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Response to Review of Trust: A History

Since Professor Uslaner does not fully engage with the main argument of my book, I must summarise it myself. I use 'trust' as a focal concept in trying to understand those aspects of social solidarity which do not depend entirely on political structures or rational choice. I have situated the word among a variety of terms denoting forms of social solidarity, such as confidence, faith, belief, etc: the semantic chart is on p. 29.  There may be arguments against this strategy, but I should like to see them fully stated, which Uslaner does not do. Contrary to what he asserts, I have related my concept of trust to the ideas of prominent social scientists, from Durkheim and Weber onwards.

I assert that trust is often unconscious or at least unreflective, instilled in us by our upbringing, custom, habit and the attitudes of those around us. This can be disputed, but Uslaner does not do so. (Distrust is different in this respect, being much more conscious.) Trust is mediated through symbolic systems and the institutions associated with them. I examine in detail religion and money, together with their associated institutions, as they seem to me especially important in the contemporary world.

Religion strengthens our confidence in ourselves and our community, and some superior being(s) or general principle governing the universe. In some parts of the modern world religion is in decline; in others, where social change is especially abrupt and unsettling and/or the state is weak, it is growing as a way of bolstering confidence.

Money helps us to exchange goods and services with people we have never met before, may well never meet again and have no other grounds for trusting. I explain the growth of modern capitalism, from late medieval Italy onwards: it relies on widespread trust in the form of credit and investment. It has also created new forms of security: whereas in the past most people relied on family, friends, a local lord or a religious community – or even just on God – to help them out in adversity, nowadays in the Western world we place our trust in financial institutions such as banks, insurance companies and pension funds. Finally, I suggest that, despite the globalisation of our economy, many people continue to place their trust in the nation, and especially the nation-state, because it readily absorbs and integrates trust-generating symbolic systems.

During the preparation of my book, over many years, I have engaged with sociologists, social psychologists and international relations experts, have written papers for them and published articles with them. We have sometimes disagreed, but we have always been able to discuss the reasons for our disagreements. Hence I find Uslaner's reluctance to tackle my main argument baffling. Disappointing too, as I have read some of his work, and think well of it, especially his moral account of trust.

At times Uslaner seriously distorts individual elements of my argument. I do not claim a direct link between the mechanics of flight and generalised social trust. What I do claim is that our routine and usually unthinking trust in air travel is quite complex: we trust the airline, the pilot, the engineers and maintenance staff, the sciences of metallurgy and aeronautics; also that, when planes crash, the media will report the fact, since if they often reported it we would become much less trusting and much more reluctant to fly.

Uslaner also deprives my exposition of all nuance. I do not assert simply that in democratic societies we can trust governments because we can remove them. What I do say is that the state's (any state's, including the Chinese state's) monopoly of legitimate violence enables most of us to go about our lives, trusting that we need not carry weapons for self-defence. And I also point out that democratic governments work better if there is an element of distrust towards them. They need continual monitoring if they are to function in a trustworthy manner: this is the function of the opposition, media and law courts (pp. 177–8). Constitutional governments have usually found it easier than absolutist regimes to borrow money from the public, since lenders believe they will receive regular interest, will be repaid when they need to be and have some recourse if they are let down.

There are a few points where I find Uslaner's review inaccurate. I do not attack money and the financial system in general. Indeed, I point out that without money most forms of trade in goods and services would be either impossible or much more clumsy and limited (p. 88) I also assert that capitalism is a highly productive economic system without which much of our life is unimaginable . (p. 198). But I warn that money and financial institutions can easily become decoupled from other symbolic systems and even undermine them – hence my quotation from Michael Sandel, who has written persuasively about this danger (pp. 90–1). Financial institutions, if unrestrained, tend to create booms and busts – episodes of gradually expanding group-think trust followed by sudden crises of distrust – and also extreme economic and social inequality, which is very damaging to generalised trust. That is why capitalism requires restraint and regulation if it is to function optimally. Capitalism and a strong state are natural partners, not rivals or enemies.

On law: I do in fact make the point that law has no place between friends or family, where its use indicates a breakdown of trust (pp. 122–3). In dealing with the great majority of humanity which does not fall into either category, however, law – or at least awareness of its existence as an effective regulating framework – can be very helpful in generating stability and predictability (beginning of chapter four).

I not only mention the categories of thick/thin and strong/weak trust; I also make use of them. In fact, they frame one of my most important assertions: that, counter-intuitively, in Western countries we increasingly have recourse to strong thin trust – that is, we entrust major resources to institutions about which we know very little (pp. 163-4 and elsewhere).

I have not confined myself to generalities about religion. I have written about Islam, Confucianism and various forms of Christianity, and have tried to show how the forms of trust associated with them differ from one another. I have also commented on the tendency of individual religions to build rather rigid boundaries around themselves, across which they project distrust (chapter three and elsewhere).

Contrary to what Uslaner asserts, there is a widespread perception of a 'crisis of trust' in the UK and most EU countries. There is plenty of evidence for it, some of which I have quoted (pp. 1–2, 167–8, 190–4). Since 2008 financial institutions have grown more distrustful of one another and their clients have become more distrustful of them all. Everyone is more reluctant to invest in productive activities, a reluctance which may be spreading to much of the rest of the world. In the UK specifically, the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards reported 'a collapse of trust on an industrial scale'.(1a) The state has had to intervene to prevent further collapse and to sustain a measure of confidence. In doing so, it has incurred huge debts, generating acute fiscal crises, both in the UK and in the eurozone. Faced by the resultant economic uncertainties, many voters have reacted by withdrawing their trust from the major parties of government and opposition, and are turning to populist parties of left and right. The left-wing ones attack international capitalism, while the right-wing ones blame immigrants and international institutions such as the EU. In other words, both populist wings cling to the familiar trusted symbols and institutions of the nation-state (pp. 188–9).

I write about Russia not just because I am a historian of that country, but because it has gone through chaotic and sometimes very violent episodes of generalised distrust, which illustrate the dangers of allowing distrust to spread in society. In spite of that, in the 1990s Russian entrepreneurs devised ingenious expedients to keep up a necessary minimum of mutual trust – a lesson in how human beings endeavour to generate trust even in circumstances of great adversity. To illustrate these themes I draw on the work of four sociologists who have experience of state socialist, Soviet-style societies: Ivana MarkovĂ¡, Barbara Misztal, Piotr Sztompka and Alena Ledeneva.

My book is not just a collection of random stories. My stories give flesh to an argument which aims to offer a historically based explanation of how the West (at least) reached the current crisis; that explanation focuses on trust and distrust. As one of the founding editors of Reviews in History, I can vouch for the journal's commitment to encouraging authors and reviewers to debate with one another. I am sorry that Uslaner's review does not really advance this aim.


  1. Richard Lambert, 'Foreword' in Capital Failure: Rebuilding Trust in Financial Services, edited by Nicholas Morris and David Vines (Oxford, 2014), p. v.Back to (1a)