Trust and interests

by Henry on January 8, 2007

dsquared’s post below reminds me of this post that Duncan Black wrote last year, which I meant to write something about, and never did.

[Mallaby] starts with the basic premise that well-functioning societies require a degree of trust, something I agree with … But then he moves from the issue of shared social capital – trusting each other – to the need for people to have faith in the ruling class … Mallaby’s arguing that society functions much better when the ruling class is unfettered by the pesky masses. Yes, yes, the ruling class shouldn’t abuse its trust – that would be wrong – but when it does the real tragedy is that then they get subjected to pesky oversight from the dirty fucking hippies which prevents them from achieving their true awesomeness as our unaccountable overlords.

A lot of my academic work is on the relationship between trust and interests. Like much academic writing, a fair amount of it consists of spelling out the obvious at laborious length, but given how badly notions of trust are abused in current debate, perhaps it isn’t entirely useless. Simply put, the political argument that you should trust people who don’t have a good self-interested reason to behave trustworthily is at best naive and at worst dishonest apologetics. In particular, powerful people by and large don’t have much interest in behaving trustworthily to weaker ones in the absence of external sanctions; while in some cases they may be trustworthy nonetheless (perhaps they’re genuinely noble and disinterested types), you wouldn’t want to count on it. None of this is exactly rocket science, but given the amount of guff from pundits about social capital, loss of trust in government etc, you wouldn’t know it.

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Political Science » Blog Archive » Trust and interests
01.09.07 at 6:30 pm

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1

MQ 01.09.07 at 12:30 am

We should still worry about loss of trust in government though. Not because it’s a cause, but because it’s a symptom. Trust in government usually declines when government has done something to lose peoples’ trust, when the elites have screwed up and people don’t feel they can hold them accountable. It’s an indicator that something has gone wrong in the system.

2

Tom T. 01.09.07 at 12:31 am

Isn’t this just classic libertarianism? Isn’t it the Wall Street Journal’s typical rationale: “I don’t trust the Government with my income / guns / children’s values”?

Also, FWIW, note that Mallaby is talking about trust as a variable that rises and falls, whereas you seem to be talking about it as an on-off condition: either you trust Politician X or you don’t. I’m not sure if that’s significant, but it caught my eye.

3

Jen 01.09.07 at 1:26 am

Henry,
You should do a bloggingheads episode with Duncan. I would love to see the two of you chat about the affairs of the world for an hour.

Cheers.

4

Kelly 01.09.07 at 2:41 am

Random, but I have Colbert on so I’m thinking of it: Harry Frankfurt will be on The Daily Show tomorrow night to talk about On Trust. (Well, one presumes that’s what he’s on to talk about…)

5

bad Jim 01.09.07 at 3:37 am

Here’s the article Atrios is commenting on. A few samples:

You don’t hear much about trust these days. Instead, we want accountability.

In the 1990s, after academics and pundits began talking about trust, the nation did actually become more trusting. The share of Americans saying they trust government “most of the time” or “just about always” rose from 21 percent in 1994 to 56 percent in 2002.

But some time after the Iraq invasion, these trends reversed.

There’s this crazy idea that you can’t fool all the people all the time. When it becomes perfectly clear that your leaders have been lying to you, listening to your phone calls, possibly even reading your mail, there’s a chance you’ll start to wonder how much you can trust them, since they clearly don’t trust you.

Accountability might be worth a try. It’s been a while since we’ve had any.

6

garhane 01.09.07 at 4:10 am

I bow to an apparently well schooled thinker. However I must say I have never found it useful to trouble about sociological matters beyond the models offered years ago in the cartoon strip by Al Capp, Lil Abner. There have been others since, and I see today we have the author of Simpson,s taking the odd leaf from Capp’s…cartoon. How can you beat the image of the rulers as General Bullmoose? And what do you know, it was all totally accessible. So if we peasants do think the rulers are a rotten crowd of cruel cannibals, we just might be right? Gosh, does that mean the Sopranos is a portait of the beautiful people. Sure is.

7

SF 01.09.07 at 8:54 am

ruling class?

It would be hard to make a good argument that such a class doesn’t have an interest in maintaining its power, even harder to make such an argument for the elected.

8

Rasselas 01.09.07 at 10:49 am

Are we supposed, then, to stipulate to the nobility of anyone criticizing or attacking the ruling class?

9

perianwyr 01.09.07 at 11:24 am

We are concerned not so much with the nobility of doing so as the necessity.

10

roger 01.09.07 at 12:05 pm

This, of course, gets to the syndrome of the perpetual conservative frustration with victory. When conservatives decide that they are going to legislate small government because the private sector runs so well by relying on self interest, they rather beg the question – wouldn’t that principle make it the case that legislators, relying on their self interest, will expand their power, and hence produce – big government? If that isn’t the case – if you can truly elect idealistic guys who operate against their self interest – than it rather cuts into the argument that self interest is the only or the best way to organize the political economy. If, on the other hand, the legislators are going to operate on their interest, than you are going to have perpetual conservative frustration.

Of course, the way out is to install another interest in the legislators – their interest in using their posts to get better positions in the private sector. Systematic bribery could, indeed, bring about smaller government if the private sector, indeed, saw smaller government as a good thing. The problem here is that the evidence is all the other way – the private sector loves big government, they just don’t love paying taxes. Halliburton or Boeing or Raytheon, etc., would have long been tossed on the scrapheap without government contracts. And the best way to raise entry costs, in a lot of sectors, is to maintain regulations. Etc.

The upshot is: conservatives will always bitch about large government, and always elect people whose self-interest is to expand the government.

11

abb1 01.09.07 at 12:24 pm

perhaps they’re genuinely noble and disinterested types

Yeah, right. Genuinely noble and disinterested types who became politicians and got themselves elected. Prudish prostitutes. Yeah, this happens all the time.

Hey, a whole new Werther’s piece, and, I suppose, slightly relevant to this topic. Don’t miss it.

12

paul 01.09.07 at 12:51 pm

Long ago I worked for the somewhat independent-minded house organ of a large professional society. Officials of the society had a long-running problem with the house organ reporting things that made them look less than noble, and at one point a Meeting was Called in which the powers that were asked our bosses, “We’re all in favor of freedom of the press, but how can we get you to stop reporting bad things about us.”

The answer “Stop doing bad things” was not, as I recall, well received.

13

Cryptic Ned 01.09.07 at 6:10 pm

This is a very important article relative to this thread.

Synopsis: Persuading extremely powerful entities to act against their own interest without any attempt to enforce your mandate is quite difficult.

14

sara 01.09.07 at 6:15 pm

Systematic bribery could, indeed, bring about smaller government if the private sector, indeed, saw smaller government as a good thing.

What, like Nigeria and some other sub-Saharan African nations? As I understand it, state funding is so low that most officials must rely on bribery to support themselves and their families.

Introduce our hypothetical libertarian to some Nigerian spammers. . .

15

roger 01.09.07 at 7:54 pm

Sara, actually, I was thinking of the K street project, and the filling up of CEO chairs at private equity companies with ex pols. Nigerian officials are on the low end of the bribery spectrum – DC honchos are mostly high end.

Of course, the disastrous convergence of the state and the peculators comes to the same thing.

16

Brett Bellmore 01.10.07 at 6:52 am

“If that isn’t the case – if you can truly elect idealistic guys who operate against their self interest – than it rather cuts into the argument that self interest is the only or the best way to organize the political economy. If, on the other hand, the legislators are going to operate on their interest, than you are going to have perpetual conservative frustration.”

The reason businessmen act in the interest of their customers is that they are relatively powerless with respect to their customers, and thus have to work in their customers’ interest in order to retain them as customers.

If you want politicians to act in the people’s interest, you have to reduce their power relative to the people. That is, you have to strip the government of much of it’s coercive power.

However, since the power to coerce is the only thing government brings to the solution of any problem that is unavailable to business, this boils down to saying that you should simply reduce the scope of government, to only those problems which actually demand the power to coerce to be solved, AND which are sufficiently serious that leaving them unsolved really is worse than handing that power over to someone.

This, of course, is the problem facing limited government activists: In order to get limited government out of politicians, you have to HAVE limited government. Once you’ve lost it, getting back to it won’t happen through the action of politicians, but would have to be imposed on them from outside.

Elections are a way of doing that, but evidence suggests that elections are barely capable of reducing the rate at which government assumes more power, and don’t exert enough leverage over politicians to compel them to actually reduce that power.

There’s some evidence that you can reduce the scope of government through ballot initiatives, though.

17

abb1 01.10.07 at 8:35 am

No, Brett, actually business interests are the opposite of the interests of its customers, its employees and the public in general, because business’ only purpose is to make profits, which means higher prices, lower wages, elimination of the competition, avoiding environmental responsibilities and so on.

So, it certainly does make sense for the public to have a coercive mechanism to protect themselves. Big or small, central government or public organizations or unions – doesn’t matter, whatever works better.

Now, the businesses, of course, will try to corrupt this mechanism to achieve their objectives, and that’s the challenge here.

18

Cryptic Ned 01.10.07 at 9:47 am

The reason businessmen act in the interest of their customers is that they are relatively powerless with respect to their customers, and thus have to work in their customers’ interest in order to retain them as customers.

This is obviously not true in monopoly/oligopoly situations such as the gas company, the cable company, the cell phone service company, software companies, and drug companies. It is also obviously not true when the customer has already done business with a company and is bound to do business with the same company in the future in order to avoid massive transitional costs, whereas the company does not worry at all about the transitional costs – for example, anything related to “technical support”, or tenants with respect to real estate companies. It is also obviously not true in situations where the business’s resources are distributed worldwide and the customer’s options are limited to a particular time and place. Nor is it true, obviously, in situations where bankrupt businesses are propped up by the government while bankrupt consumers are not, as is the case in the United States and various other well-known countries.

All these things should be completely obvious to anyone living on planet Earth, which you may recognize as the planet located several parsecs from whatever planet features businesses that were all founded less than a week ago and therefore “are relatively powerless with respect to their customers”.

19

Cryptic Ned 01.10.07 at 9:50 am

Also, it is virtually never true that businesses share the same interests as their customers, unless their customers are also businesses. There’s a factor involved called “money” which both parties in the relationship desire to have for themselves rather than transfer to the other party.

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