Suspicious Minds

Too much trust can actually be a bad thing—a polity of suckers is no better than a nation of cynics. But Americans' steadily declining faith in one another is a warning

Without trust, social life is all but impossible. We walk down the street unarmed, invest our money with strangers, and pay taxes—all because we trust that nobody will mug us, take the cash to Cancún, or use government revenue to enrich a family company. The only other way to coordinate complex activity is coercion—which, as the Soviets learned, is neither efficient nor pleasant. Today, when your credit-card number makes regular trips to Bangalore and Ghana, start-ups get their money from millions of pensioners and private investors, and you put your life in the hands of several federal bureaucracies whenever you fly or take a train, trust is holding up the world. We had all better hope this Atlas does not shrug.

Yet in recent decades Americans have expressed declining confidence in government, business, civic institutions, religious establishments, and one another. Trust in the government has fallen by about half since its peak, in 1966. Sixteen percent of Americans—compared with 55 percent in 1966—say they have "a great deal of confidence" in major companies; and the share that trusts organized religion is down by almost half, to 23 percent. These declines embrace a fair amount of jumping about, but they are declines nonetheless. Meanwhile, the proportion of Americans who believe that most other people are trustworthy has fallen steadily since 1960, from about 55 percent to just above 30 percent.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "The Loyal Catholic" (July 24, 2002)
Garry Wills, the author of Why I Am a Catholic, talks about faith, scandal, and the importance of constructive criticism.

Flashbacks: "A Time to Change" (May 8, 2002)
Atlantic articles from the past forty years have considered the troubles and the institutional weaknesses plaguing the Catholic Church.

Trust in government peaked before the controversy over Vietnam got ugly and has since dragged through two troughs: 1974 to 1980 (the seven years after Watergate) and 1990 to 1994. It has recently been rising. Trust in business was very low in the late 1980s and bottomed out in 1991, following the Black Monday stock crash of 1987 and the savings-and-loan scandals. It rose smartly through the 1990s, until the NASDAQ collapse and the latest round of corporate-accounting scandals. Trust in organized religion was higher in the late 1990s than at any time since the mid-1970s, reflecting a general conservatism in cultural attitudes, although the scandals within the Catholic Church have since brought mistrust on all religious authority. Only trust in other people has steadily fallen.

"Trust," of course, has many meanings. Take trust in government. When people say they "mistrust" the government, they may mean that they are mildly skeptical, profoundly disaffected, or on the verge of revolt. Before 9/11 the public's trust in government was low, but in the first months afterward it soared to its highest levels since the mid-1960s. That suggests that the earlier mistrust was not a deep conviction but a casual attitude born of secure times. It is easy to mistrust what we think we don't need.

Mistrust is not bad in itself. A polity of suckers is no better than a nation of cynics. But both mistrust and trust should be thoughtful, not automatic. During the post-9/11 jump in trust one poll found that 80 percent of Democrats thought that Al Gore should not criticize President Bush; 39 percent of all voters and 37 percent of Democrats said in December of 2001 that it would be inappropriate for anyone to disagree publicly with the President's military decisions. Avoiding debate is never a sign of robust civic culture. The argument over foreign policy and domestic security that has returned in recent months is much better than a rote profession of faith in whoever holds power.

Collective mood swings about government are probably the norm for a modern democracy, which is designed to get along well enough while most citizens focus on their private lives. We look up occasionally from our own business, and what we see then—a revolution of civil rights, a distasteful scandal, a terrible attack—can shape our attitudes for years. If there has been a systemic change, it is that scandal-hungry reporting and a tell-all culture have drawn attention to the personal limitations of public figures, encouraging us to be smug in the conviction that the appetitive Bill Clinton or the inarticulate George Bush cannot deserve our confidence, even if their shortcomings have little to do with making sound political decisions. The American oscillation between glib cynicism and naive trust, though, is an old and basic habit.

Mistrust of business has always been driven by events, most recently the rash of corporate-accounting scandals. The unrecorded peaks and valleys from 1927 to 1931 must have outdone those of the past decade, but today the stakes may be higher. For more than a decade American business has been the world's gold standard, providing a model of successful low-regulation capitalism. For that reason we Americans have been able to rely on enormous foreign investment while saving almost none of our own money and maintaining a vast trade deficit. If the United States were perceived to have come down with a case of raging crony capitalism, investors everywhere would think about withdrawing their funds. Without foreign subsidy for American consumption, we could go into a long recession, which would also sink export manufacturers around the world.

The recent scandals raise that danger, and their genesis shows how important the difference is between intelligent trust and thoughtless trust. In 1994 the percentage of people who said they trusted the federal government most or all of the time reached by far its lowest point since 1958, when the National Election Studies—which asks questions about trust in government—began. At the same time, confidence in major companies was picking up, about to begin its strongest run in almost three decades. The following six years, full of reflexive skepticism about government and uncritical euphoria about private enterprise, produced a burst of deregulation and a wave of stock-market investment. The fashionable belief was that markets always got it right and government almost always got it wrong.

We now know what that produced: Enron, WorldCom, and the NASDAQ bubble, to name a few. The companies that were supposed to herald a changed world turned out to be old-fashioned pyramid schemes. The lesson is that if business is to deserve public trust, it must be regulated by a trustworthy government. Without that foundation, trust in business is superstition. It is bad to mistrust those who deserve trust, but worse to trust those who don't.

The important question, then, is what fosters a trustworthy government. At least part of the answer appears to be interpersonal trust—the supposition that most other people are trustworthy. Suspicious people are less likely to join associations, follow public events, get to know their neighbors, or make contact with their congresspersons. In fact, they are less likely than others to do just about anything except watch TV and flip off other drivers on the highway. That means they are not the kinds of citizens who are likely to hold government accountable, intelligently and regularly, and thus keep it trustworthy.

This is worrisome, since interpersonal trust is the one attitude that has steadily fallen since social scientists began measuring it. Moreover, it appears to be driven not so much by episodic events as by formative personal experiences. Interpersonal trust does not change much through life: the trusting young adults of the 1950s are the trusting retirees of today, and their children and grandchildren have expressed less trust in others—with a slight uptick among people just now coming of age. This suggests that the decline is related to basic changes in American life.

For instance, most older people developed their habits of trust in small towns or tightly knit urban communities. Whether or not the neighborhood shopkeeper is a good person, he can usually be trusted, because he will have to deal with you again and again. The same does not go for a telemarketer calling from India or from prison, or the summer employee at The Gap in a mall twenty miles from your home. In a wired economy many of us give credit-card numbers every day to people we will never encounter again, about whom we know nothing. How are you to tell whether the unshaven pedestrian on your suburban street is a child molester or an investment banker from the next subdivision, enjoying an afternoon walk in a bear market? When people say they don't trust others, some are describing this new situation: they may still trust most of the people they know, but they know fewer of the people they deal with.

Mobility and anonymity are related to today's great achievements: meritocracy and racial equality. We probably can't have the good without the bad. There is plenty of trust among homogeneous elites, whether small-town businessmen or Boston Brahmins, who do their business together and exclude outsiders. There was also in-group trust in the racial solidarity of an America that within living memory publicly embraced white supremacy. Freedom and opportunity have eroded those unjust forms of community, and have at the same time made us more of a nation of strangers.

Another source of mistrust has no redeeming side: economic segregation. Expensive new suburbs and urban gentrification are only the extremes of a trend that is now several decades old: rich neighborhoods, like rich families, are getting richer, and poor neighborhoods poorer. Because the poor tend to be mistrustful, economic segregation produces untrusting communities cut off from wealthier (and generally more trusting) populations. That is not a formula for a good civic life.

When government builds or undercuts interpersonal trust, it is shaping its own future. Half of what government can do in this area is to avoid dangerous mistakes. Asking people to spy on one another spreads mistrust—as it did under the surveillance-heavy and paranoid communist regimes of East Germany and Romania. So does reinforcing pernicious inequalities, whose victims, understandably, mistrust everyone, often including one another. The other half of what government can do is more affirmative. Funding AmeriCorps and other volunteer programs will help. So will creating opportunities in schools and other institutions for civic involvement, because people involved in common projects learn to trust one another. The greatest challenge, though, is to find a way of overcoming economic segregation.

America's democratic capitalism asks civic diligence and mutual concern of people who are, reasonably enough, mostly interested in looking out for themselves in a moneymaking society. Naturally, it disappoints almost everyone sometimes. However, the future of interpersonal trust and its twin, civic involvement, is everyone's concern. A vivid way to imagine the alternatives is to look beyond America's borders to Norway, where 65 percent of people say they trust their fellow citizens, and to Brazil, where three percent do. Climate aside, most people would prefer the orderly, egalitarian society to the crime-racked and corrupt nation of well-protected rich and restless poor.

We know that in the 1990s, without faith in government, trust in business turned out to be groundless. The question now is, If we don't trust one another enough to keep civic culture strong, will our growing faith in government prove equally misguided? Then we could fall back only on the weak reed of our solitary selves.