Saturday, January 2, 2021

Trust and Quality of Government in a Polarized Age

Kevin Vallier’s new book, Trust in a Polarized Age, has a clear message: Trust matters. If we want to combat the increasing political polarization that is bane of our times, we need to tend to the institutions on which trust depends, and which themselves, in turn, depend on trust. 

By trust, Vallier means two things: Social trust, “that trust which each member of a society has that other members of her society will generally follow publicly recognized moral rules,” and political trust, “that trust which each member of a society has that governmental institutions will follow fair procedures and produce positive results.” (p. 6) He sees the two as joined in a virtuous circle through the intermediary of good government: “Since social trust creates good governance and good governance creates political trust, social trust creates political trust by proxy.” And to close the circle, he maintains that institutions of good government, by enforcing trustworthy behavior, create conditions that favor political trust and build general social trust. (p. 214) 

By good governance, Vallier means liberal governance – in the sense of classical liberalism, not the American usage that makes liberalism a synonym for the political left. Yet, Vallier does not defend liberalism as an ideology. He focuses more pragmatically on five key liberal rights practices: freedom of association, markets and private property rights, social welfare programs, democratic constitutionalism, and electoral democracy. (p 277) His message is that if we embed these liberal rights practices in our institutions, trust will follow, polarization will recede, and a world in which politics is not war will become possible.

As someone engaged in empirical research on the quality of government, I found this all intensely interesting. Although Vallier’s book is primarily a work of political philosophy, I could hardly wait to fire up my spreadsheets to investigate the many hypotheses he suggests. Do trust, quality of government, and liberal rights practices really matter? Do they matter everywhere, or only in countries that are already liberal? The answer is that trust and good governance do matter, but the story is not always a simple one. Some of the patterns are quite complex, so the results reported in this commentary should be considered preliminary.