Beware of "Trust" as a Sign of Performance


Our class at HILR this week revolved around looking at a lot of data expressing trust in government as a potential explanation for the recent election results and some longer-range trends reflecting societal satisfaction. The survey documents were not available so I have to guess what kind of questions these data were based on. The labels on many of the figures suggest that the primary label was “government,” whether at the federal, state, or local level. For me, this means both the data and the discussion are suspect.

The first problem comes in the use of trust as the operative concept. Trust is always some sort of assessment about the truthfulness of an actor, whether an individual or an institution. Most simply, it is the answer to the question, “Can I count on you to keep your promises?” Promises, here, refers to the truthfulness of delivered facts or to manifest actions in the world. An assertion of facts is a form of speech act and carries the same validity conditions as an act involving material satisfaction.

Assessments of trust are based on three kinds of evidence. One is direct observations of the outcomes of promises made to the individual, another comprises indirect evaluations based on the reputation of a generalized or stereotypical institutional actor, and a third is simply intuitive or ungrounded. The consequences of assessments of trust determine the future nature of coordination of actions between a questioning, speculative actor and some individualized person or impersonal institutional actor.

If we come to trust someone or some institution over time, we are more likely to accept their promises without questioning and engage in consensual actions without needing some form of coercion or new form of incentive. This end is essential to avoiding conflict and domination. This form of trust is central to the notion of communicative action, espoused by the German social theorist, Jurgen Habermas, and forms the basis of his defense of modernity and the primary role of reason in holding societies together.

Most of us do not need such a high-powered theorist to lead us to the same conclusion. We all have people in our lives that we trust deeply and without question. Why some and not others? Some thought would lead to a history of past promises that have been kept and assertions that have turned out to be true. We come to see such trusted people as “named” individuals whose trust lies entirely in our specific history.

Most of our life, however, is spent in coordinated actions with actors, although also people with names, who represent an institution, say, a school, business, governmental agency, religious institution, medical establishment, and on and on. If you are so inclined, stop for some time and make a list of the institutions and their representative actors you engage with routinely. It will become a very long list. Some representative human actor will always be involved because only people can actually make promises, although over time institutions may become reified and appear to act as a person. Such is the situation with corporations in the US today; they are treated as if they have a voice and so can, in theory, make promises. Cheating is a broken promise referring back to an implicit or explicit promise to play by the rules.

In any rigorous study of trust it is essential to accurately connect the “promise” with the institution. If the target is the government, for example, the assessment needs to refer to something some government entity has promised. In the case of facts (assertions), the connection is easy to make, but, if it is with some actual result, the direct connection is usually tenuous. And further since complex institutions, like governments, have many functions, it is important to be specific. In the absence of specificity, respondents will tend follow the second or third process listed above, making the assessment based on some stereotypical description floating around in the background or on intuition.

Again simplifying, I suspect that the data in the article about trust in government results from a generalized dissatisfaction arising from the difference in one’s actual social conditions compared to some expected standard, say, as represented in the metaphorical American Dream or as promised by some political leader or party. Any direct connection to a single institution is bound to be misleading and, if used as the basis for some remedial actions, likely to end in disappointment.

The reason is simple. An individual’s societal condition is the result of the workings of a very complex system of which government is but one part. Marx and Engels (and others) popularized the term, political economy, to refer to the whole system that provides the resources necessary to achieve economic and social satisfaction. Questions about trust directed at any component part of the system are likely, in the absence of specificity, to dump assessments of generalized dissatisfaction on it. Scholars and planners are, then, likely to try and fix whatever institution was named. Such fixes are notoriously poor at getting rid of the problems and, worse, defocus attention from the real cause that are systemic or lie in deeper structures on which the institutions are based.

In some cases of larger and more persistent problems, for example, income inequality or climate change, large parts of the political economy may be perversely connected. Economic growth is the dominant policy among industrial nations as the solution to most problems. To get this, governments tend to adopt free market policies on the theories that growth is easier to produce in less regulated and taxed circumstances. Most economists and the politicians they advise generally accept this model, by itself, as valid. So far so good, but other theories suggest that unregulated free markets, without some form of income redistribution, are the cause of income inequality. The economics, one institution, and the government, another one, are irrevocably and perversely coupled. Asking people whether they trust government or the market as best place to solve big problems can only lead to the wrong place.

I will stop at this place and summarize. The point I have been trying to make is that asking the public questions about who or what you trust or not is a poor way to identify the social institutions that are responsible for dissatisfaction. Lying is an exception because lies are broken promises about telling the truth and are always made by someone. The effect of lying spills over to the institution to which the liar belongs. When the President lies, the presidency takes a hit. When a Congressman lies, the Congress takes a hit. The level of trust of the Congress is extremely low right now. Much of that rating lies in the failures of the Congress to play its expected (promised) institutional role in governance.

Some of these breakdowns can, in theory, be repaired or mitigated, but that will not change, I believe, the general level of trust in “government.” The basic malfunction lies at the level of the beliefs on which the modernity rests, or in the modern “paradigm” as some would term it. We need new institutions. Some may have features in common with those that are familiar today, but with different structures and objectives.

The first step would be to replace economistic and psychological norms, say wealth and happiness, with the existential vision of flourishing. It would take some time to come to a societal consensus of what flourishing entails since it is qualitative, unlike our metrical modern ends, but that should not stand in the way of getting started.

Part of that process should be a critical examination of the nature of work and the institutions that constitute and contain it. I recently noted, in this blog, the observation of Ugo Mattei that modernity is increasingly turning humans and the rest of the world into commodities, a distinction at odds with our deep-seated ideas about the uniqueness of humans. Capitalism, itself, needs to be examined in terms of its ability to produce flourishing. What might happen if we separate the economy as a means of production of goods and services from the processes that produce the satisfaction of human beings? Such an analysis demands that we rethink the deeply entrenched models of human nature that have been with us since Adam Smith and even earlier.

The arguments I make above call for a more careful analysis of our institutions, especially avoiding the modern tendency to focus on the parts of complex systems instead on the whole. Acting responsibly to govern big systems like those that define any national polity demands a lot of talk and questions. Behaving as if there was a simple (generalized, ideological) solution is folly, at best, and borders on the immoral or criminal, at worse.

This last part of the post is the basis of all my recent work and my books. We are looking for the lost car keys in the wrong place. If we do not stop and look deeper, we are risking making our socio-economic-environmental system ever more rigid and subject to unforeseen large changes. While making for interesting reading, the discipline-bound work of scholars can be distracting. One such article got me started on today’s rant. Trust is an accurate indicator of expected performance only when the performer is very clearly defined.