Every time you pay with a bill, you are giving an act of trust: you trust that the colored paper issued by the National Mint and Stamp Factory has a certain value. The person who charges you trusts the same. Every time you read a piece of news and accept it as good, you are trusting a media outlet and a journalist. Every time you take a drug, you are relying on science and the pharmaceutical industry. When we leave public affairs in the hands of politicians, we trust that they will manage them, at least, honestly (which is not always the case). Although we do not notice it often, trust is the invisible glue that keeps society, democracy, the economy standing… and even the community of neighbors. “It is trust, more than money, that makes the world go round,” said economist Joseph Stiglitz. But sometimes trust fails. Now it is failing.
The confidence index in Spain is 45 out of 100, a failure, according to the Confidence Barometer 2021 of the global consulting firm Edelman. The least trust is in the government (34 out of 100) and in the media (42). They approve, although with a low grade, the companies (52) and the NGOs (51). Political, religious and business leaders are mistrusted, and a lot of journalists (perhaps there are readers who, in a curious twist, mistrust this very text). Scientists retain some credibility, compared to the previous ones. Although the crisis of confidence was already there before, especially since the Great Recession, the pandemic has made it worse. “We are witnessing the collapse of confidence; this collapse is gasoline for fear and social tensions, “according to the consultant.
We see it around us: polarization, conspiracy, pseudoscience, reactionary and totalitarian options, denials of all kinds, disaffection for political parties, unions and even for democracy itself. Society’s hidden architecture is weakened: “We have been experiencing a decline in economic equality, a deterioration of engagement in the public square, a fraying social fabric, and a descent into cultural narcissism,” writes American sociologist Robert Putnam, scholar of social capital and trust from Harvard University, author of the book The Upswing.
Trust is so crucial that it can be directly related to the economic development of a country, as the World Bank economist Steve Knack did: the difference in wealth between the United States and Somalia could be explained by the difference in trust in each. of these countries. Confidence is high in northern Europe, lower in the south and east, and low in Latin America or Africa. It is also high in China. There has been talk of an economy of trust, and it is that trust is essential for economic activities, to invest, to obtain credits, to buy and sell. In some neighborhood shops there are still those old signs that say “today I don’t trust, tomorrow I will.” Without trust there is no business.
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What are the causes of this growing mistrust? They are varied. For example, political corruption and growing inequality mean that the public does not trust a policy infused with deception or an economic system that does not seem to offer decent life options for everyone. The technological revolution makes us feel in the hands of enormous forces that we do not understand. Job insecurity and migration also make us perceive an environment that is too changing and unstable. “But above all it is caused by the frustration of expectations and the recognition of a growing vulnerability: pandemics, unemployment, etc.”, points out the philosopher Carlos Pereda, emeritus researcher at the Institute of Philosophical Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and author from About trust (Herder).
“Individual frustrations,” Pereda continues, “are the most effective schools for producing disasters. Although social networks help to distrust false prestige and monuments with feet of clay, they also multiply disbelief without arguments, not infrequently the most silly disbelief ”. The mistrust virus is evident as it spreads on platforms like Twitter. Many people find it difficult to obtain reliable information on the internet, while the belief grows that institutions are prone to spreading falsehoods. The “official version” of events is mistrusted.
In addition to this institutional mistrust, we could talk about another: social mistrust. Do you trust someone who asks you for a favor on the street? Do you trust your co-worker, your neighbor? Both types of trust are linked, and most studies indicate that institutional distrust precedes that which occurs between people. “One of the bases of social trust is that if you have good institutions that sanction opportunistic behaviors, it will be easier to trust others. If, on the contrary, the institutions are corrupt or inefficient (both things go hand in hand), it is less likely that you will trust others ”, points out the sociologist Francisco Herreros, from the Center for Human and Social Sciences of the CSIC. Conversely, as in a virtuous circle, those countries where people trust the most show greater trust in institutions. Again, these countries are the Scandinavians. The most unequal countries generate greater social mistrust, because social competition is tougher: they are closer to the man for himself.
The social trust that, as can be seen, must be built collectively has many advantages: where it exists, there is a better quality of government, higher economic growth, lower poverty rates and more robust welfare states. “In general, societies rich in social trust work better because when citizens trust each other, transaction costs are reduced, and cooperation is easier,” explains Herreros.
And being distrustful does not mean that we are smarter or more autonomous, that we should boast that we are not being bullied, as it might seem. “Distrust in institutions does not strengthen individual autonomy. On the contrary, it is the breeding ground for social disorientation and arrogant reason, those irresistible prologues of authoritarianism ”, concludes Pereda.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.