Why Is There a Drop in Trust in America?

Peter Turchin, whose ideas I will soon be discussing in much greater detail, thinks he has an answer. While I think there is something to what he says, I think it misses the mark in a lot of ways.

Why is there less community and, as a result, less trust in America since around the late 1960s?

One thing Turchin fails to note is that the late 1960s is when the Great Society programs were put in place–that is, the federal government started a great many welfare programs whose primary outcomes have been the destruction of community, the transformation of the family to a majority single-parent (meaning, almost always, single-mother) homes, and an increase in crime within communities which have a majority of welfare recipients, This is true regardless of race. Those who think that “welfare recipient” is code for African-American only expose their own despicable racism.

Actually, since you brought it up, the fact of the matter is that welfare was introduced to isolate those unemployed by minimum wage laws designed to create that unemployment. As economist Thomas Leonard demonstrates, it was all part of a progressive eugenics program to eliminate “social undesirables.” That is, welfare programs were in fact conceived precisely to destroy community. When the federal government replaces community by replacing private and local programs with public and distant welfare programs, the result is to break social bonds, reduce the consequences of remaining unemployed and of being personally and socially irresponsible, and as a consequence reduce trust, since you are interacting with your neighbors less and thus do not get to know them very well.

If you look at the “trust” timeline on Turchin’s page, you will see trust decreasing through the 1970s, when the government was busy creating the welfare state (and fighting an unpopular war), while trust increased with Reagan, who sought to reduce welfare, decreased through pro-welfare Bush I, increased through “end welfare as we know it” Clinton, decreased through very pro-welfare Bush II, and didn’t recover through pro-welfare Obama. The peaks were during “peak patriotism” times–the first Gulf War and 9-11–but note that they had no long-term effects. Not like changes in welfare programs do.

When the government does things to destroy communities, we have to expect trust to go down. And we know that low-trust societies are also low-wealth societies. Governments reduce wealth by reducing trust, and the best way to reduce trust is by making it so people don’t have to rely on their communities for anything. If you want to understand our cultural, social, and economic stagnation, these are some of the things you need to understand.

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Libertarianism and Communitarianism

The argument over the moral underpinnings of libertarianism basically boils down to the fact that there is necessarily a communitarian element to ethics. If we accept that libertarianism means radical individualism, then libertarian ethics appears to be an oxymoron. And for those libertarians who do believe in the Cartesian form of individualism as the basis of libertarianism, it likely is an oxymoron. I’m not sure a libertarianism whose philosophical underpinnings are the same as those that gave us the French Revolution (especially the Terror), Nazism, and Communism is the kind of libertarianism we really want.

But there is another option: the option of the Scottish philosophers, and the communitarian individualism they espoused. In the Cartesian version, the person is a radical individual who defines himself, preferably apart from society. In the Scottish version, the person is an individual embedded in a nested hierarchy of communities, including nuclear and extended families, churches, workplaces, schools, neighborhood and communities, towns and cities, counties, states, and nations (in a power law relation among them). We are defined in various ways by each of these things, and we are different people in each of these different situations. Thus is our individuality defined within our social situation. Recent studies in anthropology, ethology, and primatology have shown that the Scottish philosophical tradition is much more accurate than is the Cartesian tradition.

At different levels within the hierarchy, we should expect different levels of communitarianism. Those levels wherein we can have the most information about the members within the level can and should be the most communitarian – and should therefore have the strongest moral rules. The family is a good example of this. No one in their right mind would want to run their household according to libertarian principles – this would be a recipe for disaster in raising children. As Walter Williams once said in a talk I saw him give: Marxism works, it’s how one should run one’s household. You should expect more from your spouse, and give more to your children. At this level, it is easy, as it is easy to keep up with the names. But when you cannot keep up with the names, when you can no longer recognize what is best for each individual (which you cannot do for someone whose name you do not know, and is hard enough for people you do know, as any decent parent understands), then you have to ease the communitarian principles.

Churches, workplaces, and schools –- and, to some extent, neighborhoods, communities, and towns –- are places we voluntarily become members of. By joining these groups, we agree to their set of rules. Here we have a level of voluntary communitarianism -– and if you are not a child, all communitarianism should be voluntary. That is why all communitarianism should also be highly local –- if we do not like the rules of the group we have joined, and we feel like our voices aren’t being heard, we can always vote with our feet. The problem with having communitarian states and nations is precisely that when we are talking about the size of a state or a nation, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to vote with one’s feet. Also, at these levels, it becomes increasingly difficult for the leaders to know the names of those they rule –- and as such, they become increasingly ignorant of what is actually best for the citizens.

As the system becomes larger, as more and more people are included in the social system, as we have in a state or nation –- or even in a large city –- the ignorance of the leaders increases, and the only ethical form of governance is  libertarianism. It is here where individualism should be taken into consideration, as it is the individual who is most affected by the laws passed at this level, even though they are farthest away from the leaders. At this level, one cannot make ethical choices for others, as you do not know the people well enough to know everything about them, to understand their overall circumstances. This is not to say that we should not have any ethical laws: what else are laws against the use of force or fraud, which are basically the only laws libertarians think governments should have? But these are laws that make sense to apply to everyone, across the board, regardless of race, religion, economic situation, etc. These are laws that are laws in every society, throughout human history and pre-history. But those ethical issues for which there is any debate should be avoided by states and nations. Those are values that can and should be taken into consideration closer to home. They are the communitarian values.And communities differ.