Trust and Political Decay

Recently, I met with Professor Francis Fukuyama at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.

“The United States is trapped in a bad equilibrium. Because Americans historically distrust the government, they typically aren’t willing to delegate to the government authority to make decisions in the manner of other democratic societies. Instead, Congress mandates complex rules that reduce the government’s autonomy and make decisions slow and expensive. The government then doesn’t perform well, which confirms people’s original distrust. Under these circumstances, they are reluctant to pay higher taxes, which they feel the government will waste. But while resources are not the only, or even the main, source of government inefficiency, without them the government won’t function properly. Hence distrust of government becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” ― Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy

In 2014, he published a book on political order and political decay titled "Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy". He is the most notable scholar I know who has written on the decay of political systems and institutions. Others have written on failed states and how nations fail to develop constitutionalism and economic prosperity. But Fukuyama has looked at the problem of sliding down from the mountain top to the swamps below, so to speak, from success in political and economic development to fragmentation, factionalism, resentment, rent extraction by elites and inequalities of income and wealth.

Both Fukuyama and I were students of Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington who, before his death, was a member of our World Advisory Council. All three of us, and many others too, are fascinated by the phenomena of quality in institutions and systems.

I reaffirmed on Monday that Professor Fukuyama largely agrees with us at the Caux Round Table that forms of capital – social capital and human capital – provide our institutions with quality – good or bad. Impede the formation of or destroy existing social or human capital and our systems and institutions will: 1) never develop quality or 2) will decay and lose quality.

As Fukuyama wrote in his 1994 book on trust, “‘Trust’ is a requisite of quality social and human capitals.”

Acquisition of social capital, by contrast, requires habituation to the moral norms of a community and, in its context, the acquisition of virtues like loyalty, honesty, and dependability. The group, moreover, has to adopt common norms as a whole before trust can become generalized among its members. In other words, social capital cannot be acquired simply by individuals acting on their own. It is based on the prevalence of social, rather than individual virtues.

Low trust families, communities and societies are less happy, less flourishing and less cooperative. Low trust social environments tolerate higher degrees of Social Darwinism, where life is a struggle for survival and taking down others seems necessary for the promotion of ourselves. I think of such low trust social environments as bottles filled with scorpions – each stinging the other in a struggle to escape confinement.

Levels of trust are low among Americans these days.

As Father John Langan of the Jesuit Community at Georgetown University commented to me recently, our recent American presidential campaign was partially an exercise in the destruction of social capital and was a product of inadequate social capital.

According to the Economist:

"America, which has long defined itself as a standard-bearer of democracy for the world, has become a 'flawed democracy' according to the taxonomy used in the annual Democracy Index from the Economist Intelligence Unit, our sister company. Although its score did not fall by much—from 8.05 in 2015 to 7.98 in 2016—it was enough for it to slip just below the 8.00 threshold for a 'full democracy.' It joins France, Greece and Japan in the second-highest tier of the index. The downgrade was not a consequence of Donald Trump, states the report. Rather, it was caused by the same factors that led Mr. Trump to the White House: a continued erosion of trust in government and elected officials, which the index measures using data from global surveys. In total, it incorporates 60 indicators across five broad categories: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties."

Levels of trust are also low around the world.

History of the decline of Trust; Edelman

The Edelman Trust Barometer released earlier this month makes this point.

Source: Edelman
Source: Edelman

Where is the good news here on our global capacity to build and maintain quality institutions?

- Steve Young

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