Can Nationalism Promote Trust?

I’m fond of the claim that liberal institutions can and do create social and political trust, but sometimes I wonder whether nationalism can too. Well, it turns out there’s now some evidence in favor of the latter claim, from a recent paper from Christian Bjørnskov, Martin Rode, and Miguel Ángel Borrella Mas. The process of nation-building surrounding secession in Catalonia probably increased social trust.

Here’s the abstract:

Consequences of social trust are comparatively well studied, while its societal determinants are often subject to debate. This paper studies both in the context of Catalan attempts to secede from Spain: First, we test if Catalonia enjoys higher levels of social capital that it is prevented from capitalizing on. Second, the paper examines whether secessionist movements create animosity and political divisions within society that undermine trust. Employing the eight available waves of the European Social Survey for Spain, we show that social trust levels are not higher in Catalonia than in the rest of the country. However, we find indications of a significant regional increase after secession became a real option in 2014. We argue that this finding is a likely result of the mental process of nation building, indicating that the formation of social trust may best be thought of as a stable punctuated equilibrium.

The authors argue that “Catalan social trust has not declined as a result of the secessionist conflict, as argued by the unionist side of the discussion, but has rather increased significantly after 2014,” a difference equivalent to the difference between trust in the Netherlands and Sweden. The authors, of course, don’t argue for nationalism or deliberate nation-building, but we do have at least a bit of evidence that when states and societies deliberately try to build new identities, or perhaps to rediscover old ones, that can increase social trust. This may also buttress the possibility that large-scale immigration will be trust-decreasing insofar as it undermines shared identity. I’m not happy about either of these results, as they make trouble for my thesis, but I’m obligated to report it.

When are Religious Exemptions Morally Required?

I’m writing this post as a reference for future discussions about religious exemptions.

Conditions Sufficient to Morally Require a Religious Exemption

I think religious exemptions from a law morally ought granted whenever the following four conditions are met:

(1) The law is endorsed by the subset of the population whose support makes the law democratically legitimate (something like a majority).

(2) The law places a substantial burden on the integrity or conscience of religious citizens (or secular citizens), or considerably sets back their fundamental interests.

(3) The exemption is feasible. Government can detect burdened citizens, exempt them without enormous costs, and typically root out fraudulent exemption claims.

(4) The exemption economizes on third party harms.

Reasons for the Four Conditions

The case for (1) is simple: if, say, a majority supports the law, then that’s usually a good reason to have the law. If they don’t support it, then abolish the law. No exemption is necessary.

The case for (2) is also simple: all persons have dignity and worth, and part of respecting that worth is respecting their liberty to live their own lives in their own way, to integrate their lives and identities with core principles, projects, and values. Laws that require people to violate their integrity or conscience or that greatly restrict the liberties to live out their own lives in their own way are, for that reason, unjust and undesirable, and so should not be imposed on everyone. Also note that this point is not restricted to religious citizens, but covers secular citizens too.

The case for (3) is also pretty straightforward. If the exemption is infeasible, say because too many people want the exemption, or the people who want the exemption can’t be detected, then that’s a good reason not to have the exemption. In those cases, either abolish the law or restrict the exemption.

The argument for (4) is complicated. On the one hand, we shouldn’t grant exemptions that cause severe harm, like exemptions from laws banning child sacrifice (a go-to example of exemption opponents). But all exemptions have the potential for harm, just as all rights do, so the mere fact that an exemption harms a third party is not sufficient to deny the exemption. Instead, the exemption should be crafted to economize on third party harm, at least to a large extent. So exemptions can impose harms on third-parties, but should not cross a certain threshold of harm, at least once we subtract the harm that comes from denying the exemption (since total harm is what’s at issue). But it’s going to be hard to specify that threshold in any precise way.

A second problem arises when we try to decide what counts as a harm. Obviously physical harms should be counted, and many psychological harms as well. But sometimes people cite a third kind of harm – dignitary harm – that isn’t the same as a physical or psychological harm. The harmful act is harmful simply because it is an affront to the dignity of a person, regardless of whether the person feels hurt or degraded. However, some people (like me) deny that there are dignitary harms over and above physical harms, psychological harms, or simple rights violations. So that’s going to complicate matters.

Some Illustrations

The Draft: To illustrate how to apply the conditions, let’s begin by considering the classic case of exemption from the draft. In at least some wars, most people support the war. Second, participating in the war places a modest or substantial burden on the liberties and interests of some persons. Third, it is feasible to exempt a small number of people. Objectors are easy to detect and there are few enough people wanting exemptions that the exemptions can be granted without large costs. Finally, while having fewer soldiers may result in some harms, the numbers are small enough that draft exemptions don’t impose third-party harms, and may even reduce harm if the exempted become medics. If they heal rather than kill.

Note that secular citizens can secure draft exemptions, so I’m not limiting these standards to religious citizens. Religious citizens on my view possess no religious privilege in this domain of the law.

Sacred Drug Use: We can also assess the famous case of Employment Division v. Smith. A majority of people presumably supported restrictions on drug use, including peyote, but being forbidden from ingesting peyote placed a substantial burden on the integrity of two men employed by the State of Oregon, and when they were fired, they were denied unemployment benefits, a further harm added to losing their job. The exemption is feasible. Few people have an incentive to lie about whether their faith requires peyote use nor can they usually successfully deceive the courts. And there is no real third party harm from occasional peyote use. So again, the exemption is morally required.

Vaccine Exemptions: A case where exemptions plausibly should be denied are cases of vaccine exemptions, since too many exemptions impose a grave physical harm on children, such that the exemption does not economize on third-party harms. If the number of people who wanted the exemptions were very small, the exemption should be granted, but now that vaccine denialism is being mainstreamed (sigh), denying exemptions is appropriate in many cases. That said, there are better and worse ways to craft exemptions. I think the denials should simply lead to forbidding families with unvaccinated children from using public services. No one needs to go to jail, no doctors need to be sent to private homes, etc.

Serving Same-Sex Weddings: Here’s a harder case – Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, wanted an exemption from providing same-sex couples with certain kinds of wedding cake or product. A sizeable majority of citizens in Colorado want restrictions on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. These restrictions arguably place a substantial burden on the integrity of Phillips. An exemption for Phillips is feasible as well. It isn’t hard to detect such citizens because very few people request exemptions, and few will ask for them insincerely, given how unpopular they are. Further, the exemptions can occur with very little cost. So conditions (1)-(3) are satisfied. But what about (4)?

Clearly those turned away aren’t physically harmed, nor are they even financially harmed, since the vast majority of cake shops provide cakes to same-sex weddings. And I seriously doubt there is any psychological harm in being turned away by a single cake-shop among dozens, even if being turned away is offensive. No, the question is whether there is a dignitary harm in this case because someone is denied a service solely because of their sexual orientation and desire to be married. As I said earlier, I don’t think there are dignitary harms. One reason is that I think it is basically a misleading way of characterizing an offense, and I agree with J.S. Mill that friends of free societies must insist that people distinguish between harm and offense. The law must regulate harm, but must not regulate offense.

But even if there are dignity harms, I doubt one denial of service can harm a person’s dignity. The refusal has to part of a broader social norm that degrades persons over time. But that’s not present here. So Phillips merits an exemption by my criteria and the way in which I’ve specified them.

My purpose here is not to prove that Phillips merits an exemption, but to examine how to apply the standards I’ve set out. Since my standards take no position on whether there are dignitary harms, however, most people should be able to get on board with the four conditions I outline.

The Strange Death of the New Atheism

Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex has posted a fascinating set of reflections on the rise and fall of the New Atheism. Most readers of the blog will know that many New Atheists seem to have gotten caught up with right-wing or centrist politics, often with the men’s rights movement, opposition to political correctness, and so on. But Alexander argues that most of the atheist bloggers and authors were caught up with movements on the left, specifically what we might call the new social justice movement. He provides a lot of interesting evidence from search terms, bloggers changing direction, “atheism+”, and so on and so forth. I have to admit it’s plausible. And, indeed, it fits the pattern of many disagreements in American life getting sucked into our red tribe/blue tribe dispute, or what I call our cold, civil war.

A few observations to add to Alexander’s post.

First, if Alexander is right, and I think he is, by and large, it provides some support for the common Christian retort that atheism can’t really furnish a comprehensive doctrine or philosophy of life or “faith” because it really is a negative claim. Despite New Atheist retorts, it looks like they felt sufficiently incomplete that they began to take up new political causes, and now find meaning in pursuing those causes. We can now ask whether the new social justice movement furnishes a stable, enduring philosophy of life.

Perhaps it can do this. Though I have my doubts. The goals and successes are too fleeting, I think. You have to move on to fight a new bigotry pretty quickly, and you’ll eventually either run out of good targets and start picking bad targets. The nice thing about the great world religions is that they, by and large, identify the prime enemy as yourself and your bad character, and suggest teachings and practices to make yourself better. That strikes me as more enduring than any social or political ideology. That said, the new social justice movement has a similar kind of self-examination and penance practice, which is rooting out bigotry in the soul. The movement focuses on a narrower range of vices, but it does share this meaning-granting activity with the great world religions.

Second, the new social justice movement is way more effective at undermining Christianity than the New Atheism. The New Atheists tried to establish new taboos on Christian belief by establishing new taboos on epistemic irrationality. But we don’t really have taboos on irrationality. And most people don’t care about being irrational, so it only got so far. But the interesting thing about the new social justice movement is that they don’t have to invent a new taboo, they just spread an existing taboo onto theologically orthodox Christians. Lump orthodox Christians into the class of bigots, and bam!, you’ve got a much more effective weapon. Many people care a lot about not seeming bigoted and prejudiced. I don’t think this was by design. I think most New Atheists are well-meaning and their turn to social justice is sincere. But they have become more effective at achieving one of their ends than they once were.

Third, and this is a small point, but Alexander claims that the religiously unaffiliated are atheists, but that’s not true. Maybe they’re functionally atheist, but I’m not even sure this is true.



House of the Dragon Greenlighted – Some Hopes and Fears

We finally have some good news about the Game of Thrones spin-off shows. We’re getting House of the Dragon, which will cover the first half of the wonderful, but dark and gruesome history of House Targaryen’s rise and fall in Westeros (including the especially gruesome but awesome tale of the Princess and the Queen). Here are some of my hopes and fears.

Hopes: (1) D.B. Weiss and David Benioff (Dan and Dave) are not involved in writing any of the ordered episodes, which is great, since they’re not very good at writing when they lack detailed, quality source material. So the writing might be good. (2) There are tons of really good stories that can plausibly be told in single episode formats, with colorful characters.

Fears: (1) The show will still cover one hundred and fifth years of history, which means it could feel rushed despite having a lot of bite-sized stories. We may not have time to get attached to the characters. (2) To tell the stories right, HBO will have to give the show a ludicrously large CGI budget, which I worry will bog down the show in other respects. The reason is that many of the early stories involve lots of full-grown dragons. To tell the story of the Princess and the Queen, for instance, they’re going to have to have many scenes of dragons fighting each other. Game of Thrones sometimes got too bogged down in CGI and other special effects, at the cost of more important parts of the show. I don’t want that to happen again. Finally, (3), the Princess and the Queen is extremely gruesome, with children dying horrid deaths, and that must be handled with great care to make good television. My guess is that they will age up many of the characters.

Despite my fears, I’m hopeful, especially since Dan and Dave aren’t involved.

Kanye and the Politics of Jesus

One of the fascinating phenomena surrounding Kanye West’s recent conversion to Christianity is the kind of advice he is receiving from Christians that don’t know him. I worry about offering advice on such intimate matters when you don’t know the person in question, but there are some kinds of advice I’m pretty confident are problematic. I want to discuss one such case here.

Shane Claiborne, a well-known Christian anti-poverty advocate and social theologian, has encouraged West to avoid mixing his newfound faith with American right-wing politics, which I agree occurs far too often. The problem is that Claiborne recommends his own politics as an alternative; he wants Kanye to adopt a “philosophy of resistance.”

My own view is that the great idol in American social life is political ideology, left-wing or right-wing. We in effect have two golden calves tempting Christians away from living Christian lives and into something else – the blue-team calf and the red-team calf. Both calves are false, and both are dangerous idols because one can worship either one without realizing it. What’s worse, they reinforce one another. Looking away from the blue calf leads to a temptation to worship the red calf and vice versa.

I don’t think Christians should advise new Christians to adopt their politics right away, since the prime aim of a new Christian is to grow in the faith, independent of worldly ideologies and influences. So I disagree with Claiborne.

In fact, I’d go even further and argue that Christians at any stage of spiritual maturation should avoid mixing their faith with their political ideology. For one thing, Jesus’ life and teachings do not fit into any ideological category, so looking at the faith with an ideological lens will always distort the truth. And second, I don’t think Jesus Himself has an ideological commitments. In His human nature, He probably didn’t have one, and in His divine nature, He doesn’t need one. Instead, Jesus speaks what we might call political languages, appeals to important political values like virtue, aid, and peace that are different ways of characterizing and communicating about complex moral and political truth. And I think that’s by design: to help Christians avoid making politics their God.

So Claiborne is right to caution West not to worship the red calf, but worshipping the blue calf is not the way to go. I don’t think Claiborne means to give that advice, but his argument is formulated in a way that lends itself to blue calf worship.

“For Jesus,” Henri Nouwen wrote, “there are no countries to be conquered, no ideologies to be imposed, no people to be dominated. There are only children, women and men to be loved.”

No ideologies to be imposed, left or right.




Why Was Anyone Ever Impressed by the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

One interesting feature of recent debates about God’s existence is the use of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to deride the rationality of theistic belief (a colorful spin on Russell’s teapot case). What I’m interested in is why anyone was ever impressed with it.

Lately I’ve been studying the history of the Byzantine Empire: its military history, its religion and theology, its philosophy, art, and architecture. It’s amazing to me that there’s an entire empire, lasting one thousand years, that is wholly absent from popular Western culture. When was the last time you saw the Byzantine Empire mentioned in a movie, a television show, or a recent novel? And so what happened? Why did one thousand years of Greek Christian history go down the memory hole?

Anyway, I don’t know. But I am impressed by one thing that survives – neoplatonist influences. I’m impressed by neoplatonists’ ability to continually reinvigorate themselves over the centuries, especially by introducing and refining theological ideas that continue to have broad influence in Christianity. Neoplatonism played an essential role in the development of the doctrine of the trinity, the two natures of Christ (the hypostatic union), the doctrine of the immortal soul, and the Eastern Christian ideas of theosis, and the essence-energies distinction.

Neoplatonism was extremely influential in the Western Empire as well, among Augustine, who more or less introduced Platonism into Christian theology in the West, Anselm, Aquinas, and many others. Platonism was probably most influential in Christian Egypt, through Alexandrian theology.

So all around the Mediterranean, and deep into Europe, neoplatonism was the state of the philosophical and theological art for centuries and centuries.

For many neoplatonic thinkers (Christian or no), the existence of some sort of deity is philosophically obvious. God/master deity often served as the explanatory ground of almost everything: concepts, knowledge, morality, human purpose, the soul, freedom, and the basis of political order. This isn’t a coincidence. They believed they had arguments beginning from their philosophical commitments and extending to the existence of some kind of chief deity. Some kind of God served a central explanatory role in these philosophical and theological systems.

For neoplatonists, the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) would have seemed a ridiculous analogy with the divine. The power of the FSM is to generate the intuition that God’s existence is random, unnecessary, and absurd. And just as no one should believe in FSM, no one should believe in God. But, again, the finest minds for over a thousand years, and really fifteen hundred years, would have been utterly unmoved because God’s existence was in no way random. In fact, God’s existence was the least random thing imaginable.

The truth is that a single, original deity isn’t going to seem random on any view that prioritizes the conceptual and the mental as ontologically fundamental. Deity just doesn’t look weird on such views. And, importantly, these views aren’t insane, since it is hard to see how the conceptual and the mental as we know them could even in principle originate in the material world. So there must be some mental point of origin or explanation, and that suggests at least one deity, and perhaps only one master deity. I take no stand here on whether those systems must lead to some kind of theism, just that it is entirely reasonable for these philosophical systems to yield arguments for some kind of theism.

So when did FSM start seeming like an interesting analogy? Not the 19th century, since idealism was dominant in many places, and idealists frequently affirmed the existence of either an immanent deity or a transcendent one.

No, it is the dominance of physicalism that gives the FSM its rhetorical power. But this suggests that all the FSM can do is convince people with tacit physicalist commitments that God’s existence is as random and unexplained as the FSM. For again, for centuries upon centuries, almost no reflective person with philosophical training would have been impressed. Instead, the only people who are impressed are those who have absorbed physicalist assumptions. And, while physicalism is influential, it is not only reasonably contestable, but it is probably in some trouble in the philosophy of mind and metaethics. It’s just hard to jam mental and moral properties into the physical world.

Now, of course, many people will say that the only reason various forms of monotheism were dominant for so long is that people were pressured into believing it and absorbed it from their culture. But, first, that wasn’t always true (it wasn’t true in the polytheistic ancient world in many areas). Second, the lines of argument they pursued weren’t at all absurd, or at least no more absurd than modern philosophical arguments for all kinds of things. And third, similar debunking explanations can explain away rational atheism too. One could argue that the reason atheism is common in the academy is that high status academics are often atheist physicalists, and atheism has filtered out of the academy in part because many academics are high-status atheists in the popular culture, like the late Stephen Hawking.

So that’s why I think the FSM impresses some people. It impresses express or tacit physicalists, but other reasonable philosophical systems won’t see a single God as an arbitrary and laughably random postulate. And the philosophical systems that do see God in this way are subject to various difficulties. Now, the Christian God may indeed seem random as a specification of the master deity, but even Christians admit that we only know about God’s Trinitarian structure through revelation. So if you want to impugn the Christian God with the FSM, you have to already think you have a good argument against the idea that the master deity can and has revealed itself as having a Trinitarian form. And that requires a bit more than ridicule, if the existence of a master deity is already on the table.

Black Hole Theories of Social Power

A black hole theory of social power holds that when an institution gets too much power, that power will snowball, making institution ever harder to stop. Left unchecked, the institution will control most or all of society and use various forms of coercion and violence to cement its power for good.

There are two big black hole theories in the recent history of political theory. Roughly, the simple socialist theory is that large capitalist firms (boss-dominated) are the black holes. And also roughly, the simple libertarian theory is that large states are the black holes.

I tend to think the libertarian theory is better than the socialist theory for familiar reasons. States have more coercive power to begin with, they have far more monopoly power, and so aren’t subject to the checks of competition. And I don’t think the history of markets illustrates the ability of capitalists to achieve hegemony through the market order. Real capitalism is just so chaotic, and generates so much creative destruction, that it’s hard for any firm to stay on top for long without help. So they tend to co-opt specific parts of the state to engage in the most severe forms of domination. (An oldie, but a goodie on this last point.)

I’ve become more worried about the simple libertarian theory with time for a few reasons. First, states can’t really be modeled as one big bad actor any more than markets can. States are huge conglomerations of agents with different interests and goals, as are firms in a market. And, while states tend to grow more than they shrink, they do seem to abide by more limits than you’d expect if the liberal theory were true. Social norms, social trust, religion, and ideology have big roles to play in determining social outcomes, so much, in fact, that they may often overwhelm economic and political centers of gravity.

I now think that there are probably no social black holes. Or better, there are centers of social gravity, but there are a number of them, and they interact and conflict in complex ways such that predictions based on black hole theories often turn out to be false. Many human institutions are rather fragile, and are subject to contestation and decay, and so don’t really have event horizons.

The good thing about having no black holes is that it is harder for a society to become permanently dominated than many fear. The “bad” thing about having no black holes is that we have fewer big, powerful enemies to fight against in order to give our lives meaning. Socialists often make big business their meaning-bestowing political foe, while libertarians often make big states their meaning-bestowing political foes. Sometimes these mindsets lead to improvements in well-being, sometimes not. Neither theory is probably a very good thing to bet your life on.

I prefer a Wittgensteinian* theory. Hell isn’t other people. Hell is yourself. And the best way (though not the only way) to fight evil is to try and make moral progress, in small steps, each day, struggling to be kinder, more forgiving, and more loving than the day before. It may sound lame, but seriously, who do you have more control over in the end, yourself or other people? And how are you going to make the world a better place if you’re a bad person?

*Wittgenstein may not have said this, but it is often attributed to him.




Integralism as Christian Default

The new Catholic integralists have caught fire on the internet and to some extent outside of it Their proposal is simple. What should the state do? Promote the full authentic human good. For the integralist, the full authentic good is as Catholicism describes. What distinguishes integralist states from other kinds of political order is that the state uses coercion to promote expressly Catholic ends, even in matters of faith. Religious coercion has some limits, but it can be used to punish heresy and apostasy, and to ensure that Catholicism is the religion of the state. (See Thomas Pink’s defense of the position.)

The integralist proposal disturbs many people (including Catholics) because integralists reject liberal freedom of religion and embraces religious coercion. Given the untoward implications of integralism, most familiar with the view set it aside on the basis of an argument like the following:

  1. If integralism is true, religious coercion is not wrong.
  2. But religious coercion is wrong.
  3. Therefore, integralism is false.

I don’t think integralism can be so easily dismissed. The reason is that integralism has a certain elegance and simplicity and even obviousness. It tells us that states should help people achieve their ultimate good. Besides feasibility worries, why wouldn’t this be the best thing for the state to do? Are non-integralists really asking the state to do less than the best? Doesn’t that just sound crazy when we state it openly?

What anti-integralists need is a satisfying explanation as to why integralism is axiologically false. The anti-integralist need to explain why integralism has the wrong conceptions of value, reasons, and practical rationality. The more time I spent with their position, the harder I find it is to articulate attractive alternatives approaches that are compatible with Christian belief. I now think integralism can only be answered with some fundamental revisions to standard theistic ethical theories, in particular natural law theory and divine command theory. We need a theistic deontology, but one where side-constraints are grounded in the divine nature (most natural rights theorists ground rights in the divine nature only obliquely).

I think I can convey the power of the integralist challenge by using an analogy with act-consequentialism in normative ethics (which holds that the right acts are those that maximize well-being). Integralism and act-consequentialism are simple, elegant theories with seemingly untoward implications, but they are so elegant that many theorists will adopt the view and simply accept the implications. And even good men will do so, like Peter Singer (a lead consequentialist) and Adrian Vermeule (a lead integralist).

As we know, the cost of act-consequentialism is having to sacrifice some for others. The cost of integralism is similar, though less nasty. The integralist must embrace religious coercion of the baptized (as punishment for apostasy or heresy), which the vast majority of reflective Christians today think is gravely unjust, including practically all leading Catholic theologians, bishops, cardinals, and most recent popes. The integralists insist the cost must be paid, and try to contain the costs by pointing to the differing moral intuitions of prominent Catholics in the past.

Act-consequentialism and integralism are plainly quite different normative theories. They are elegant approaches to ethics and political theory respectively because they make the good the sole normative master conception in a straightforward way. So much so, that one might even think that they’re the default normative theories.

I think that work on act-consequentialism has shown why it is axiologically mistaken. But I don’t think we yet have an account of why integralist axiology is mistaken if we take the truth of Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, for granted.

Robert Nozick said of John Rawls that “political philosophers now must either work within Rawls’s theory of explain why not.” Perhaps this is giving integralism too much credit, but I think that “Christian political theologians now must either work within an integralist framework or explain why not.” Christians need a satisfying explanation as to why the state should not promote the ultimate good, and after surveying the alternatives, I don’t think there’s a good candidate explanation yet.


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.