Millennium Post

In no one we trust

Despite tangible progress, our society today is shackled by a lack of trust in fellow citizens

Steven Spielberg, the famous Hollywood Director, while being interviewed about his superhit film Catch me if you can, based on the real-life story of Frank Abagnale, said, "Frank was a 21st-century genius working within the innocence of the mid '60s, when people were more trusting than they are now." Frank Abagnale was a conman who mastered the art of forging bank cheques and was wanted in more than 12 countries. Such was his talent that the Federal Bureau of Investigation hired Frank to help them solve cases of fraud and forgery.

This article isn't about Frank Abagnale but about the changing times with a relook at the progress that has been made. Spielberg's sense of a declining level of trust makes intuitive sense. Not that there were no thefts or robberies 50 years ago, but there was more trust. Today's policies, laws and social habits showcase a falling sense of interpersonal trust. Here are a couple of examples. A) Security checks: Compare the level of security checks that happen today with what happened 50 years ago at airports/rail stations or verifications that one must undergo to get a visa or other essential documents. Many employers now prefer that employees mark their attendance through biometric systems. B) Social checks: We have embraced systems that automatically enhance our trust in the social decisions we make. How many of us can claim that we recently befriended someone because the individual was a fellow passenger on a train journey? Instead, we tend to trust social media platforms – a friend of a friend on Facebook is far more trustworthy than the person you bump into at a library or a bar. Try making small talk with a complete stranger at a social hangout and you will know what I am talking about.

Statistics on progress & trust

Don't get me wrong, these systems of verifications have enormous utility. Security checks have contributed in preventing the reoccurrence of 9/11-type incidents and social media platforms are helping people minimise the risk of engaging with harmful social elements. However, the evolution begs the question, 'If we are better off than 50-60 years ago, why aren't we trusting each other and our systems more?'. Let me substantiate the question. Based on all available development parameters, we are far better than we were 50 years ago. Let's compare the state of affairs in the year 1960 with 2015. As per the data available on – a) share of people living in extreme poverty has fallen from 64 per cent to 10 per cent; b) literacy rate has increased from 42 per cent to 85 per cent; c) share of newborn babies dying in the first five years of life has fallen from 19 per cent to 5 per cent; and, d) percentage of the population living in democratic societies has increased from 39 per cent to 56 per cent. Sounds about excellent.

On all measurable parameters of human growth, we have come a long way. On trust, the General Social Surveys conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago offer some insights. The surveys suggest an overall decline in trust. In the 1972 survey, 46 per cent respondents said that "people can be trusted". This number came down to 30 per cent in 2014. In the generational sense, in 2016, nearly 50 per cent of the Silent Generation (born between 1925 and 1940) said that they could trust others. In contrast, only 25 per cent of the Millennials (born between 1980 and mid-1990s) said that they could trust others. This trend is not just restricted to America; it is a worldwide, institutional phenomenon. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer suggests that trust in four institutions – NGOs, businesses, governments and media is on a decline.

Now, I am not a fearmonger, but do you see the inverse correlation? As we are growing into a so-called 'better-off' society, we are trusting each other less. Life without trust is a costly affair. Materialistically, we need to invest more in security; psychologically, it prevents us from enjoying the fruits of development without fear, as a sense of caution always constricts our minds. In short, a declining level of trust limits freedom. Now, where are we measuring that? I would further argue that when we say we are improving as a society, we are looking at half the picture. We are looking at 'Gross Benefits', not 'Net Benefits'. Our true progress as a society can be measured only when we accurately deduct the right costs. Once again, I am not advocating shunning all the policies that are enabling socioeconomic growth, but perhaps it is more important to define progress more coherently alongside backing it up with the right policies.

Declining trust

I have a few hypotheses on why trust and, thus, freedom levels have gone down despite tangible progress in the past half-century. Before stating them, it is important to mention that economists Eric Gould and Alexander Hijzen suggest that growing inequality contributes majorly to dropping trust levels. I differ. Yes, economically we are a more unequal society, but socially we are closer to each other than ever. Remember, until the 1960s, African Americans didn't have equal civil rights in the US. Women across the world weren't as equal as they are today and the caste and class system in various societies was much more pervasive. Contrast this with today and inequality seems to have gone down.

Let me now present a few arguments that may justify falling levels of trust and thus, freedom. A) Failed measurements: In the quest to achieve tangible targets, perhaps, we have narrowed the definition of development. Probably because it is too difficult to quantify attributes like trust. So, what can't be quantified has slowly evolved into what's unimportant. In today's world, every policy needs evidence from the past – but, since we never collected evidence on important attributes of social utility such as trust, we have transcended on a downward spiral of almost negating such values and claiming victory with whatever we have. B) Knowing too much: Ignorance can be bliss in many situations. Because we now understand more, know more and have seen more about what could go wrong, we have become more cautious. Moreover, the salience of certain events has enhanced in today's times. A small scam in one part of the country reaches the other part in seconds – thanks to technology and social media. C) The age of inexpensive technology: As the tools to evaluate others become cheaper and more accessible, the tendency to use them increases. Think about this – would houses have security alarm systems if they would be as expensive (in real value) as they were in the '60s? Would airports have infrared scanners if each one of them costed a fortune? D) We are a more powerful society: Power often brings with it an insecurity of loss, and a sense to abuse it. There is no doubt, we as individuals are more powerful than our previous generations. Knowledge to create a bomb or a building is available on our fingertips and for free. Atheism is on a rise and we trust ourselves and our own ability to change things more than others. This evolution towards individualism has perhaps added to the 'trust no one, but oneself' syndrome.

The next time we hear our parents or grandparents nostalgically say, "Boy, those were the days!", we will be safe to attribute their smiles to a society that had a higher value proposition than today's, despite the massive material progress we have made. So, let's demand from our leaders, policies and programmes to not only improve our economic well-being but also make us a better, more trusting society. When someone asks you how, it's perfectly fine to say, "I don't know". After all, at the end of the day, we may not have all the right answers, but at least we can ask the right questions.

(The author is Young Professional, EAC-PM. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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