Trust leads to security leads to trust: The forgotten lesson that made a mess of 2016

“In the future, Americans — assuming there are any left — will look back at 2016 and remark: ‘What the HELL?’” American humourist Dave Barry wrote in his retrospective on 2016. “If years were relatives, 2016 would be the uncle who shows up at your Thanksgiving dinner wearing his underpants on the outside.”

Likening it to “a choice between ointment and suppository,” the U.S. presidential election was Barry’s prime example of the mess that 2016 turned out to be.

“CNN told us over and over that Donald Trump was a colossally ignorant, narcissistic, out-of-control sex-predator buffoon; Fox News countered that Hillary Clinton was a greedy, corrupt, coldly calculating liar of massive ambition and minimal accomplishment.”

“And in our hearts we knew the awful truth: They were both right.”

The absurdities of 2016 extended beyond the United States. The British — mainly the English — voted in June to leave the European Union, despite the possibility of a renewed bid for Scottish independence (continued membership in the E.U., popular in Scotland, having been one of the factors that prompted Scots to vote against separating from Britain in 2014), and the unraveling of the hard-won Irish peace (Northern Ireland also having voted against leaving the E.U.)

In other populist revolts, the Austrian far-right came uncomfortably close to winning the 2016 presidential election, and recent polls showed Marine Le Pen, of the anti-immigrant Front National, running a close second in the run-up to the 2017 French presidential race.

The strange mood has even crept into Canada, where the presumptive front-runner for the leadership of the Conservative Party — the party which has governed Canada for half of the past 30 years — is Kevin O’Leary, a comically abrasive businessman turned full-time TV personality, with no political experience, who brandishes a spatula in a Dec. 24 YouTube video and vows to take it to Ottawa and “scrape all that crap out”. (To his credit, O’Leary has avoided the anti-immigrant sentiment of Kellie Leitch, the Winnipeg-born Conservative leadership candidate whose capacity for getting attention through mean-spiritedness has not so far given her lasting momentum.)

What is behind the bitter mood that made 2016 the year of Donald Trump, Brexit, Marine Le Pen and the slowly rising weirdness of the Conservative leadership race?

The most probable explanation comes from the book Viking Economics by George Lakey, a retired professor and peace activist. In the book, he contrasts the sense of mutual security and trust that citizens of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland feel with the chronic insecurity of life in the United States — not to mention other countries, to varying degrees.

The United States operates a different economic model, which values insecurity . . . A family depends on a job that might disappear tomorrow; it lands in a feeble safety net; it has few prospects for finding another job as good or better. Small wonder that U.S. unions sometimes defend inefficient labor practices and outmoded organization of work, even though undermining productivity — whatever it takes to keep workers in jobs. In other words, compared with the high-productivity Nordic model, the U.S. insecurity approach creates an incentive to resist efficiency.

Lakey contrasts the American tendency to resist a social safety net with the freedom that a strong social safety net has given Nordic business owners to experiment with new ways of doing things, and to Nordic unions to accept and even welcome such changes.

There is reason to believe that the Nordic approach has secured positive results. The 2016 World Competitiveness Scoreboard places fifth-place Sweden and sixth-place Denmark just behind the third-place U.S. (and ahead of tenth-place Canada) in its ranking of the world’s most competitive economies. China and Switzerland took the top two spots.

And there is reason to believe that chronic insecurity takes a toll on people, and on their faith in democracy.

Andrew Wroe, of the University of Kent in the U.K., has carefully researched whether economic insecurity and anti-government sentiment are linked. In the case of the United States, he wrote in a 2015 commentary on the London School of Economics web site, the answer is “an unambiguous yes”.

As Jacob Hacker points out in The Great Risk Shift, the US government has deliberately privatised risk in the name of ‘personal responsibility’ by dismantling large parts of the social insurance system, and it has done so at a time when macro-economic changes have actually increased threats to economic security.

[. . .]

. . .[P]rior research demonstrates that political trust is vital to the good functioning of contemporary polities. One possible remedy for low trust would be to halt and then reverse the privatisation of risk by bringing the government back in. Comparative European data show that countries with more extensive welfare systems generally experience higher levels of political trust, possibly because welfare protects people against insecurity. However, the major progressive reforms that may help restore trust in the US are primed to fail precisely because trust is so low. Distrusting citizens, which constitute a large majority of all Americans, are less likely than trusting citizens to support major liberal reforms to the welfare state; indeed, they are more likely to support conservative alternatives that further privatise risk and, in turn, further increase insecurity. Such is the irony of the politics of trust.

Indeed, in 2014, three French researchers examined the relationship between the comprehensiveness of the social safety net in OECD member-countries and the degree to which the citizens of those countries trusted one another. They found that countries that were more polarized between trustworthy and untrustworthy — or “civic” and “uncivic” — individuals had the greatest difficulty supporting an effective social safety net.

Uncivic citizens, the sort who evade their tax obligations while seeking to extract all they can from social benefits, will support the expansion of the welfare state more strongly than civic citizens will, since they expect to benefit the most from it while shirking the costs. A rise in the share of uncivic citizens could thus increase the demand for a generous welfare state. However, an opposing force is also at play. Civic citizens will be less inclined to support high taxes if they expect to be surrounded by uncivic individuals who do not pay taxes and abuse social benefits . . . [But an increase in support] appears when everyone is civic. In this situation, all individuals strongly support the welfare state because nobody cheats on taxes and social benefits.

So, in short, what went wrong that gave the world the upcoming Trump presidency and Brexit debacle? A safe bet is that the U.S. and the U.K. fell into a “distrust trap”: a culture of economic insecurity, and resentment at feeling abandoned to fend for themselves by politicians who went on to live comfortable lives separate from the wider community, killed trust in politicians. Meanwhile, difficulty trusting fellow citizens made a strong social safety net that would ease their burdens unsustainable.

The lesson? Trust matters. With it, a society thrives. Without it, a society begins to fall apart.

Between 2005 and 2009, the World Values Survey asked people around the world if they felt that “most people can be trusted”. In Norway and Sweden, with their strong social safety nets and high levels of confidence in their parliaments, two-thirds or more of citizens agreed that, yes, most people can be trusted. In the U.S., however, only 39 percent considered most others trustworthy; and in the U.K., just 30 percent felt this way.

As for Canada: we were barely more likely than the Americans to trust our compatriots, with 42 percent of us considering most other people to be trustworthy. Never assume that a Donald Trump can’t happen here.

Advertisements