The Washington Post
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Related Items

On Our Site

  • Archive
  • Polls Section

    What America Thinks
    Finding the Smoking Gun

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, November 9, 1998

    By now readers know I'm in the tank for one compelling but controversial theory that attempts to explain, at least in part, why people don't trust government and why levels of government mistrust have soared in recent decades.

    People don't trust the federal government, this theory goes, because people don't trust each other. As our society becomes more suspicious and mistrustful, trust in government inevitably declines. A key piece of evidence: Declining levels of trust in government appear to track with declining levels of individual trust, as revealed by national polls, notably the General Social Survey. It's not the only reason why people don't trust government – and there's a wealth of hypotheses explaining why individual trust is in decline – but it is an important piece of the puzzle.

    Now there's a new study that suggests a key connection between trust in individuals and government performance that affects trust in government. The links are revealed in data collected in 40 countries around the world in the 1980s and then again in the 1990s as part of the World Values Survey.

    On one key point, the data appear to be unequivocal: Low levels of individual trust, or social capital, "determines the performance of a society's institutions," including government, argue Harvard economists Rafael La Porta, Florencio Lopez-de-Silanes, Andrei Shleifer and University of Chicago economist Robert Vishny.

    This finding may be the smoking gun that the trust-in-individuals crowd has been looking for. The causal path runs something like this: People don't trust each other, which negatively affects government performance (we'll explain how in a moment), which then gives citizens reason not to trust government. As levels of individual trust decline, government performance and levels of trust in government fall in concert.

    The notion that people don't trust government because they don't trust each other exploded into public view in the mid-1990s. It has its formidable friends, including Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, who coined the term "bowling alone" to describe this country's growing isolation; Minnesota's Wendy Rahn, the University of Maryland's Eric Uslaner and certified big thinker Francis ("The End of History and the Last Man") Fukuyama, who wrote a book in 1995 explaining how social trust promotes prosperity.

    This theory also has an array of equally formidable detractors, and an even larger group of social scientists who remain unconvinced by either side – the intellectual "persuadables" who await more evidence before casting their lot with one camp or the other.

    The latest evidence supporting the importance of individual trust examined results from the two World Values Surveys, directed by Ron Inglehart of the University of Michigan.

    The Harvard and Chicago team examined a cluster of questions that measured how much citizens trusted each other. One key question was: "Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can't be too careful in dealing with people?" The percentage agreeing that most people can be trusted became their measure of individual trust, the researchers reported in a paper titled "Trust in Organizations" published last May.

    These researchers found that levels of individual trust varied dramatically around the world. The highest levels of trust recorded were in Scandinavia: More than six in 10 respondents in Sweden, Norway and in Finland said they trusted others. The lowest levels of individual trust were found in Brazil and Turkey, where far fewer than one in five expressed similarly high levels of trust.

    They collected social, economic and political data from each of the countries, including measures of government efficiency, corruption, tax compliance, education levels, health and infant mortality, the economic health of major domestic companies, the inflation rate and per capita gross domestic product.

    Then they attempted to see whether individual trust was associated with levels of government efficiency. It was, they report. Moreover, low individual trust was linked to poor performance by other major institutions in the country. Trust is critical if large organizations are to be successful.

    "Trust promotes cooperation, especially in large organizations," these researchers wrote. "Data on government performance, participation in civic and professional societies, importance of large firms, and overall performance of different societies support this hypothesis."

    (Fukuyama makes a similar economic argument: He found that countries with low levels of individual trust also are less likely to have lots of big corporations and more likely to have lots of smaller family-owned businesses. Trust in individuals, he argues, is necessary for the formation of large organizations where "members interact with each other only infrequently because they are only rarely involved in joint production.")

    Moreover, the Harvard and Chicago research team argues that religion may be the reason why some societies are more mistrustful than others. In their data set, they coded the percentage of the country belonging to a "hierarchical" religion: Catholicism, Islam, or Eastern Orthodox.

    Scholars such as Putnam have argued that these religions, which are based on "vertical bonds of authority" rather than "horizontal bonds of fellowship" discourage "the formation of trust," they wrote.

    They tested the theory against their data. Again the evidence was clear: "Trust is lower in countries with dominant hierarchical religions, which may have deterred the formation of 'horizontal networks of cooperation' among people," they wrote.

    The debate over trust in government and trust in individuals is far from over. But it's a debate worth having. This study may be an important step toward an eventual solution.

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at .

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

    Back to the top

    Navigation Bar
    Navigation Bar