All for All: Equality and Social Trust

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All for All: Equality and Social Trust

Bo Rothstein

Department of Political Science

Göteborg University

Box 711

SE 405 30 Göteborg, SWEDEN

Phone: 0046 31 773 1224

Fax: 0046 31 773 45 99

Eric M. Uslaner

University of Maryland
Government and Politics
3140 Tydings Hall
College Park, MD 20742
Phone: 301-405-4151
Fax: 301-314-9690

All for All: Equality and Social Trust: Introduction
The importance of social trust (or generalized trust) has become widely accepted in the social sciences. Social trust is important because it correlates with a number of other variables that are, for most people, normatively highly desirable. At the individual level, people who believe that most other people in their society in general can be trusted, are also more inclined to have a positive view of their democratic institutions, to participate more in politics and to be more active in civic organizations. They also give more to charity and they are more tolerant towards minorities and to people who are not like themselves. Trusting people also have a more optimistic view of their possibilities to have an influence over their own life-chances and, not least important, to be more happy with how their life is going (Helliwell 2002, Uslaner 2002, Delhey and Newton 2003). .

We see the same positive pattern at the societal level. Cities, regions and countries with more trusting people are likely to have better working democratic institutions, to have more growth in their economy and less crime and corruption (Putnam 1993, Zak and Knack 2001, Rothstein and Stolle 2003). For societies, generalized trust seems to be an important asset and as such it has been conceptualized as one central part of social capital (Coleman 1988, Putnam 1993). In sum, both at the individual and societal levels, many things that are normatively desirable seem connected to social trust and have been attributed to social capital more generally. The issue of causality is admittedly a different question from the statistical correlations, but so many correlations point in the same direction that social scientists from many different disciplines have begun to pay a lot of attention to trust. The number of articles published in social science journals with “trust” as a keyword or in its abstract increased from 129 to 1433 from 1990 to 2003. Adding the word “growth” to “trust” shows and increase from 1 to 41 articles, which indicates a stark increase among political economists in this concept.1

There are thus many good reasons to be interested in social trust since it has intrinsic as well as political and economic value. We would like to add that one reason for this increasing interest in research on social trust is that, as a dependent variable, it has one important advantage, namely stark variation. If we compare the percentage of people who respond positively to the question if they think that most other people in their society can be trusted, there is a lot of variation that needs to be explained. In countries such as Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, the percentage of people stating that they believe most other people in their societies can be trusted is around 60 percent, while in countries such as Brazil, the Philippines and Turkey, social trust is around a meager ten percent.2 There is of course also a lot of variation between individuals living in the same country when it comes to social trust that is equally important to explain.

We argue here that trust is an important reason not only for social and economic cooperation in general but also for social solidarity. Trust is part of a social conscience—the belief that the various groups in society have a shared fate and that it is the responsibility of those with more resources to provide for those with less. We see this in the good deeds that trusters perform (giving to charity, volunteering their time) and in the policies that trusting societies pursue—specifically those that help those with fewer resources. Trusting people are more tolerant of minorities and favor policies that will assist those who have faced discrimination (Uslaner, 2002, ch. 7). Yet, helping those with fewer resources does not simply involve taking from the rich and giving to the poor, as Robin Hood did in Sherwood Forest. Instead, we argue, the policies most effective in reducing inequalities are universal social policies. These policies stem from our sense of generalized trust—and, in turn, help to create a more trusting society.

Trust versus Trust: The Theory

Generalized trust links us to people who are different from ourselves. It is strikingly different from particularized trust, where people only have faith in their in-group. Generalized trust reflects a bond that people share across a society, across economic and ethnic groups, religions, and races. It is the foundation of a cooperative spirit that brings people together for common and mutually advantageous purposes. Particularized trust reflects social strains, where each group in a society looks out for their own interests and places little faith in the good intentions of others. Particularized trusters may be as involved in civic life as generalized trusters, but they will restrict their activities and good deeds to their own kinds. Evangelical Christians in the United States, a group with high in-group trust and low trust in others, are very active volunteers and donors to charity—but only with and for their own faith communities (Wuthnow, 1999, Uslaner, 2001).

Generalized trust both depends upon a foundation of economic and social equality and contributes to the development of a more egalitarian society. As social trust links us to people who are different from ourselves, it reflects a concern for others, especially people who have faced discrimination and who thereby have fewer resources (Uslaner 2002). In societies with high levels of economic inequality, there is less concern for people of different backgrounds. The rich and the poor in a country with a highly unequal distribution of wealth, such as Brazil, may live right next to each other, but their lives do not intersect. Their children attend different schools, they use different health care services (and in many cases, the poor can’t afford neither of these services). The rich are protected by both the police and private guards, while the poor see these as their natural enemies. In such societies, neither the rich nor the poor have a sense of shared fate with the other. Generalized trust is low while particularized (or in-group) trust can be high. In turn, each group looks out for its own interests and is likely to see the demands of the other as conflicting with their own well-being. Society is seen as a zero-sum game between conflicting groups. There will be little pressure, then, to pursue public policies that serve those who are less well off.

In societies with high levels of social trust and greater levels of economic equality, the concern for all will lead to a search for policies that reduce disparities of wealth and opportunities even further. Such policies will be not simple redistribution, but universal welfare policies that treat everyone equally. The problem with redistributive (also known as selective) social policies is that the government has to single out the “needy” as a group that differs from the rest of society. This type of selection process implies that poor people are treated (and seen) as different from ordinary citizens, which reinforces perceptions of inequality which in turn has a negative impact upon social trust (Rothstein 1998).

Our argument here is about causality, which has been singled out as the most difficult problem in this area (Putnam 2000:137). We argue that universal social programs that cater to the whole (or very broad sections) of society, such as we find in the Scandinavian countries especially, promote a more equitable distribution of wealth. More equality leads to a greater sense of social solidarity--which spurs generalized trust. Generalized trust, in turn, provides at least part of the foundation for policies (such as universalistic benefits) that lead to more equality. This is not an argument that there is a mono-directional relation between independent variables (policies) and dependent variables (norms), since we admit that there are “feedback mechanisms” and “increasing returns” between these variables. Instead, we want to capture the logic of how the causal mechanisms work over time between these variables, what have made the vicious and virtuous cycles start cycling in the way they do (Pierson 2000). Using the metaphor of “path-dependency,” we want to understand what characterizes the formative moments when societies turn onto different paths (Rothstein 1992).

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