Friday, August 17, 2012

Happiness in the High-Trust Society

(Today we conclude our annual Theory Camp.  I apologize for a long entry, but I wanted to pull together my thoughts on both books, and on how they can help us think about the happy society.)

Francis Fukuyama argues in Trust that high-trust societies are generally richer than low-trust societies. This is because trust reduces transaction costs.  I think this is true.  Moreover, I think that high-trust societies are happier societies.  This is not only because they are richer, but because trust itself is a happy-making public good.

Adam Seligman, in The Problem of Trust, argues that Fukuyama does not really mean “trust,” but rather “confidence.”  Trust, he contends, is what an individual can extend to another individual on insufficient evidence.  By contrast, in a well-functioning social system we can have sufficient evidence to be confident that it will function well in our case, too.

I can accept revising Fukuyama to say that high-confidence societies are richer and happier.  At least, I can accept saying that this is a viable alternative expression. As a practical matter, I think Fukuyama is right that we should still refer to “high-trust” societies.  But Seligman’s main point – social trust rests on confidence in social systems – is correct and powerful.

There remains, though, the question of whether Fukuyama’s society needs trust in the sense that Seligman means.  Seligman believes that there is a realm beyond the limits of social structures, beyond where we can have confidence or even where we can make educated guesses about people based on familiarity. Here agentic individuals, in the full measure of their freedom, may meet other agentic individuals.  Neither have enough structures or cultural clues to be confident.  Here, the individual must make a leap of faith to trust, or a protective calculation to mistrust.

Is Seligman right?  My gut reaction is “no.”  I think human beings are so deeply cultured that we will read any presentation of self as providing some familiar clues about how the other will act. We could be wrong, of course, in reading those supposed clues. But we could be just as wrong in more familiar situations (such as Seligman’s man on the subway who looks like he played stickball). But I think it takes an ideological commitment to the complete otherness of the other to read another person as being completely unfamiliar.  The main ideological commitment to the complete otherness of the other that I can think of is racism, but there could be more.

Seligman defines trust as a rare event occurring at the limits of social structure.  And he argues that the differentiation of the self has gone so far today that our remaining “selves” are too removed from social roles to be true selves in any socially meaningful way.  Therefore, civilization will collapse and we all die.  Or something like that.  He is a little vague about actual consequences.

If, however, there are not really many cases of people beyond institutional confidence and social familiarity, then Seligman’s project may not apply to reality.  And if there are not really many cases of people so removed from their abundance of social roles that they have no true selves, then Seligman’s worry may not apply to reality, either.

Fukuyama, on the other hand, is clearly on to something real when he says that high-trust societies yield a valuable economic benefit from their institutions of trust, compared to low-trust societies.

In thinking about what all this has to do with the happy society, therefore, I think Fukuyama has the more fruitful empirical approach.  However, I do find one part of Seligman’s argument to be helpful for the happy society.  If what Fukuyama calls trust is best thought of as confidence in the social system, then I see a line of action we can take to make society happier: promote confidence in the social system.  Or more exactly, show the ways in which many social systems (the sub-systems of society as a whole) are working well and getting better. Show that confidence in social systems is well-placed.  Show, further, that developing the habit of confiding in social systems promotes the better functioning of those systems, and encourages others to be more confident, as well. 

One finding of happiness research is that happy people tend to see bad events as temporary and unusual, and good events as permanent and common.  Unhappy people tend to see the same events in the opposite way.  Everyone has some bad experiences with social systems.  However, happy people are likely to remain confident in the basic good order of the system, and attribute that particular bad experience to temporary, non-systemic qualities. Unhappy people, by contrast, are likely to blame the whole system any time they have a bad experience.

If most people are confident in their social systems, the society will be happier; if the society is happier, most people will be confident in their social systems. 

This suggests two lines of action to make society happier.  First, fix any actual problems in social systems.  Second, persuade the persuadable to re-interpret their bad experiences, or (more likely) what they have heard about other people’s bad experiences. Some people are, of course, determined to be unhappy. This will be true in the happiest society.  But there is a middle group who can be moved, by example, emotion, and reason, to read the social systems in a positive, confidence-building way.

To persuade people that the bad experiences they have had, or, more likely, just heard about, are unusual, it may be helpful to show that “the news is a freak show.”  That is, the news is designed to present the unusual, and has a bias toward the unusually bad rather than the unusually good.  This is not a flaw in the news.  The unusually bad can be fixed.  We know this is true, in the main, because the bad thing is unusual. The usual practice is better.  So if we can fix or prevent this deviant case, the usual working of the system is good. In any case, even if the bad case can’t be fixed, it is helpful to remember that the case is presented on the news because it is unusual.

Yet many people – most people, I expect – treat the news as a picture of what is normal and usual, because that is all they normally hear and see about that kind of social system. This is not a flaw in the news.  This is a flaw in the audience for news. The main audience for news falls victim to bad stereotyping.  The cure is not to do away with stereotyping – in this case, doing away with the news.  The cure is to teach the audience the difference between the rule, which is not reported, and the exception, which is.  This is why sophisticated people usually have a deeper grasp of what is going on. Not only do they know the latest news, they also know the larger context of the normal that does not make the news.

So, we can promote the happy society by teaching people that they have good reason to be confident in the social system.

1 comment:

Michael Kruse said...

In “The Rational Optimist” Matt Ridley writes about the ultimatum game as it plays out across cultures. There are two subjects. The first is offered some money, say $100. The first subject is told divide the money between him and the second subject in any manner he sees fit. The second subject has no say in how much each subject gets but the second subject can veto the whole transaction, neither of them get anything.

Studies in American culture and in most advanced market economies show that if the first subject keeps more than about 60% of the money the second will veto the transaction. It is interesting because if the second subject gets even $1 he or she is better off than if the transaction had never occurred, yet the transaction will be vetoed over the “unfairness” of the deal. There is an unspoken expectation and confidence/trust that the stranger will identify with the plight of another and be equitable.

What is interesting is that when this game is played in cultures with a high degree of tribalism and minimal trade, the first subject might elect to keep all the money without veto from the second subject. There is no abstract sense of solidarity with strangers creating an expectation of equitable distribution. Either markets instill a since of confidence in strangers or confidence in strangers creates fertile ground for markets. More likely they feed each other.