Absolving the Six Deadly Sins of the Trust Literature: Reply to Nowrasteh and Forrester

Last week, Alex Nowrasteh and Andrew Forrester published a Cato working paper arguing that the empirical trust literature is so rife with weaknesses that we can’t learn much from it. Their central finding is that sub-regional trust levels in the United States don’t correlate with economic output, despite trust theorists arguing that trust promotes economic growth (primarily, probably, because trust lowers transactions costs, increasing the amount of exchange, and because of better policy implementation through a more trustworthy civil service).

My sense from the trust literature is that many of these concerns have been amply addressed. I’ve spoken with some trust researchers I know and thought I’d blog some of the responses. The basic worry is that Nowrasteh and Forrester are sort of selective in the papers they feature. The trust literature is actually pretty self-reflective, and have addressed a number of these worries.

Here are what Nowrasteh and Forrester claim are sins in the literature. SIN 1:

The first deadly sin of the trust-growth literature is that it contains no macroeconomic growth model that incorporates trust, either in its micro-foundations or otherwise (Beugelsdijk and Maseland, 2011, p. 213). Furthermore, the trust-growth literature does not contain a formal theory of social capital formation broadly or one of trust specifically (Guiso, Sapienza and Zingales, 2011, p. 469). Most trust researchers aggregate assumed effciencies at the microeconomic level up to the macroeconomic level and assume that trust creates economy-wide growth: an illegitimate leap in the logic of micro- to- macro functioning (Beugelsdijk and Maseland, 2011, p. 208). The relationship between an individual’s trust and income may not be true for society and cannot be aggregated up to form a truthful representation of the whole (Beugelsdijk and Maseland, 2011, p. 208).

Response: the authors don’t engage with the part of the trust literature that explores transmission mechanisms, writing just a bit about theoretical models in pp. 1-2. A number of papers, including this one, find that human capital and the quality of judicial-bureaucratic institutions are the two main transmission channels. In the US context, the first is hard to pinpoint because people often don’t work where they were educated. The second is also a problem since much institutional quality is defined at the federal level.

Another difficulty Nowrasteh and Forrester cite is supposedly that the literature “contains no macroeconomic growth model that incorporates trust.” Apparently this is false. If the likely transmission mechanisms are through institutions and human capital, there are plenty of growth models illustrating such effects. What the formal models miss is how to explain how trust affects institutions and human capital. However, see this paper, this paper, this paper, and Zak and Knack’s highly cited investment driven model. Oh, and this paper and this paper too. On to SIN 2:

The second deadly sin of the trust literature is that the trust question itself does not produce internally valid responses. Recall, the trust question is: \Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you need to be very careful in dealing with people?” There is no universal measure of trust because, in part, its meaning is culturally and contextually specific (Beugelsdijk and Maseland, 2011, p. xvii). The responses to the trust question are \Most people can be trusted,” \Can’t be too careful,” and \Depends.” The meaning of those responses is also unclear.

It’s not true that the trust question doesn’t produce internally valid responses. The primary argument they give is a twenty-year-old quote from Robert Putnam. But a number of studies do show that the generalized trust question does rather well: here, Sapienza 2013 which the authors cite but not on this point, and a Naef and Schupp 2009 working paper using the GSOEP dataset all show clearly that the question produces valid responses. Even Nannestad’s well-known 2008 review notes that the trust question has excellent test-retest stats. Now SIN 3:

The third deadly sin of the trust literature is that responses to the trust question do not generally predict trusting behavior in real-world micro-level experiments or in trust games.

The papers above also address this deadly sin, such as the Sapienza paper, which the authors cite, but, again, don’t draw the right conclusions from. Here’s another paper connecting trust responses and actual behavior. SIN 4:

The fourth deadly sin is that many of the major papers in the trust literature are contaminated by various types of sample biases.

The main findings in the literature can be replicated using much larger samples. And trust scores are so stable over time that slight demographic changes like those they describe are not relevant. SIN 5:

The fifth deadly sin is that even if the trust question were free from measurement error or sample selection bias, trust may be a proxy measurement for other deeper causes of economic development.

The trouble here is that the literature hasn’t found any examples of this. It’s also a bit of a cheap shot because that can be used as an argument against pretty much all findings in the empirical growth literature. SIN 6:

The sixth deadly sin of the empirical trust literature is that sub-national level data in the United States that is collected under better conditions do not indicate a robust positive relationship between trust and growth.

The sixth sin is only a problem if you think that regional trust should cause regional growth. But it might be that the different regions are sufficiently economically integrated with each other that isolating trust and growth in each region doesn’t tell us much.

In sum, Nowrasteh and Forrester seem to have missed some important papers that I think weaken their argument. It will be interesting to see how their paper develops once they take these papers into account. I think they’ll probably need to stop framing the paper in terms of identifying deadly sins, though.

Why Democrats Should Try to Restore Political Trust

The final question at the Democratic debate last night concerned the Ellen-W friendship and invited candidates to talk about a surprising friendship they have with someone across the political isle. Many viewers complained about the question, but I thought is it was appropriate and informative. A number of the candidates talked about the importance of restoring lost bipartisan trust. I appreciate that because bipartisan trust is inherently valuable. But I also think it makes political sense for Democrats. The societies that have the most extensive welfare states tend to be the most trusting, and that’s likely because high trust populations are more likely to support extensive redistribution. It is no coincidence that nation-states developed extensive social insurance following two world wars. Wars with other countries tend to unite nations, and create the solidarity necessary to convince richer and more powerful citizens to allow limits on their economic self-interest.

This is why restoring trust and lowering polarization is really important for Democrats’ policy goals, since they want large expansions of the welfare state. When Democrats act to increase polarization and sow distrust, they will often make their social democratic aims less politically feasible.

Unfortunately, Republicans lack the same incentives.

Joker’s Portrayal of Poverty and Mental Health [minor spoilers]

Perhaps the most important, yet understated event in Joker is that Arthur Fleck lost his medications and social worker. Due to budget cuts, publicly-funded social workers simply abandoned their cases, leaving Arthur with no easy way to refill his medication and no professional to talk to. These events, especially going off of one’s medications, can send people into psychosis, especially after a traumatic event like losing one’s job, being subject to violent crime, or having severe conflicts with loved ones. Arthur endures all three events within a short span of time, which was likely too much for him neurologically.

The movie doesn’t draw much attention to Arthur not having his medications. In fact, early in the movie, he says the medications aren’t working, and his social worker replies that he’s on seven medications, so they must be doing something. And I think it’s clear that they were helping to a significant degree. After going off of his medications, there seems to be a dramatic decline in Fleck’s mental health, from an entirely delusional relationship to dramatic mood swings, and thrill-seeking behavior. This is one reason it is hard to characterize Arthur as a villain. Even though he commits evil acts, it is doubtful things would have gotten so out of control if he’d been medicated and had someone monitoring his treatment (however overworked and depressed his previous help was). This is one way in which Gotham’s rich failed the poor. By not adequately funding basic mental health services, Arthur was deprived of one of his main tools for maintaining contact with reality.

I do not want to reinforce the dangerous stereotype that the mentally ill are violent. It’s not true. But all else equal, many of the severely mentally ill are more likely to commit suicide and engage in uncontrolled, risky, destructive, and even violent behavior without access to certain medications, especially antipsychotics. Joker helps to illustrate this even though we don’t know which medications Fleck was taking.

The movie does a fairly good job depicting the quality of mental health services for the poor in many parts of the country, at least in the early 1980s. I have a close family member who is a therapist, and she has worked with court-involved youth all over the country in prisons,  juvenile detention facilities, extremely impoverished homes, and psychiatric hospitals. She’s seen how mental health services for the poor often work, and fail to work. I have also, for various family-related reasons, become acquainted with mental health facilities for low-income and lower-income people. The depiction of the mental health worker as overwhelmed by case loads, underfunded, and emotionally exhausted fits our experience. And the gray, depressing, yet often shocking and deeply uncomfortable experience in visiting some mental health facilities also rang true, even for some facilities today.

The main thing that’s objectionable in the movie’s portrayal of mental health services is their failing to depict at least some mental health workers as loving, passionate, and kind. All too often, popular culture assumes that people in the mental health field, especially those who work with the poor, are overwhelmed by their experience, and have the joy drained out of them. But that’s not true, not even usually.

So, Joker struck me as a broadly accurate portrayal of the dangerous game we play when mental health services for the poor (public or private) are inadequately funded and staffed.

There is much to comment on in the movie, which I can only describe as jolting, but it’s important to recognize that one of the prime precipitating factors of his descent into darkness was a failed mental healthcare system in Gotham City.

Many have commented on the importance the movie places on accessible mental health services. So my take is by no means original. But the movie illustrates the way in which mental illness has a life of its own, and how crucial it is to have the right help at the right time.

Beto Makes Politics War

Last night, Beto O’Rourke said that religious institutions that refuse to accept same-sex marriage should lose their tax-exempt status. That’s a sure fire way to make politics war: use the federal government to stigmatize half the country. Every conservative mosque, synagogue, and church in the country would be tarred by their own government as bigoted and fined for what they believe. Note that even the most committed judicial leftists would not revoke the tax-exempt status of mosques, synagogues, and churches, just certain non-profits and universities. And even that remains a distinctly minority position.

Comments like this are why many people of faith don’t trust the left to protect their liberties. The worry is that Beto let slip what most politically and socially powerful leftists believe in their hearts. I hope that’s not true, but in a country riven by polarization and mistrust, it is natural to wonder.

And yes, it’s a cliche, but a true one: this is how you get Trump. What are conservative people of faith supposed to do if this is what Democrats would do in office?


Operationalizing the French-Ahmari Debate by Measuring Trustworthiness

I think the recent intra-conservative French-Ahmari debate can be partially resolved by determining the extent to which secular progressives can be trusted to protect robust freedom of religion for religious traditionalists with conservative views about human sexuality.

If secular progressives are trustworthy, at least by and large, then French’s strategy of working within liberal democratic institutions makes sense. Conservatives should hold secular progressives to a constitutional order that they accept in general, but chafe at in certain cases. Secular progressives cannot always be trusted to uphold robust freedom of religion, but they’re trustworthy enough not to fundamentally undermine Christianity in the United States. They will obey liberal democratic norms on the whole; conservatives just have to fight to keep them honest.*

However, if secular progressives aren’t trustworthy, then Ahmari’s approach starts to make sense. Secular progressives will tend to undermine robust protections for freedom of religion in a systematic way, and so ignore constitutional constraints whenever they can get away with it. In that case, politics is war regarding freedom of religion, and conservatives may be permitted to respond in kind. Perhaps the liberal legal settlement is therefore unstable because the left cannot be trusted to uphold it, and so the only truly feasible arrangement is cultural and political victory in the fight against the left. There’s no peace and no middle ground because the other side isn’t trustworthy, and so can’t be trusted to keep a liberal democratic peace.

Social scientists have ways of measuring trust and trustworthiness in society and in institutions (I discuss them here), and we could probably use these tools to figure out the extent to which secular progressives can be trusted to protect robust freedom of religion. It would involve trying to systematically determine the extent to which secular progressives respect freedom of religion when they hold enough political power to violate it. At present, I’m not sure we have enough data to know for sure. There are certainly warning signs that make Ahmari’s position attractive to some, but I think we are far from the point where it is clear that we must overturn our liberal democratic peace.

* Yes, yes, conservatives need to be kept honest too.

Six Reasons Why Ellen is Right to Remain Friends with George W. Bush

There’s been a bit of a Twitterstorm over Ellen DeGeneres’s friendship with George W. Bush, which became clear when they were seen at a football game together. Some complained on the grounds that a good person like Ellen shouldn’t be friends with an ex-president with problematic views and who did terrible things in office. The Huffington Post recounts the incident here. Here’s a CNN article on the same.

Ellen defended herself:

“I’m friends with George Bush,” DeGeneres said Monday on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” “In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have.”

I think this is the right response for six reasons.

(1) We have little effect on political outcomes, so basing friendships on politics will undermine friendships based on factors one cannot change. By foregoing the friendship, then, little is gained. And much is lost if the friendship is otherwise worthwhile.

(2) Politics isn’t all that matters even if we can change political outcomes by rejecting friends because of their politics. We should base friendships on many factors, not just shared beliefs.

(3) Having friends with different views helps you to understand the rationale for your own views, to change your mind and/or the mind of your friend. So there are lots of epistemic benefits to having friends with diverse perspectives. The case for Millian free speech writ small!

(4) One might reply that one shouldn’t be friends with W because of the Iraq War. That is a reason to criticize him, but it’s also a reason to try to connect with him and be a safe place for him to express remorse and to heal.

(5) I think it’s clear that W has real remorse, given his intense practice of painting the portraits of soldiers he sent to war. If someone expresses remorse, even privately, we should praise and encourage such a person, not shun him.

(6) In a heavily polarized culture, we should praise high-status people who form friendships with people with opposing political views. They set an example for depolarizing and restoring trust by showing that we can connect to others for reasons other than politics. They show that our differences can be overcome. Ellen has made a choice that helps others to reconcile.

I’ll end the post with more of Ellen’s fine words: “When I say, ‘be kind to one another,’ I don’t only mean the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone.” Yes, indeed.


When Did Moral Philosophy Become Overwhemingly Secular?

Lately I’ve been poking around the history of moral philosophy, and I decided to read all of F. H. Bradley’s Ethical Studies, first published in 1876. Philosophers will remember Bradley for his essay “My Station and Its Duties,” which is one chapter.
I finished the book a few days ago, and I was surprised that the last chapter is about religion and morality (it’s called “Concluding Remarks,” so the content is not too obvious!). Especially interesting is that Bradley says that his moral theory, “My station and its duties,” is incomplete. Here’s what he says, with my comments in brackets:
[T]he hunt after pleasure in any shape has proved itself a delusion [Bradley rejects utilitarianism], and the form of duty a snare [Bradley rejects Kantianism], and the finite realization of ‘my station’ was truth indeed, and a happiness that called to us to say [Bradley likes his view! And yet …], but was too narrow to satisfy wholly the spirit’s hunger; and ideal morality brought the sickening sense of inevitable failure. Here our morality is consummated in oneness with God, and everywhere we find that ‘immortal Love’, which builds itself forever on contradiction, but in which the contradiction is eternally resolved.
So, basically, morality cannot be understood in secular terms, which you’d never know from just reading the “My Station” chapter. I’ve also just read Robert Stern’s Understanding Moral Obligation which compares Kant, Hegel, and Kierkegaard’s theories of obligation, and the divine looms much larger in Kant than I’d realized. I was surprised by its centrality for Hegel, though I knew it was important in some respects. And, well, obviously the divine is central for Kierkegaard’s moral theory!
I’ve come away struck by the thought that purely secular moral theorizing is actually pretty rare in the history of moral philosophy. Almost everyone up until the 18th century had some kind of deity (pantheist, classical theist, etc.) play a central role in their moral theory. Even Hobbes! (Sharon Lloyd does a great job bringing this out.) But from what I’m reading, the divine plays a role even in a lot of 19th century moral theorizing, especially in the idealist tradition, which was obviously extremely influential well into the 20th century.
In the 19th century, utilitarianism seems to me to be the main tradition of wholly secular moral theorizing. A lot of secular thinkers in the 19th century actually eschewed what we’d traditionally think of as classical moral theory, with Marx as Exhibit A.
So I’m curious: when did moral philosophy become so overwhelmingly secular, such that divinity can barely be seen in the history of ethics classes? I mean, we don’t even read any divine command theorists, certainly no contemporary ones like Bob Adams or John Hare. Instead, we have students read the Euthyphro, which we take to have obviously refuted any role for God to play in morality. But the Euthyphro isn’t about divine command theory at all. It was written centuries before the best theistic ethical theories were developed. And divine command theorists have reasonable replies.
Further, divine command theory barely scratches the surface of the ways in which the moral facts and the divine facts might be related.
What happened? I admit I don’t know. My best guess is the huge impact that Henry Sidgwick and G.E. Moore had on the formation of analytic ethics. They also had a pretty big impact on a number of high status British intellectuals. Moore’s Principia Ethica had a big impact on Keynes as a young man, along with many of his associates in the Bloomsbury Group. And since their moral theories are abnormally secular, historically speaking, contemporary analytic ethics has inherited its abnormal secularity from them.

Interviewed at 3:16 AM on Must Politics Be War?

Richard Marshall interviews me at 3:16 AM, a popular site for discussion of new work in philosophy. We primarily discuss my book, Must Politics Be War? (which you can buy from a link on the right of the blog or at the link), but we also talk about American politics, my biography, and my work on the proper role of religion in the public square. My work on religion in the public square can be found in my first book, Liberal Politics and Public Faith: Beyond Separation.

Must Politics Be War? in 500 words

My recent book, Must Politics Be War? Restoring Our Trust in the Open Society, argues that liberal democratic order has the unique capacity to avoid a war-like politics. Here’s a summary of the problem and my solution.

The problem of political war: low social and political trust leads to a war-like politics. But high trust is generally infeasible in societies with diverse perspectives on moral matters.

Why? People disagree about what is of value and what morality requires, so it is hard for them to appear trustworthy to one another. What one person counts as trustworthy behavior, another may count as untrustworthy. And when people have deep evaluative disagreements, we tend to see rejection of our views as evidence of an intellectual and/or moral vice on the part of those who disagree.

How do we overcome distrust? By motivating socially trustworthy behavior, behavior that multiple perspectives can see as evidence that one another are trustworthy. Distrust is overcome, then, by observing, or being able to observe, social trustworthiness.

To get social trustworthiness, we need people to comply with social norms that all can see themselves and others are having reason of their own to endorse and internalize as their own. In this way, we need compliance with social norms that diverse perspectives can converge upon. A public justification requirement thus naturally arises from a concern to sustain trust among diverse perspectives. If we want trust in a diverse society, we need to ensure that the social norms to which we are all subject can be justified to each (somewhat idealized) members of the public.

The public justification requirement also applies to legal and constitutional norms. If we organize our legal and constitutional norms according to which norms are justified for each person, we can drive socially trustworthy behavior, which in turn can sustain trusting attitudes even in the face of deep evaluative disagreements.

However, in a diverse society, it is hard to publicly justify non-neutral laws and policies, since people who reject the laws and policies as violent impositions of alien values will have defeater reasons for those laws and policies. This means that the unjustifiably coerced will see no reason to be trustworthy with respect to those laws and policies, and so will disobey when they can get away with it.

Once we throw out all the non-neutral laws and policies, we will be left with a system of rights (civil, economic, and political) that protect a large measure of liberty for each individual or group to live their own lives in their own way. We will end up with an open society. For this reason, an open society has the unique capacity to sustain trust between diverse perspectives, rendering high levels of trust feasible even under diverse conditions, solving the problem of political war.

PPE as the Study of Social Orders

As many readers know, PPE (philosophy, politics, and economics) is an increasingly popular academic program in universities and colleges across the country. These are typically degree programs for undergraduates, where students can major and/or minor in PPE. (I direct such a program at BGSU). But there is also a field of study we might call PPE research, and while we are doing more of it than ever before, especially at the PPE Society meeting, and PPE Society panels at the meetings of the APA and APSA, it is hard to characterize precisely what PPE research is.

Here I want to take a stab at that problem by trying to describe what I take to be core PPE research. In doing so, I’ll invariably exclude some topics that people think of as PPE research, since self-conscious research in the area is fairly new and practitioners don’t quite agree about the core topics.

In my view, PPE research uses multiple disciplinary methods to study human cooperation and conflict, understood maximally broadly. More briefly, PPE research is the comprehensive study of social order and disorder.

I. Core PPE Research Topics

Core PPE research includes research in formal reasoning, such as utility theory, the theory of exchange, game theory, social choice theory, and public choice theory, all of which are concerned with individual rational choice, or rational choice between persons. The theory of exchange covers positive-sum games, game theory covers strategic interaction and conflict, and social choice theory covers collective choice. All these fields provide us with models for understanding social interaction. PPE research also includes the study of norms and conventions, both of which are patterns of behavior central to social order.

I count some branches of moral psychology as PPE research, such as the study of sympathy, guilt, shame, blame, and punishment, and trust, all attitudes instrumental in forming social order, as well as cognitive science, in order to understand how humans actually make decisions.

PPE research includes the study of the history of institutions, with an eye to how different groups have maintained or failed to maintain social cooperation, as well as the evolution of cooperation, morality, and large-scale cooperation and conflict.

PPE research involves philosophical analysis in order to resolve certain difficulties that arise in formal reasoning, the theory of human behavior, to delineate the boundaries of certain concepts, and to formulate methodological principles for how to understand human cooperation, its causes and consequences. Moral philosophy also helps with the study of social morality, that is, the study of moral orders that invoke moral concepts, rules, and attitudes.

On top of this, we can include philosophical topics in social philosophy, such as the study of race and gender, and other features of personal identity and psychology and moral concern that figure into understanding social orders, such as how to understand patterns of oppression.

One could also add the study of the law, in particular how legal systems evolve and develop, and how they are reformed.

II. How PPE Research Interacts with Normative Theorizing

In my view, PPE research is not centrally about identifying true moral principles or principles of justice. That’s political philosophy, which is continuous with PPE, but distinct from it. Some modes of theorizing about justice will seem central to PPE, but that’s because some theories of justice understand justice as derived from our ability to solve coordination problems, like contractarianism. Contractarian theories of justice, for that reason, seem closer to PPE research than, say, perfectionist theories of justice. Normative ethics is not PPE research either. The contest between virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism isn’t core PPE research.

Accordingly, I don’t see theories of distributive justice as core PPE research. Rawls-Nozick, again, is political philosophy.

That said, I do think PPE research includes how to apply theories of justice and normative ethical theories to reform norms and institutions. PPE research might include, for instance, how to organize an economy to maximize utility, or how to structure a constitution such that it protects certain rights. So PPE research can cover the application or institutionalization of certain moral or political principles.

III. PPE Methods

Finally, a central element of core PPE research is the appeal to multiple methods of problem-solving. In particular, PPE research typically appeals to two fundamental methods of reasoning: philosophical reasoning (rational argument and conceptual analysis) and economic reasoning (choice under scarcity). Not all PPE research appeals to both methods, but core PPE research topics often employ both.

And of course, we can’t leave out the much more eclectic method of political science, which in some ways makes political science closer to PPE by way of method than philosophy or economics by themselves.

I wish I had more insight into the methods of political science other than that they’re diverse. So here’s an attempt to characterize what makes political science unique.

From my vantage point, political scientists are far more comfortable outlining the role ideas play in explaining how institutions function. Philosophers like to think they’re drawing philosophical ideas from conceptual space rather than history and institutional practice, and economists don’t like to explain events in terms of ideas at all. For example, philosophers and economists only periodically talk about ideology as an explanatory category, but political scientists are much more inclined to do so.

Political scientists also have more to say about how institutions shape ideas, such as how historical conditions give rise to ideology.

So perhaps political science has its particular pulse on the idea-institution explanatory nexus.

In conclusion, I grant that one can imagine lots of stuff that counts as PPE that doesn’t fit my description, but I think this stuff is closer to the periphery. The heart of PPE research is the study of social order and disorder.

Eric Schliesser has offered a related but importantly distinct account of PPE research.

Trust Papers #2 – Annette Baier – Trust and Anti-Trust

Annette Baier’s 1986 article, “Trust and Anti-Trust” (no abstract!) is probably the seminal article on trust in contemporary philosophical ethics. It outlines some key features of trust, especially the idea that trust is distinct from mere reliance, and that trust is unique in that it can be betrayed, whereas reliance can merely be disappointed (235). One reason this insight matters is that it shows that our practices of trust and trustworthiness are usually tied to moral behavior. We trust people to following certain kinds of moral norms and rules, such that we feel resentment and indignation and pain when that trust is violated, over and above the cost we pay when the trustee do not help us reach a goal or satisfy a desire. For Baier, the relationship between trust and morality runs even deeper, since she argues (in a later piece referenced here) that trust “is the very basis of morality.” In my own work on trust, the association between trust and moral norms is essential for figuring out how trust is maintained.