E380 -

Kevin Vallier comes back on the show to discuss the decline of trust in society.

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor
Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies

Kevin Vallier is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bowling Green State University. His research focuses on political philosophy, normative ethics, political economy, and philosophy of religion. Vallier is the author of over forty peer‐​reviewed articles and three monographs. His most recent book is Trust in a Polarized Age (Oxford UP 2020).


Americans today don’t trust each other and their institutions as much as they once did. The collapse of social and political trust has arguably fueled our increasingly ferocious ideological conflicts and hardened partisanship. But, Kevin Vallier explains how all is not hopeless, restores faith in our power to reduce polarization and rebuild social and political trust.

What is social trust? Do we still have trust in democracy? How do you develop your sense of trust? What’s a democratic norm?

Further Reading:

Trust in a Polarized Age, written by Kevin Vallier


0:00:07.1 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.

0:00:09.1 Aaron Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.

0:00:10.7 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Kevin Vallier, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bowling Green State University, where he directs the program in Philosophy, Politics, Economics and Law. His new book is Trust In A Polarized Age. Welcome back to the show, Kevin.

0:00:25.6 Kevin Vallier: Delighted to be back. It’s always fun.

0:00:29.1 Trevor Burrus: Now, since we had you on the last time, which was in the fall, we’ve seen some problems with trust in our society. We’re recording this on January 19th, so maybe tomorrow, America will end as we know it, maybe it will go off without a hitch. But we’ve already seen some problems, so what were your thoughts? Especially on the events of January 6th.

0:00:55.0 Kevin Vallier: The main message of the book is that our main institutions are ones we should double down on to restore our trust, and what I kind of supposed in the book was that polarization is arguably driving down trust in institutions and trust in each other, but my thought was that the effect was fairly linear. So that the fall in trust, historically, it doesn’t… It varies somewhat every time they do the poll, but if you average out the different polls that they do, it’s a kind of gradual decline. So I just extrapolated from the trend and assumed that we were still middling in terms of trust, and so we wouldn’t expect these kinds of things to happen. But it turns out that someone can sow… A President can sow distrust in a process and produce a revolt very, very quickly, so it looks like even the trust we have in institutions and even the trust people have in democracy is perhaps flammable in a certain kind of way, maybe that when someone who’s influential sort of pushes on it a little bit, its fragility is exposed. And it may just be the case that the decline in trust in institutions, at least in certain sub‐​groups, can take a nose dive really, really quickly if they’re fed misinformation.

0:02:29.7 Kevin Vallier: And one difficulty with this is that media trust may function as a bullhorn, so my friend Ryan Muldoon is an excellent philosopher and sort of PPE‐​ist, has been making the point that a lot of times norms and trust can collapse in a non‐​linear fashion. And that may be what we’re seeing, particularly with the President’s bullhorn on media. And I can tell you that not just from the data, but for my personal experience, the collapse in trust in the democratic process has been rapid, I don’t think any of, I’ll say this, any of my close friends or family will probably listen to the podcast, so I can say that over Christmas in South Alabama, they pretty much all believed in voter fraud or at least assigned it a 50% chance. So yeah, that’s kind of where we are, and I don’t know how to recover trust if it’s collapsing in a non‐​linear way, like you can arrest it if it’s gradually declining, I was hoping, but if it can just completely collapse, then it sort of… We’re in a difficult spot.

0:03:31.7 Aaron Powell: Do you think that this does represent a sudden collapse in, say, the general level of trust or are we simply instead seeing a more conspicuous signal of an already collapsed trust? So the people who believe, say, that the election was stolen, did they come to think that because the President was telling them, or were they basically already primed to think it because they didn’t trust and he was simply confirming their suspicions?

0:04:01.1 Kevin Vallier: My research before suggests that people are much more trusting in government the more general you get. They don’t like particular politicians or parties, they don’t like Congress, very polarized trust in the President himself. That will change depending on who’s in office quite a bit, but most people seem to be very fond of democracy, they tend to trust the democratic process, and in a way, you could argue that what Trump did was he changed people’s empirical beliefs about whether democracy had been completed. So maybe it’s the case that the people who believe in voter fraud still trust the democratic process, they just believe that it’s been subverted by particular agents that they are particularly low trust with respect to. But then the question is, well, if they trust so much in the process, why didn’t that sort of rub up against what the President was saying? Why weren’t they… Why weren’t they more likely to say, well, it’s been safe and fair in the past?

0:05:02.8 Kevin Vallier: So I don’t really know the reason. My thought was, you know, the President will say this, people will entertain it, but it’s not gonna lead to a riot or anything like that. The belief will go away once the President stops saying it, and maybe that still happens, but I kinda doubt it, because I think there’s gonna be a portion of people that keep listening to him.

0:05:31.7 Trevor Burrus: What do you think is the relationship? ‘Cause you talk about two different types in your book, that you do have this question in the general trust literature that goes back to honesty, returning a wallet, believing that people will do what they say that they will do. And then there’s trusting the news, mainstream media, the democratic process, they seem like different concepts, it seems like both are pretty high… Well, distrust is pretty high in both, but they seem like different concepts.

0:06:03.1 Kevin Vallier: Yes, and one important thing about, and weird thing about social trust is that it seems trust attitudes harden in early adulthood, so there’s been… But that and after that, they don’t really change. So my co‐​author, Andreas Bergh, who is an economist in Sweden, it actually is an amazing little history of Swedish public policy shifts, which I think y’all really wanna talk to him about. There’s no one clearer on what Swedish public policy actually is and how it has changed, of anybody that I’ve ever seen or heard of. And he did these experiments on Swedish emigres, where people would leave Sweden, which is a very high trust country, and they would go to other countries that were lower trust and then they would look at how much those attitudes changed, he and some colleagues.

0:06:53.0 Kevin Vallier: And younger people’s trust attitudes would tend to move at least somewhat towards the trust attitudes in the countries where they were. Whereas if you’re over 30 and maybe even 25, it doesn’t change at all. Which is strange, you might think it would change more, and there’s different hypotheses as to why, but trust in institutions is very different. Trust in institutions can vary a great deal, a person can change their trust in political institutions very quickly in response, say, to media reports, political trust fell greatly during Watergate.

0:07:30.0 Kevin Vallier: So what we’re seeing now, I think, is there’s low social trust, and that it’s interacting with polarization, which means we’re in a combustible social environment. So in general, people can just be primed to distrust all kinds of people, because who knows who you can trust anymore, so people are reasoning. And I think that can make it easier for there to be big swings in trust in institutions that are taken to represent everyone. So the idea is that instead of having… I wish I could remember that quote from The Expanse that Amos had about that when you have stability, that our concept of the tribe can expand, but as he says, when the churn comes, the tribes get small again, meaning that when there’s social conflict, people kind of retreat into their particular groups.

0:08:17.1 Kevin Vallier: So in so far as we have had that, and we have, then perhaps what’s going on is that people’s partisan mistrust is being transferred both to distrust in society broadly, and into distrust in the other party and in institutions when their government are at all all controlled by the other party, so.

0:08:38.8 Aaron Powell: That makes me wonder how granular the trust research is and the mechanism for declining social trust, so let’s set aside political trust, because it seems like if you start… Let’s say you start off relatively trusting and then things happen to you that make you become generally less trusting, so maybe you get mugged and now you’re more fearful or your house gets broken into, or you have a string of bad relationships or someone cheats you or whatever and then you as a mediocre Bayesian over‐​generalize that out to the rest of society…

0:09:17.1 Kevin Vallier: That doesn’t happen very much, by the way, you would think that it did, but it’s very curious from a Bayesian perspective.

0:09:26.8 Aaron Powell: So then what do we know that, going back to the tribe shrink then, do people, on the social trust, are they more trusting of that we don’t see a decline in social trust if you limit it to whatever their shrinking tribe is? Is it always the other guy, and is it like uniform, are we seeing declining social trust across groups and across tribes, or are there some that have become less trusting than others?

0:09:54.5 Kevin Vallier: So the social trust measures have become subtler with time, but they don’t track as many factors, because it’s supposed to be trust in most people, and usually people, the radius of trust tends to be people’s nation, their nation state, for whatever reason. And that particular metric, as crude as it is, actually, has a whole lot of predictive power in terms of other social indicators, which can be surprising, given how crude it is. And given the main increases in distrust that we’ve seen are political in character, I’ve not seen things looking at sort of trust between genders, or even the way that trust between races has changed. I’m sure there’s some kind of data set out there, but I… Well, maybe not, I’ve looked around and I can’t find them, but I’ve also read literature reviews about trust in ethnic diversity and things like that. I haven’t seen much change that I’m aware of.

0:10:53.3 Kevin Vallier: We haven’t been measuring it anywhere near as long as we would need to be able to say very much. The mystery about social trust judgments is that we don’t really know how they come about. So for almost all of human history, it just wasn’t relevant, right, because you interacted with your tribe for the most part, and you probably didn’t trust the other tribes very much, you went to war with them or you ran away from them, or maybe you traded with them a little bit or something like that. So we just don’t know how people came to trust in the generalized others that they don’t know. And the Joe Henrich book may have somewhat of an explanation that as family sizes got smaller, maybe the societies that… Where people develop the ability to trust those they didn’t know did better, because the smaller units were more in need of cooperation with strangers, this then enabled them to develop more formal institutions.

0:11:50.2 Kevin Vallier: We just… We just don’t know. It’s the big thing I’m gonna be… One of the big two things that I’m turning to next to my research is to try to develop with working with Cristina Bicchieri a theory of social learning and social trust, to try to figure out how this goes. One thought is that people tend to form social trust judgments early in life, in part based on how they see their parents interacting with strangers. So think about it, I know that Aaron has kids, I don’t know about Trevor. But Aaron, you’ve had this experience when someone new comes to the house and your kids are young, they kinda hide behind you, right, they get a little shy, and what they’re doing, people think, is watching you and your reaction, so if you get nervous, they’re gonna be nervous, but if you aren’t nervous and you welcome them. Over time, they warm up.

0:12:40.1 Kevin Vallier: And it’s a very good heuristic for children for survival, right. You watch the parent. Right, so the idea is that over time, those trust judgments do update in a kind of Bayesian way, but all the inputs are from people within your particular social network. This is how I think cultures transmit social trust attitudes, even when they emigrate. So Swedes in the US are very trusting, but that it gets passed on generation to generation without it being genetic, because we know that it can change in particular societies. Trust in Denmark has gone up like 30 points in the last 40 years, we don’t really know why, so it doesn’t appear to be genetic. But somehow it can be very, very culturally stable. So that’s one theory.

0:13:21.8 Kevin Vallier: Now, I also think, and my wife is a marriage and family therapist and we’ve been talking about this and we would love to test it, which is that what if children can’t trust their parents, say through trauma, maybe that helps to destine them to be low trust, because they can’t even learn to trust from their parents, ’cause they can’t trust their parents, but we just have no data on it. So my sense is that people are responding in a Bayesian way, they’re looking to see if people follow social norms, they learn what social norms are from a very early age, and for the most part, many people see compliance or maybe they see some really salient cases of non‐​compliance, such that by the time they’re 25, additional evidence just doesn’t make a lot of a difference. So that may be what’s going on. But that’s just a hypothesis. We just don’t know. It’s one of the great mysteries of social science, in my opinion.

0:14:12.4 Trevor Burrus: What do we know about the relationship between more oppressive regimes and social trust? For example, East Germans versus West Germans, maybe to this day. In my experience, having been in Eastern European countries, former Soviet countries, there’s a lot of just suspicion that there’s corruption and people are taking advantage of things which seems to be held over from the regimes, but maybe that’s one reason why they became Soviet in the first place, is that they’re already suspicious. So do we know anything about, say, what’s happened to trust in, I don’t know, Georgia, the Republic of Georgia, since its had liberal institutions or something like that?

0:14:55.0 Kevin Vallier: This is an extremely fascinating question, so it’s much more complicated than you think. So social trust can be quite high in authoritarian countries, because the people oppressing you are a very small number of people. And it’s also the case that they ban lots and lots of stuff and try to control and destroy markets, and so you have to engage in lots of gray and black markets, you end up interacting with people in exchange networks, maybe more often than you would in free market societies, because then you interact with people a lot more in accordance with algorithms, like not algorithms, but that would be the case with societies that are especially technologically well‐​developed, but you might also think the law is keeping them in place, whereas, you know, in an authoritarian regime, everything’s under the table, so it’s got be social norms. So you can actually have high social trust in authoritarian regimes, even if trust in the regime is very low, but we often think we aren’t getting straightforward data.

0:15:49.9 Kevin Vallier: The Chinese say they trust their national government a ton, but a lot of trust theorists think they’re lying. Another curious thing that happens, countries that transition from authoritarianism to democracy see very big declines in social trust, Romania, Poland, Spain and Portugal, and you don’t… Remember Spain and Portugal transitioning from fascism, more light fascism maybe, but fascism all the same. So they’ve seen declines, but Romania and Poland have seen really steep declines. Why would this be? Well, one possibility is they’re telling the truth, finally. Another possibility is that free media allows them to see the warts in their society and they’re disappointed.

0:16:35.2 Kevin Vallier: A third possibility is that now they see a much larger group of people responsible for political outcomes and they blame them. And a fourth possibility is that they were over‐​promised about the benefits of democracy and they’re disappointed by them. So there’s all kinds of different reasons to explain the decline, a lot of which are plausible, and I suspect it’s a mix. So it’s this weird thing that social trust can decline when you go to democracy, but the hypothesis is that when you’ve been democratic long enough, it should start to recover. And one reason is just that a lot of the outcomes, well, with more institutional stability and democratic functioning improving, we might think that people come to trust more people more, and also there’ll be just straight up norm stability, right?

0:17:31.4 Kevin Vallier: So in a communist society, maybe people are ratting each other out. So let me give you an example. In 1989 about 1 in 20 East Germans, adults, were a member of the secret police. So that means that 1 in 20 strangers you meet could rat you out and ruin your life, and that’s probably a pretty good recipe for low trust, and that’s way East Germany is lower trust than West Germany. Even though German trust as a whole has gone up, there’s still a gap. Communism is just hideous for social trust, it’s one of the few things that just absolutely wrecks it, so… That’s one hypothesis is secret police, but then also when you have changes in norms where say you go from being in a war zone to peace, I think social trust can improve, this was one reason I think that social trust in Germany has increased because it’s had a lot of institutional stability.

0:18:27.2 Kevin Vallier: It’s another reason I think Germany‐​adjacent countries have increased in social trust, they’re some of the only countries that have gone up in social trust in a big way. So that includes Switzerland, the Netherlands and Denmark. They’ve actually all gone up more than Germany, but I think that’s because East Germany’s holding Germany back. So even though Switzerland is very institutionally stable, the sense that, oh, Hitler’s over there, I think can destabilize norms, so that you don’t necessarily know how people are gonna behave. There’s also, I think, a lot of family connections and social connections between those countries, but we don’t really know for sure because we haven’t been measuring it that long, but that’s why hypotheses in institutional stability help social trust, because there’s continuity of norms and non‐​compliance.

0:19:14.8 Trevor Burrus: You’ve mentioned this term, which is used a lot in the Trump era, I think, especially, which we have one more day left, so that will be… But it’s used a lot of… Of norms, and we use that word norms, but what do we mean by that, especially when it’s relevant to this kind of trust world?

0:19:37.2 Kevin Vallier: Good, so I’m a proponent of Cristina Bicchieri’s theory of social norms, she’s at the University of Pennsylvania, she’s very, very talented. And here’s what a social norm is according to her. First, it’s a pattern of behavior that people conditionally prefer to follow, that is you only wanna do it so long as others do, unlike a convention when it’s in your self‐​interest to do the thing, like driving on the right‐​hand side of the road. You want… But there’s something… Norms are typically followed because they’re seen as costly and not necessarily in self‐​interest. Okay, now you wanna conditionally prefer to follow them, so long as two conditions are met. First, there are empirical expectations, that is, you think most people are going to follow the norm. And the second are normative expectations, and this is a little subtle.

0:20:29.6 Kevin Vallier: Normative expectations occur when you think that others think that you ought to follow the norm, so in other words, the normative expectations are your experience of moral pressure and moral policing surrounding a norm, do you think you’re gonna get sanctioned or called out, let’s say, for violating that norm. And often, so very often, the normative expectations don’t have to come with external sanction, but they typically very frequently do. There are all kinds of social norms that are really destructive, you can contrast them with conventions in this regard, where it’s not in your self‐​interest to follow them, in the rough sense of you benefiting, but it might be in your interest to follow them to avoid punishment, sanction or guilt, shame.

0:21:16.3 Kevin Vallier: So take Chinese foot binding. This was a social norm where upper class Chinese women were expected to bind their feet. It was enormously self‐​destructive and unnecessary, but people did it because they are afraid of being punished. Cristina works on a whole host of international norms that seem just horrible, like say female genital cutting, where a way more people do it than want to it. So in many countries where it’s highly practiced, particularly Burkina Faso, where the difference is the most extreme, there’s about a 50‐​point difference between the people who do it and the people who wanna do it, or who say they support it. Why is this? Well, grandmothers don’t want their daughters to be rejected on their wedding night, because having not undergone that is a sign of being potentially promiscuous, so social norms can be extremely destructive.

0:22:14.8 Kevin Vallier: On the other hand, they can be really, really conducive to co‐​operation because they’re effectively a way for us to monitor each other’s behavior, to do things that we are very, very tempted not to do. So examples of this where they’re not formalized would be traffic norms, that it is harder to enforce, the police can’t enforce every norm if we don’t already think they’re norms, ’cause they can’t watch everybody, right? So an example that I often use is allowing people to merge into oncoming traffic. That’s a norm that’s kind of annoying to us, but we really want other people to do it, and we could be sanctioned pretty seriously if you run someone off the road. And the thought there is, there are the empirical, most people think other people are gonna follow it, and there’s normative expectations, we feel normative pressure to let people in, right, and we feel better about ourselves when we do it, a little bit better. If we don’t let people do it, maybe we feel a little bit worse.

0:23:10.1 Kevin Vallier: But there’s lots and lots and lots of other social norms that are probably good, for instance, using racial epithets in the United States or Canada or other places, that can get you in a whole heck of a lot of trouble. So that’s what a social norm is. Now, we’re talking about democratic norms, what are those? Well, I’m working on a paper right now with some co‐​authors, and I won’t mention them in case the paper turns out to be bad, where we’re trying to define democratic norm erosion. And norm erosion occurs on our view when the belief in the expectations in social norms declines. So for instance, imagine that for some reason, people stop believing that they’re gonna get in trouble with people that they offer, say, a racial slur or something like that, that’s a way a norm could erode without disappearing, right, there’s a difference between norm erosion and norm collapse.

0:24:07.7 Kevin Vallier: What’s a democratic norm? Well, we’re just trying to figure that out now, because it can be defined in a number of different ways. But a very, very simple… And to give an example, rather than a definition, would be the peaceful transition to power after an election, where some kind of input from the populace is solicited and given. So democratic norm erosion would be something like fewer people affirm the peaceful transition of power as a social norm. They think, okay, well, no one expects me not to revolt, or at least my reference network, my in‐​group doesn’t expect me not to revolt. So that was a lot, but getting the concept of democratic norm erosion precise, you’ve got to define social norms, you’ve got to define democratic norms, and you’ve got define erosion, so it’s difficult to do, even though the term is thrown about.

0:25:00.5 Aaron Powell: How does trust in government fit into all of this? Because I know that that has declined fairly dramatically, and it seems to have declined across groups, but at the Cato Institute, one of the things that we do quite frequently is argue that government is in fact very bad at things, and that often you should not… You should not trust it to do what it tells you it’s going to do, either because it wants to do something different or it’s not capable of doing what it tells you it’s capable of doing. So some level of just like absolute trust in government ends up looking dangerously cultish, but too little trust in government seems to end up with an insurrectionist…

0:25:42.6 Kevin Vallier: And not libertarian, right? You don’t get libertarianism if you have very low trust across the board.

0:25:50.5 Aaron Powell: So within those extremes, how should we think about trust in government?

0:25:54.4 Kevin Vallier: Well, so this is complex. So trust should be apportioned to trustworthiness, that’s just a simple requirement of rationality, right. It doesn’t make sense for you to trust the untrustworthy. And then the question becomes, well, how trustworthy we can expect government to be? Well, what does that even mean? What it means, I think, is that people who follow or are detecting whether governments following the institutional norms is supposed to perform certain functions, and if it falls those functions, it’s not just broken, it’s blame‐​worthy. So if there’s been an immoral failure, so think about the CDC, where we are with vaccine distribution, those are great cases. The voting process with respect to Trump, right, people thinking, okay, it’s supposed to form this function of counting all votes fairly, you don’t under‐​count, but you don’t over‐​count votes. Or the EPA, is it protecting the environment or is it being allowed to do so?

0:26:50.4 Kevin Vallier: Now, where does this come in with the kind of Cato, Kevin, kind of limited government world view? Well, what we’re essentially saying is that there are limits to the performance of institutions, and that periodically we expect a whole lot of them, and then we’re disappointed, because there are systematic reasons that institutions can’t perform to the level that we think. Now, the idea then would be to get people to expect less of those institutions, and so to have them do less, but then you’d be able to trust them because they did the limited things that they could do. So there’s a way in which libertarian policy‐​making may actually get people to trust government more because they expect less of it.

0:27:32.6 Kevin Vallier: However, two points of challenge to maybe your average listener. Number one, when social trust is higher, government seems to work better. So Tyler Cowen once said the libertarian bias is thinking the supply of good government is fixed, and one of the axes along which I think the good governments vary is how much social trust there is. The Swedes don’t actually trust their government overwhelmingly, it does a lot of stuff well, but their expectations are really high, so they run their welfare state way better. There’s a couple of reasons for this. I mean, as Andreas says to me, we redistribute from the top 90% to the bottom 90%. So even the very wealthy get lots of social transfers throughout their lives, and so they probably get on the phone and complain a whole bunch if they don’t go well. But it’s also the case that there’s just far less corruption and waste. So you can make the welfare state work better if you’ve got lots of trust, but you can’t affect trust a whole lot, so we really aren’t gonna be able to make the Swedish welfare state work here with the lower level of social trust that we have.

0:28:45.1 Kevin Vallier: But that’s I think a key explanation. It’s an explanation of why it works well there or why it would worse here, so it can confirm both… You know, progressives can say, oh, it works somewhere, and then we can say, well, probably wouldn’t work as well, but it could. Another thing that’s important is that when libertarians so distrust, we have to be very clear and more careful in how we sell it. So we’ve spent a whole lot of time beating up on the Federal Reserve system, but what is more likely if trust in the Federal Reserve declines, what’s the most likely outcome? Is it a goal change?

0:29:21.3 Aaron Powell: Bitcoin maximalism.

0:29:25.8 Kevin Vallier: Well, perhaps, perhaps, but generally what it would mean is more fiscal policy from Congress, which is worse in almost every respect. It might lead to more support for BitCoin overall, maybe if people don’t trust the Fed they’ll just stock up on Bitcoin, which would be good from a libertarian perspective. But my suspicion is that at the very least, we would also see a lot more preference for fiscal policy, so there’s ways in which sowing distrust can be bad, and so you’ve got to think about what the alternative would be. And I think that it can also be useful to not sow distrust at all, but to simply say there’s other institutions that would be better than what we’ve got. It’s important… Part of it’s important to expose when a government, when a system is trusted more than it merits, right, that’s a virtue of our kind of movement, is we could say, look, you know, you trust it too much rationally speaking and you’re demanding it do things that it can’t do, and it says it’s doing those things and it’s not.

0:30:23.0 Kevin Vallier: But there are other times where I do think libertarians have sown too much distrust. Let me give you another example. I think we should be a lot more careful about how we distrust the police, because we should distrust its militarization, we should distrust the heavy‐​handed tactics, but as Alex Tabarrok has argued, probably you do get lower crime with more police, and so you want people to say, look, when the police are militarized, when they’re harming people, when they are doing asset forfeiture, yeah, distrust them a lot, right? But don’t be distrustful of police as such, like if they behave better, trust them more, because until we privatize the police force, which you know, will be a little while, folks, I think we want more police on the street, particularly in high crime areas.

0:31:27.2 Kevin Vallier: So again, my message isn’t to trust everything, my message here is to trust when trustworthy, but… But, to be subtler, to be willing to make finer distinctions, to distrust along some dimensions, to trust along others. So I think that in general, it’s very unhelpful when we’re trying to think about how to promote a freedom agenda, to just say we should distrust the government as such. We should focus. ICE, well, they’re doing horrible things, right? I mean, even if they’re performing their function, their function is bad, and so they should be distrusted, right? Or we should distrust the DEA, but you know, Park Service is okay. And the Social Security administration is a lot more functional than a lot of other parts of the welfare state, not saying again that we should be happy about that, but again, it’s a matter of more and less, and it’s a matter of, again, subtlety, subtlety.

0:32:29.3 Trevor Burrus: You write in the epilogue of your book, liberal institutions and only liberal institutions can establish trust for the right reasons among diverse persons. The interesting words in that to me are the right reasons, so what are the wrong reasons to have trust? If we’re just talking about trust as kind of a general good, what are the wrong reasons to have it, and then what are the right reasons?

0:32:57.3 Kevin Vallier: There’s two parts to my standard of trust for the right reasons. One I’ve already talked about, which is apportioning trust to trustworthiness, so you don’t want your society to trust institutions because of propaganda. So the cool thing about liberal institutions is that there’s less propaganda and people are more likely to apportion trust to trustworthiness because they’re not being constantly lied to and misled to the same degree as an authoritarian regime. Governments lie all the time, but the democratic governments are better. They don’t lie, for instance, about basic GDP numbers, they don’t lie about whether they’re committing genocide or throwing people in concentration camps or something like that.

0:33:38.7 Kevin Vallier: But there’s another thing that matters for trustworthiness is that you typically don’t wanna think people are being trustworthy just to get away, just to avoid punishment. Trustworthiness involves some kind of moral motivation, that you think people have a personal ethical code, that they have some kind of virtue, that they care about you, or they respect you. And so we wanna think that people’s behavior is coming in not just from fear of punishment. So think about it this way. Suppose you’ve learned like everyone in your social network was either a robot or a psychopath, and a non‐​sentient robot, just to get those sci‐​fi libertarians…

0:34:19.5 Aaron Powell: It sounds like a new version of that game, Mafia, you you have to figure out which of your social network are psychopaths or robots.

0:34:27.6 Kevin Vallier: Yeah, so then I think it becomes hard to trust them, because their behavior isn’t based in any kind of concern, as soon as you look away from the sociopath, they’re gonna probably do something bad, and the robots… I guess it depends on how much you trust the programmer, but you’re not gonna trust them because it just seems impossible, like you trust people that you think have some kind of free agency, not in a metaphysical sense necessarily, but you know, you know what I mean? So free as opposed to being forced, that doesn’t require metaphysical, us to decide on metaphysical freedoms. So trust for the right reasons, is that trust is apportioned to trustworthiness, and that we see the trustworthiness as coming from some kind of care or respect, concern or virtue. So that’s what I mean.

0:35:15.2 Kevin Vallier: And the cool thing about liberal institutions is the kinds of incentives they give to people not only create trust but create it in the right way. So you have a free press, for instance, that’s one of the big things I wish I’d talked more about in the book. Then you apportion your trust to trustworthiness, but you also know, say, that some government officials, they’re not Trump, they’re not gonna distort an institution’s trust just because they’re so selfish and self‐​absorbed that they can’t accept that they’d lost, right. So I’m not saying to trust presidents, but some are more trustworthy than others, right. And Obama was a more trustworthy president than Trump, I think anyone can… Well, there may be some people who deny this, but it seems obviously true to me.

0:36:01.0 Trevor Burrus: Unfortunately, I think about 50% of Americans might deny that, because they think Obama is maybe a secret Muslim, a secret communist or something like that, but I guess that just underscores the problem state that we’re in.

0:36:11.7 Kevin Vallier: Yes, so this is not apportioning trust to trustworthiness given your evidence, right, ’cause they’re not proportioning their beliefs to the evidence, so that’s one reason that I’m not just a trust maximizer, right. There are moral constraints on how trust should be realized, and those I think are uniquely captured by liberal institutions, because a lot of trustworthy behavior comes from freedom and not threats, so it’s more likely that the trustworthy behavior is coming from the right kind of place. So that’s one reason it’s so important to have a sort of liberal society. Now, in the book, I do say that I think, well, parts of the welfare date are trust‐​conducive, but it really depends on how you redistribute and how it’s publicly perceived, and the reasons that are offered for the redistribution.

0:36:56.3 Kevin Vallier: It’s also got to be the case on my view that the programs are seen as having passed some kind of reasonable cost benefit test, even a extremely basic one, but it’s very hard to do, because one thing that the CBO just admits is they say, yeah, we rate legislation but then it changes when it’s passed, so who knows? So if people knew that, they would say, well, actually, we don’t know the cost and benefits of this, we’re getting the benefits and kicking the costs down the road, in some cases, it’s just impossible to make any kind of assessment, and so our trust in the effectiveness of the public policy process should probably go down a whole lot, because we just don’t know if they’re trust, we just don’t know if policy‐​makers… Well, we know they’re probably making bad decisions because we’re paying for it now and kicking the can down the road without even a decent rationale.

0:37:47.8 Kevin Vallier: So one thing I am saying is that public policy does need to meet kind of basic tests that we just don’t… We just don’t know if it meets. So that probably means that the welfare state, on my view, to have trust for the right reasons in it needs to be contracted and partially privatized. So just for listeners, yes, I do think people have to see that their society is interested in making sure that they are insulated from pointless risks, particularly when they’re children, and there are some programs that I think do help create that kind of environment. And the main one I defend is not even one we have in the United States. Balsa Familia, which started off in Brazil, and the basic program is this, if mothers, the money is given to mothers, have their children vaccinated and send them to school, they’ll get a transfer. So it’s not an unconditional transfer, but it’s pretty open‐​ended.

0:38:50.3 Kevin Vallier: And it’s been replicated in 40 different countries. The World Bank has studied it at great length and it seems to have reduced poverty a lot. Of all the public policies I’ve ever heard of or seen, that’s the one for which there is the best evidence, of everything I’ve ever heard of. So that’s one I think will pass the test, but we had to learn a lot about it before we knew it did that. So some forms of redistribution will help, but in general, I think markets play a pretty important role in a variety… For a variety of reasons, freedom of association too, but democracy, I think, is also important in various respects.

0:39:30.1 Aaron Powell: We’ve seen a lot, especially it seems like over the last several years on both the left and the right, a disillusion with markets or a claim that open markets and competition are what’s destroying social bonds. You see that a lot on the right, destroying traditional ways of life. On the left is creating classes of oligarchs or rampant inequality, and at the very core, a market is instead of you and me cooperating, it’s you and me competing and making each other into rivals, and rivals, just almost by definition, are going to trust each other less than two people, than teammates, say. So are markets a cause of declining social trust? Do markets in fact engender behaviors that will make us less trusting or I guess give us good reason to be less trusting?

0:40:31.4 Kevin Vallier: So there’s a lot of really interesting things to say here. First, whatever people have as a general sense of markets, most of their trust level is just gonna be based in their interactions with people commercially. So it’s like, it’s one thing to say, oh, markets atomize. It’s another thing, whether those people go in and they don’t engage in exchange when they have the opportunity. Like I imagine Pat Deneen goes to the grocery store, right. And he’s probably had almost universally decent experiences there, and I bet he has preferences among wines and coffee and kinds of bread, some part of them is pleased by this, so I think a lot of people’s trust attitudes are based on their actual interactions and their observations of others, regardless of what they say.

0:41:14.9 Kevin Vallier: I do think your particular beliefs about an institution can lower your trust level, but you’ve got to remember that in well‐​governed market societies with strong legal property rights, I think people’s experiences, their interactions with others, like how often they get cheated really matters. Here’s another thing that’s really cool and interesting. I think actually a degree of trust level helps to falsify or confirm these views about markets, so imagine trust levels are extremely low, and then you go to exchange with somebody, that sure looks like a competition. I mean, it’s like you’re trying to outwit each other or undercut each other, whereas when trust is super high, it’s very, very different, there’s no real question about exploitation because you trust these people.

0:42:00.2 Kevin Vallier: So actually the critique of markets is a function of trust levels, and as soon as you see that all market transactions aren’t in low trust contexts, I think the critique weakens a lot, because there you can say, yeah, in some contexts it’s true when trust is low, but the trust isn’t low in market societies and in fact, social trust is a lot higher in societies that protect legal property rights really, really well. If you get defrauded a bunch or people are out‐​bidding you or you get a crappy product and you’ve been doing this since you were a kid, I think you don’t necessarily know these people, it may be it’s one shop down the corner and that doesn’t affect your social trust, but I think if you’re in a society with rampant fraud and corruption and unreliable transactions and conflicts with neighbors about property boundaries, and that’s just a regular part of your life, I think it’s very hard to see how you’re gonna have high levels of social trust in that society.

0:42:55.4 Kevin Vallier: So societies with well‐​protected, well‐​defined legal property rights, ease and protection of exchange, freedom of contract, these are societies that are high trust and, for that reason, but you also need a certain level of trust to even get markets to work, so there’s a kind of positive feedback loop, and I think there’s a high market, high trust equilibrium and a low market, low trust equilibrium. So unfortunately, it’s hard to get from bad to good, but good can stick around.

0:43:24.0 Trevor Burrus: The other aspect here is, if we strengthen some of these institutions that we have, and also I think the possibility of maybe trying to localize more, is that anything that you would think is something that could make things better, federalism in its own way?

0:43:44.9 Kevin Vallier: I cut the federalism chapter from the book because there just wasn’t enough data on it, but there is really interesting data that suggests local institutions are trusted more. And a lot of that is, I think, ’cause you can more easily detect and punish violations. Local media is also trusted more, which is extremely important. I probably should have… I probably should have doused the chapter on associations because the data was less clear and that’s something on media, but here’s the problem with having a media chapter. I don’t know of any reforms that don’t violate the First Amendment that would help.

0:44:15.1 Kevin Vallier: But localizing it, if you decentralized political power, I think it would be more responsive, which I think people would trust it more. I think it would be more limited because there’d be more political competition, people could exit more. I think that it’s easier to coordinate and punish social norms in more local areas, so that I think we would have more media trust. I think political polarization when you decentralize in general becomes less bad, so that’s a source of distrust that I think is limited. I think decentralization could potentially help a great deal, but we just don’t have data on it, enough data on it to say, but that was my… One of the big regrets was that I had to cut the federalism chapter.


0:45:11.1 Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us in Apple Podcasts or in your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.