasons.
KLUTSEY: What are these practices?
VALLIER: A little bit about the “trust for the right reason” standard. I think it’s just plain that we don’t want to trust people based on bad reasons, like if we’re being lied to. We want to trust for the right kinds of reasons. What are those? We want to trust people because they’re actually trustworthy with respect to the things we’re trusting them to do. When we trust people, we don’t just want them to do the thing we trust them to do, but we want them to do it because they respect us or have some concern for us, or at least they’re somewhat ethical. If we found out someone was doing what we predicted but they were a psychopath or a robot, then we wouldn’t be able to trust them.
We want to trust because we think others are trustworthy out of some kind of goodwill or something like that. We’re not going to say, “Oh, let’s get trust by having massive propaganda.” What we want is to create and encourage a system of social practices that encourages people to be trustworthy and then lets other people know and see that that’s what’s going on.
Take one example of freedom of association. The details here are actually pretty complicated. The thought here is that if you’re a member of an engaged association, not an isolated one that teaches you the world out there is bad, but maybe puts you in a church and they put you in a soup kitchen. You interact with poor people and people with different cultures who speak different languages, particularly if you’re younger. If we protect freedom of association, and we continue to give certain kinds of tax breaks and benefits to people who are engaged in service, that associational life, the practice, the exercise of freedom of association, is trust generating.
Now, the data is complicated because in the early ’90s, people were like, “Oh, yeah, you’re going to get way more trust if you have people more involved in associations.” But then it started to look like the high trusters were high joiners. If you were trusting, you were going to join stuff, whereas if you weren’t, you weren’t. So the correlation was not causal.
Now, there is some evidence that if you disaggregate the types of organizations, that the ones where you are actually in positive contact with people can be trust promoting. Maybe freedom of association is misused, and people just balkanize and retreat. But the thought is that that’s a right to practice, where I think most people end up interacting with people more than if they just stick in their home.
Having robust freedom of association to experiment with lots of associations, to interact with people in different associations, that’s a good liberal rights practice. People come to see that others are trustworthy. They cooperate with them in a way that looks like trust for the right reasons, not trust for the wrong reasons. We didn’t force it. We didn’t do propaganda. We just gave people some liberty. They tended to exercise it in a way that was trust promoting.
Markets and Private Property Rights
VALLIER: Markets are another case, and here I’m talking about robust protections for legal private property rights. I’m not saying anything about taxes. What I’m saying is people—if they’re stolen from, they can get help. There’s clear property titles. They can get a mortgage on their house. I don’t know, you’re around my age. You probably watched The Simpsons growing up. Maybe not.
There’s this one episode where Bart is eating his Krusty-O’s, and there’s like a toy inside, which is a razor blade Krusty-O, basically. We buy these Cheerios and there’s not like a razor blade Krusty-O in there. We trust that that’s not there. When we have an exchange experience, it’s not a disaster. Something terrible didn’t happen. We’re not defrauded, and so on. You don’t want an economy where everything’s like the used car salesman. That’s just a situation that engenders distrust. Most of that’s getting helped a lot with Carfax and online markets and stuff like that.
Markets have been solving a lot of those problems, but there are still issues. Most markets aren’t like that. You go to the supermarket, you buy stuff, the cashier’s nice to you, you go. Now then, why is that trust promoting? Why is that trust promoting? Well, you’re able to benefit yourself in a peaceful, reliable way with others who are mostly either indifferent to you or bearing you goodwill.
It really bothers us when a cashier’s mean. You really hate that. It can mess up your day. Maybe not if you grew up in New York City or something, or Chicago. The norms are different. People are just a little nastier to each other, so it’s not seen as a sign of distrust. For the most part, in societies that robustly protect market freedoms, positive exchange opportunities are trust-building opportunities.
That’s another way in which the exercise of private property rights is trust-building, but for the listeners on the left out there, I’m not saying you can’t have lots of redistribution. To get this effect, it’s well-protected legal property rights. It doesn’t look like tax rates affect trust levels unless they do so in a very indirect way by reducing economic growth, but then that’s impossible to detect in the data. I mean, yes, I think if you had 100% taxes, trust would go down. Everyone would just become extremely poor and tear each other apart.
Obviously, tax raises will affect trust. It’s just, at the margins of differences across high-trust societies, I don’t think it matters that much. The protection of legal property rights, however, absolutely essential. Then you create an environment of positive exchange and reinforcement. People who live in market societies tend to have a lot higher social trust levels in part for that reason, in part the reverse. High-social-trust societies are just better at building and sustaining impartial markets.
Then there is the welfare state, at least the provision of really basic forms of economic security. Some of this very new data didn’t make it into the book about unemployment scarring reducing trust, particularly your kids being able to get basic food, healthcare. You grow up and you didn’t go hungry needlessly. You didn’t get sick with an easily treatable disease, or if you did, you were easily treated. You had access to basic education. You had basic opportunities. I think people who grow up with that are going to be more trusting than people who don’t grow up with those kinds of security.
Now, I think markets go a long way to providing those forms of security but that sometimes government has to act, and people see that. People see that. They see that there’s Head Start. They see that government’s helping them out with food. Almost nobody actually really is bothered by this. If that was all the welfare state did was feed poor people, only the most hard-bitten libertarian would be bothered, and they wouldn’t be bothered that much because they would be way more focused on war and civil liberties and stuff like that—stuff that actually is way more of an issue even for libertarians, radical ones.
You’ve got to have some economic security, and you’ve got to see society’s institutions moving together to provide that economic security for people who really can’t help themselves. Now, if it’s perceived that you’re giving money to people who are wasting it and who are irresponsible, that can be trust decreasing, particularly trust in government. So you’ve got to be careful about how you do it. Universal programs tend to be better than means-tested ones in lots of respects, maybe. The data on this is a little shaky, but I think it makes sense. Basic economic security rights, that’s also very important.
Rule of Law
VALLIER: Two other things? You want parliamentary rule of law. That is, representatives make new policies in accord with them having roughly equal voting power, the process being non-corrupt and predictable—you know that people aren’t just going to embezzle all the money. You might say, “Oh, government’s so wasteful.” Yes, but there’s a big difference between Brazil and Sweden in this regard, where Swedish social trust is 65%, Brazilian social trust is 5%. That’s one of the biggest differences. There’s governments that are corrupt, and there’s governments that are corrupt. Do you know what I mean?
This is one of the things Tyler Cowen says: “The great libertarian vice is thinking the supply of good governance is fixed.” But some countries are much better governed than others, and trust has a lot to do with that. You want basic parliamentary democracy with the rule of law and restrictions on kinds of gross forms of corruption and rent-seeking. The market folks are like, “Oh, yeah, now, that’s correct. Rule of law with low rent-seeking, that’s fine.” But also people have got to be able to see that they have some input, that they can have some effect on the process.
If you just have pure epistocracy, where it was only the rule of the people who were wise and who knew things, that would be trust decreasing because people would think, “Look, I don’t have any role in this. People aren’t letting me have a say.” And they expect to have a say. Maybe if you were in a culture where it was just so hierarchical and monarchical or whatever that people didn’t expect that, maybe it wouldn’t affect trust. But in societies where people broadly think of themselves as equals, if they don’t even feel like they have a nominal voice, they’re just not going to trust in that process as much, and you’re not going to get as much trust out of the results of that process either.
You want the parliamentary rule of law. You also want good, open, stable elections. There’s parliamentary democracy where policies are democratically chosen, and then there’s elections where officials are democratically chosen. In that case, there’s a bunch of problems because people don’t know very much politically, and so they don’t always make the best decisions. So there’s questions about, well, people do need to feel like they’re able to actually choose their leaders in a very basic way.
Even if you don’t like democracy all that much, just about everybody agrees that there are all these instrumental bits, like, again, peaceful transitions of power. Things get super, super, super bad, you can punish the party, replace one power elite with another power elite. Just about everyone thinks that’s better. There are very few people, as you said, who are true monarchists. They’re just having fun. I don’t think they’d be like, “Go for it.”
Those are the liberal rights practices. Those are the big five. That’s the bulk of the book—associations, markets, welfare state and democracy at the parliamentary and electoral levels.
KLUTSEY: Right. Toward the end, you say that we should begin a process of reform to start fostering trust in society. The first thing you identify—this is in the epilogue—the first thing you identify is that we have to fight our own distrust of our political opponents, which is where I think it’s similar to some of the things that Robert Talisse is talking about in his book Overdoing Democracy. And he says we are very polarized. The first step is to recognize to what extent we ourselves have been subjected to polarization.
VALLIER: I agree with Bob 100%.
KLUTSEY: Introspection there. How do you do that?
VALLIER: Yeah, that’s a big part of it. Policy changes have to come too. Institutional reforms have to happen. I try to back some of that up, but I’m not able to get into a huge amount of detail because I’m doing both the empirics and the moral philosophy, the political philosophy, justifying these institutions. I don’t get to go into as much detail as I’d like. There are some policy reforms, some of which are surprising, like housing deregulation. Yeah, internally we do have to engage in a process of correction. Bob is right that it’s easier when you’re members of crosscutting associations so you’re actually interacting with people on a nonpolitical basis. I think that’s pretty important.
From Philosopher to Trust Researcher
KLUTSEY: Now, switching gears a little bit. You’re a philosopher. What got you into studying trust?
VALLIER: Oh, it’s a pretty interesting series of questions. The weird thing is it happened five or six years ago. It happened in so many small steps. There wasn’t an aha! moment. A lot of it was just trying to think about what the basis of liberal order even is. What’s the best justification for it? I’m not a consequentialist, so I didn’t want to just look at them having good effects. I wanted to say that there was something uniquely justified about liberal order, independent of its consequences. Consequences are part of the story, but it’s not the whole story, for just familiar reasons.
Then the question was, well, how do you ground these constraints on what government should do? For instance, why is it the case that the government shouldn’t take sides on which religion is true? Suppose some religion is true. I think that it is, but I still oppose taking sides because I think it would be unfair to people who are wrong. I wouldn’t want them to treat me that way. It’s some kind of reciprocity. Then the question was, when do those duties apply, like reciprocity and fairness and so on?
If we’re in a war zone, they don’t apply. You just have to win. And so I thought, okay, what are the conditions under which these moral constraints seem to have their natural home, and what are conditions where they don’t? The answer I gradually came to, especially through reading Locke, was he talks a whole lot about the idea of public trust, and people just don’t see it. It’s in there dozens and dozens of times, the Second Treatise.
I just started to think, okay, what’s the difference between a society that’s in a state of war and a society that isn’t, and when these kind of moral constraints would apply when we’re not in a warlike situation? Then I started to think, really, we’re not going to all be civic friends. The kind of relationship that we could hope to have with each other when we disagree about so much is just trust. I thought, “Oh, people study that. That’s cool. We can actually study that empirically and bring together not just the philosophical reflections, but the actual empirical studies. Okay, that would be cool. I’ll start reading in trust.”
Then it just turned out there was all this incredibly cool empirical information. As a guy who runs a philosophy, politics, economics program and is committed to that methodology in bringing together empirics and economic modeling with a philosophy, I thought, oh, wow. So now we have this trust-based case for liberal order that both works at the level of theory but can be backed up by practice.
That’s where the two trust books came from—the previous volume, which does the heavy-duty philosophy, and this volume, which does some heavy-duty philosophy, probably too much for most readers now that I’ve been talking to people about it, but also a lot of empirical stuff. And it’s what everyone wants to talk about, so I’m glad it’s there. But the whole big trust project was to integrate the interdisciplinary study of trust into the liberal tradition and to show the way in which, again, multidisciplinary study of trust buttressed the case for free institutions. That’s how it all came together, in fits and starts.
Is Kevin Vallier Optimistic?
KLUTSEY: In light of January 6th, the question I always ask my guests is, are you optimistic about the future of liberalism broadly speaking, or is it in this context trust? Are we going to get better? In my conversation with Robert Talisse, he said that at some point people will get exhausted from all the polarization and may realize that we need to start engaging with one another again in a civic way. Are you optimistic about the future? Are things going to be better in terms of trusting one another?
VALLIER: Before 1/6, I was optimistic. But I didn’t realize until that moment—I thought all of these people were just having fun on the internet. I didn’t think they were actually going to show up and try to hurt people. Do you know what I mean? Get some people killed.
KLUTSEY: I think most people didn’t think that.
VALLIER: Yeah. I didn’t realize just how intense and horrible these little ideological rabbit holes had gotten. I think most people were very, very surprised, even I think Trump supporters, so much so that they wouldn’t even believe it. I have family members who were like, “Oh, that must be antifa. Our people would never do that.” Although that’s, of course, part of the problem, that you won’t even believe the basic facts. That’s why these people were there in the first place, because they wouldn’t believe the basic facts.
What it made me hyper-focused on was media trust and how I just hadn’t thought enough about it because I didn’t know what to do about it in a way that wouldn’t violate the First Amendment. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about social media and its effects on trust, but it’s so new as a social force that the data is mixed. I think it varies a lot by platform.
I think Facebook’s not as bad as Twitter. Twitter is pretty much there to create balkanized subcommunities that are incredibly nasty to one another and nasty internally when they dare to deviate from internal norms. It’s just a whole den of nasty. I believe that constant Twitter use is probably trust reducing because people focus on the negative all the time. In many ways you know the immediate news stories, but in terms of having true nonideological beliefs about the world, it may actually be worse.
I think the worst, worst, worst is cable news because at least on Twitter, you easily or immediately will see, because of the algorithm, people’s views who disagree with you. At least they get to formulate their view, whereas on many of the cable news networks, it’s just a total closed circuit. Even though they bring on someone on the other side, there’s no time to go into any detail. So I think Twitter’s probably better than cable news.
But I’m really worried about One America News, really worried about them because that is a whole new level of a closed-circuit epistemic environment. A lot of the Fox News people . . . because I think right now that the issues are worse on the right. Maybe you can make a case they were worse on the left with the Mueller situation, if you want to. Setting that aside, right now I think the issues are clearly worse on the right.
The Fox News journalists, setting the pundits aside, the Fox News journalists, they’re real journalists. They’ve gone to journalism school. They know journalistic ethics. They’ve worked at different channels. They know different people. They’ve got really good standards. I trust what Chris Wallace tells me. I trust what Martha MacCallum tells me. I’m not too worried about them.
But when you start to get the proliferation of channels that are devoted to one man, that is bad. This happens in other countries a lot. Hugo Chavez would get on TV and talk for six hours. This is not a good situation, but what do you do? I don’t know what to do. I’m very worried about that because I have family that are listening to One America News and they’re saying, “Oh yeah, Mike Lindell proved that Dominion was behind . . .” and so on. Then you say, “But that’s not a trustworthy station.” They’re like, “Oh, well, you just listen to the fake news and the evil MSM. They’re all elite global . . .” But anyway.
I’m very depressed because since 1/6, I have family members saying, “Nope, antifa.” I can’t convince them of anything. I say, “Look, we have the same values. We’re family. We go way back, obviously. We share faith. We share a broad worldview, and you are just completely wrong about these very basic facts. Consume multiple media sources.”
KLUTSEY: I think you’re probably the first outright pessimistic guest we’ve had so far. That makes it very interesting.
VALLIER: I’m in a mood maybe. I’m usually a pretty optimistic guy. My pessimism then I think is mostly just Christmas and January, with interacting with my family from South Alabama on these issues and failing to convince them that there wasn’t massive voter fraud. Just a total inability to. This is very personally upsetting for me.
KLUTSEY: To a large extent, this is folks not trusting the elites. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the Martin Gurri book Revolt of the Public. We’ve seen a number of crises in the recent past, from 9/11 to the financial crisis, and we’ve had the pandemic recently. In situations where elites have been wrong about causes and solutions, there is a massive revolt against people who are trying to inform them about what’s going on.
VALLIER: They were wrong about the Iraq War. The elites were horribly wrong about that. They were horribly wrong in various ways relating to the financial crisis. Philip Tetlock has all this stuff on expert political prediction he’s been working on for decades, and elites don’t know much. There are a few elites who do, and they’re really nutty people who draw on huge amounts of data and update their views all the time. He calls them superforecasters. They can predict a few discrete variables, maybe a couple of years into the future. Beyond five years, nobody at all anywhere knows what’s going to happen.
When elites make predictions that go disastrously wrong, it’s going to engender distrust in the public, and people are going to be willing to believe anybody else. I think there’s a human need to trust somebody. So if they don’t trust the elites, then they’ll trust any grifter that comes along that tells them what they want to hear, which is exactly I think what’s been happening in the case of things like QAnon and the 1/6 riots and so on.
KLUTSEY: Prof. Kevin Vallier, it’s been a pleasure talking to you and learning a lot about trust.
VALLIER: Yes, you too.
KLUTSEY: Thank you very much, and we’ll be in touch.
VALLIER: Great. Thanks.