Culture & Society

Social and Political Trust

Ben Klutsey and Kevin Vallier discuss why trust is declining in the U.S. and how we can build it up again

Image Credit: vernonwiley/Getty Images

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.

This series also includes interviews with Alan Charles Kors, Emily Chamlee-Wright, Ilana Redstone, Richard Ebeling, Robert Talisse, Danielle Allen, Roger Berkowitz and Virgil Storr.

BEN KLUTSEY: Today our discussion will focus on trust. How do we build trust in a pluralistic society, particularly when we are so polarized? Well 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 arent always well defined. A lot of what Im trying to do is give some precision. Heres what I think about what social trust is. Very simply, its faith that strangers will follow established norms. Just to unpack that, what were essentially doing is were 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 theyll 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. Its trust in society, held by society, but placed in people as individuals. Its 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 its just a robotic thing, or they have some malicious intent, in which case it would be hard to trust people if we knew that. Its 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, weve seen—do most people trust, in particular, Congress? Numbers have gone down from 80% to 20%, or something along those lines. A radical decline. Thats 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.

Whats 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. Weve gone from around half of people saying most people can be trusted to about a third. Now, whats wrong with that? Is that a big change? Well, one thing—and I point this out in a Wall Street Journal article—is that were 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 dont trust. They may have more mass communication so that they can see more people arent necessarily doing what they ought to be doing. It could even be that people were overpromised the benefits of democracy and theyre 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 dont 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, were 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 its not very clear why thats been the case. Do you have any intuitions at all about why weve 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 theres just a very accessible version on The Wall Street Journal. Theres a couple of things that people sometimes cite that I think dont work. Ill just talk about those. One is theres more ethnic diversity. It turns out that ethnic diversity doesnt 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. Lets just give an example. Suppose we admitted Puerto Rico as a 51st state. That would increase U.S. ethnic diversity, but it wouldnt affect social trust at all because the ethnic diversity is isolated. Its on an island somewhere. All the same, if youre in an interracial marriage, lets say, that kind of interracial contact, that diversity, is not going to reduce social trust. Its also the case that workplace diversity doesnt look like it decreases social trust either because people have to work together on common projects.

Heres what really matters: local segregation. If theres the Jewish block and the Italian block and the Irish block, then you can get real problems. Youve 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 hasnt changed very much. If anything, its gone down. We still have a lot of effective residential segregation through things like redlining, but it just hasnt changed that much, so its 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. Its 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, theres 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 dont trust it as much. Well, theres a bunch of problems with this. First, if nationwide racial inequality isnt affecting social trust very much, I think its 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 ones going to move things in a huge way and the others not going to move it much at all is not very plausible. Its going to probably be local increases in economic inequality. Its like your neighbors getting richer than you are. Someone down the street, down the block, is much richer. I think most people dont say, Oh, Bill Gates, he has so much more money. Now Im going to trust everybody less.

Its 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 dont 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 dont mind redistribution as much and tend to support it more. There is a correlation between economic inequality and social trust, to be sure, but thats the better directional explanation.

Those are really the two main things that are cited that I think dont work. Now were trying to look at factors that do. Theres been some very interesting research thats 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 theres evidence to suggest that actually people’s social trust attitudes dont change very much after they’re, say, 30 or so.

Maybe if they experience bad unemployment when theyre young, that can cause a problem. I do think in the lab you can show that peoples trust attitudes temporarily can change, but we dont have evidence yet, and we’ve got good counter-evidence that social trust attitudes tend to be pretty stable once you reach adulthood. Theres something going on in peoples experience when theyre younger. Somethings happening.

Some people think that declining trust in political institutions is having an effect. There is some evidence of this, but I think its actually because political trust is highly polarized. I think whats 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. Thats 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. Somethings going on on a national scale.

Weve 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 havent become less socially trusting. Theres one country that seems to have experienced some increases in polarization and some decreases in social trust at the same time, but theyre very mild, and thats Switzerland.

So weve got this unique pattern. There are other things that dont explain it. Theres some plausible underlying mechanisms. My view is that distrust and increasing polarization are making each other worse. Theres lots of mechanisms I could review, but thats 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? Whats the best way to learn about trends?

VALLIER: I have a little blog post on my blog “Reconciled,” which Im 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,” youll see the graph where I averaged everything. It’s the only graph Ive ever seen where somebody averaged all the numbers.

I dont know why, but its mostly because people just look at the General Social Survey or just the World Values Survey, or if theyre looking regionally, they look at whats 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. Whats going on in the lab is that essentially youre put in a kind of prisoners dilemma, which is a basic situation where its in your collective interest to cooperate but its in your individual interest to defect. What is mutually beneficial is not individually rational. But, if theres a certain level of trust, the thought is, youll 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 prisoners dilemma. You split a pod; you cooperate. If the other person cooperates, youll get more, but if the other person defects, theres a smaller payoff. In essence, whats going on is someones offering a certain sum, theyre being trusting and theyre making an estimate of someone elses trustworthiness based on how they respond to the next move. It’s just a prisoner’s dilemma; youre playing two steps.

Now, thats supposed to also be a measure of trust. Its 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. Lets trust the lab results more.” And the political scientist says, “These are totally devoid of context. Theres lots of other considerations going on for people in the lab that are oftentimes robotic. Youre not expecting consistent interactions. Theres no cultural norms at stake in the same way that there are in the surveys.”

Heres the nice thing. While the data between the lab and the surveys dont 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 theres 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 theres a better correlation with the survey data.

My sense is people arent 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. Thats 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, itll be great.

VALLIER: Sure. The distrust divergence hypothesis is that trust is falling because of increasing, what I call, partisan divergence and vice versa. Whats 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. Theres 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.

Weve seen some issue-based polarization primarily among elites, and weve seen a huge amount of affective polarization in the general public, but especially among elites. Theres also issue-based sorting, where you hang around people that agree with you more. Theres less of that. But theres 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 were caught in a kind of feedback loop. Thats the hypothesis for which I provide some evidence. The difficulty with the evidence is that a lot of the data on trust thats 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 theres no one—and Ive looked; Ive said this on other podcasts, that people have looked and reached out to me and cant 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 Im 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 were going to start getting really good, solid, robust empirical tests of the hypothesis as well.

Maybe I turn out to be wrong. Im 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 theres 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. Thats almost unimaginable to me because I think cognitively, when you trust people, its harder to be polarized. Its harder to hate people you trust. Its 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, its 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, theyre connected,

KLUTSEY: Theyre reinforcing each other. Very interesting.

VALLIER: Yes, thats the idea.

Trust and Political Leaders

KLUTSEY: You talk about what facilitates social trust. There were a few that were a little surprising. Youve 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. Im sure you wouldnt find anyone advocating for bringing a monarchy in our society, though.

VALLIER: Im 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. Theyre not the same as the Neo reaction crowd that are also monarchists and stuff, but your points 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 cant even do anything.

Well, I think heres the explanation. You have a head of state thats 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 dont talk politics. They dont get involved. So you have a head of state and everybody can say, Hey, theres someone we all like. I dont know what they think politically, but theyre pretty good.” We dont have that many people in the U.S. We’ve basically got Dolly Parton. Thats, like, it.

Theres nobody who hasnt taken a side. We dont 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 theyre going to be on the left. You just know that. I gather Queen Elizabeth is quite personally conservative. Ive come to understand that shes quite pious, takes her role as the head of the Church of England quite seriously. Shes extremely self-controlled. I think her reign, as it is, is a way to say, Theres somebody above the fray. Theres somebody whos 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 theres 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 dont 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 dont have a good one. I just want to bring a whole lot of different disciplines together to try to get it figured out. We dont 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. Thats 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 dont have a revolt in the Capitol every time theres 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, thats a problem. You want people to trust the system, broadly speaking. Like, Okay, were going to keep democracy. We like democracy. Most people are pretty big fans of democracy. The problem with the Capitol rioters isnt that they hated democracy. Its 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 Im still trying to sort through.

Because media trust is the main thing I left out of the books. We dont know enough, but its incredibly important. So you want people to trust in democracy, but you dont want them to completely trust the officeholders because the worry is if you have total trust, youre just not going to reassess what theyre doing, and youre not going to pay as much attention to when theyre bad. What you want is very high trust in the democratic process, but you want middling trust in officials.

Now why not say, well, dont trust them at all? Ive been a libertarian a long time, and I’m telling people to trust the government. Theyre like, Well, whats wrong with you? Im saying, look, if you trust a politician zero, that doesnt mean theyre going to behave better. It doesnt mean theyre 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 whos 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 its 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 didnt 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, Lets cut taxes. Lets have a voucher system. Lets privatize things. Lets deregulate massively. Democratic socialism isnt 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 dont agree with this. You say what you think, and well just have an election. Its not like everybody trusts each other. In fact, political trust in Sweden isnt all that high, but its fundamentally different than in the U.S. Its not like Swedish politics is perfectly peaceful, but theres 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. Weve listened to the economists. Deregulating the airlines is probably a good idea. Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy say, Hey, lets 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 thats a problem.

But a lot of the way that Sweden does things is actually a lot more efficient because theres higher trust. Theres just so much less corruption. Its 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 dont 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. Its also the case that there are lots of subtle ways in which state pension systems can appeal to market prices and things that its not just the welfare state. Sometimes we think that these things are too—we say, Oh, theres markets and then theres socialism,” when theres all these subtle combinations.

Some combinations of the two are terrible, like our healthcare system. But there are other combinations like Singapores 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 shouldnt sow distrust in government in general.

It should be like, Okay, can we trust this or that? Dont trust ICE! Park Service, hey, you can trust the Park Service. They do a pretty good job. Theyre 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. Thats whats I think socially optimal.

Trust, Economics and Poverty

KLUTSEY: Great. Now, you also talk about individual economic performance. When its 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 arent 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 thats 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 isnt 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 were 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 governments performing, in particular that its producing economic growth for people, economic prosperity for people. There are some people whove prospered less and who trust less. Im 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, thats 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 thats because Black trust is low. Now, Black Americans trust each other a great deal. But it is a really dramatic negative effect because essentially heres 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—youre 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 were trying to figure out is how can you get communities out of poverty that are low trust, but communities being low trust means that theyre going to take fewer economic risks because they dont know who they can depend on. Its a horrible, horrible situation, where you get poor marginalized communities that are low trust and they cant get out of it, and it hurts them and they’re lower trust.

Thats one of the things were 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. Thats the next big social science-y thing were going to do.

Trust and Media

KLUTSEY: Immigration, thats 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. Were really only getting good data recently thats 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, its 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, theres just more and more and more Latinos. Probably for many native whites thats going to be trust reducing. But no one reports on that.

Now, imagine the reverse. Imagine theres 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 Ive become more pessimistic since I started writing the book, because I dont know how to reform the media environment to get it to report more accurately on stuff. Its one reason Im preferring local news more these days because I think its both easier to trust it and its easier to verify when its wrong because its reporting on local stuff. But then where do you get good national reporting? The answer is, I dont know.

I dont have good policies. Im flirting with some weird ideas, but I dont really know what to think. Ive been starting to think about social media reforms and what will be legitimate and what wouldnt, 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 its just plain that we dont want to trust people based on bad reasons, like if were being lied to. We want to trust for the right kinds of reasons. What are those? We want to trust people because theyre actually trustworthy with respect to the things were trusting them to do. When we trust people, we dont 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 theyre somewhat ethical. If we found out someone was doing what we predicted but they were a psychopath or a robot, then we wouldnt 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. Were not going to say, Oh, lets 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 thats whats going on.

Take one example of freedom of association. The details here are actually pretty complicated. The thought here is that if youre 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 youre 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, youre 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 werent, you werent. 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 thats 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, thats 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 didnt force it. We didnt 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 Im talking about robust protections for legal private property rights. Im not saying anything about taxes. What Im saying is people—if theyre stolen from, they can get help. Theres clear property titles. They can get a mortgage on their house. I dont know, youre around my age. You probably watched The Simpsons growing up. Maybe not.

Theres this one episode where Bart is eating his Krusty-Os, and theres like a toy inside, which is a razor blade Krusty-O, basically. We buy these Cheerios and theres not like a razor blade Krusty-O in there. We trust that thats not there. When we have an exchange experience, its not a disaster. Something terrible didnt happen. Were not defrauded, and so on. You dont want an economy where everythings like the used car salesman. Thats just a situation that engenders distrust. Most of thats 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 arent like that. You go to the supermarket, you buy stuff, the cashiers nice to you, you go. Now then, why is that trust promoting? Why is that trust promoting? Well, youre 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 cashiers 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 its 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.

Thats another way in which the exercise of private property rights is trust-building, but for the listeners on the left out there, Im not saying you cant have lots of redistribution. To get this effect, its well-protected legal property rights. It doesnt look like tax rates affect trust levels unless they do so in a very indirect way by reducing economic growth, but then thats 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. Its just, at the margins of differences across high-trust societies, I dont 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 didnt 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 didnt go hungry needlessly. You didnt 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 dont 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 theres Head Start. They see that governments 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 wouldnt 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 youve got to see societys institutions moving together to provide that economic security for people who really cant help themselves. Now, if its perceived that youre 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, thats 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 arent just going to embezzle all the money. You might say, Oh, governments so wasteful. Yes, but theres a big difference between Brazil and Sweden in this regard, where Swedish social trust is 65%, Brazilian social trust is 5%. Thats one of the biggest differences. Theres governments that are corrupt, and theres 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, thats correct. Rule of law with low rent-seeking, thats 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 dont have any role in this. People arent 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 didnt expect that, maybe it wouldnt affect trust. But in societies where people broadly think of themselves as equals, if they dont even feel like they have a nominal voice, theyre just not going to trust in that process as much, and youre 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. Theres parliamentary democracy where policies are democratically chosen, and then theres elections where officials are democratically chosen. In that case, theres a bunch of problems because people dont know very much politically, and so they dont always make the best decisions. So there’s questions about, well, people do need to feel like theyre able to actually choose their leaders in a very basic way.

Even if you dont 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 thats better. There are very few people, as you said, who are true monarchists. Theyre just having fun. I dont think theyd be like, Go for it.

Those are the liberal rights practices. Those are the big five. Thats 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 its 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, thats 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 Im not able to get into a huge amount of detail because Im doing both the empirics and the moral philosophy, the political philosophy, justifying these institutions. I dont get to go into as much detail as Id 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 its easier when youre members of crosscutting associations so youre actually interacting with people on a nonpolitical basis. I think thats pretty important.

From Philosopher to Trust Researcher

KLUTSEY: Now, switching gears a little bit. Youre a philosopher. What got you into studying trust?

VALLIER: Oh, its 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 wasnt an aha! moment. A lot of it was just trying to think about what the basis of liberal order even is. Whats the best justification for it? Im not a consequentialist, so I didnt 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 its 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 shouldnt 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 wouldnt want them to treat me that way. Its some kind of reciprocity. Then the question was, when do those duties apply, like reciprocity and fairness and so on?

If were in a war zone, they dont 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 dont? 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 dont see it. Its in there dozens and dozens of times, the Second Treatise.

I just started to think, okay, whats the difference between a society thats in a state of war and a society that isnt, and when these kind of moral constraints would apply when were not in a warlike situation? Then I started to think, really, were 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. Thats 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. Ill 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.

Thats 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 Ive been talking to people about it, but also a lot of empirical stuff. And its what everyone wants to talk about, so Im glad its 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. Thats 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 didnt realize until that moment—I thought all of these people were just having fun on the internet. I didnt 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 didnt think that.

VALLIER: Yeah. I didnt 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 wouldnt even believe it. I have family members who were like, Oh, that must be antifa. Our people would never do that. Although thats, of course, part of the problem, that you wont even believe the basic facts. Thats why these people were there in the first place, because they wouldnt believe the basic facts.

What it made me hyper-focused on was media trust and how I just hadnt thought enough about it because I didnt know what to do about it in a way that wouldnt violate the First Amendment. Since then, Ive been thinking a lot about social media and its effects on trust, but its so new as a social force that the data is mixed. I think it varies a lot by platform.

I think Facebooks 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. Its 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, peoples views who disagree with you. At least they get to formulate their view, whereas on many of the cable news networks, its just a total closed circuit. Even though they bring on someone on the other side, theres no time to go into any detail. So I think Twitters probably better than cable news.

But Im 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, theyre real journalists. Theyve gone to journalism school. They know journalistic ethics. Theyve worked at different channels. They know different people. Theyve got really good standards. I trust what Chris Wallace tells me. I trust what Martha MacCallum tells me. Im 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 dont know what to do. Im very worried about that because I have family that are listening to One America News and theyre saying, Oh yeah, Mike Lindell proved that Dominion was behind . . . and so on. Then you say, But thats not a trustworthy station. Theyre like, Oh, well, you just listen to the fake news and the evil MSM. Theyre all elite global . . . But anyway.

Im very depressed because since 1/6, I have family members saying, Nope, antifa.I cant convince them of anything. I say, Look, we have the same values. Were 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 youre probably the first outright pessimistic guest weve had so far. That makes it very interesting.

VALLIER: Im in a mood maybe. Im 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 wasnt 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. Im not sure if youre familiar with the Martin Gurri book Revolt of the Public. Weve seen a number of crises in the recent past, from 9/11 to the financial crisis, and weve 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 whats 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 hes been working on for decades, and elites dont know much. There are a few elites who do, and theyre 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 whats going to happen.

When elites make predictions that go disastrously wrong, its going to engender distrust in the public, and people are going to be willing to believe anybody else. I think theres a human need to trust somebody. So if they dont trust the elites, then theyll trust any grifter that comes along that tells them what they want to hear, which is exactly I think whats been happening in the case of things like QAnon and the 1/6 riots and so on.

KLUTSEY: Prof. Kevin Vallier, its been a pleasure talking to you and learning a lot about trust.

VALLIER: Yes, you too.

KLUTSEY: Thank you very much, and well be in touch.

VALLIER: Great. Thanks.

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