Stephen Knack, a lead economist at the World Bank, once commented that, “basically all the difference between the per capita income of the United States and Somalia” could be explained by trust. These currently amount to $46,546 and $220.30 respectively (UN 2009/2010); a difference of over $46,300 and a large amount, if Knack is correct, to attribute to one five-letter word.
Other economists prefer that “trust” not even enter such calculations. For example, Oliver E. Williamson, in
(1992), takes exception that “trust” and “risk” are used interchangeably, arguing that it is “redundant at best and can be misleading to use the term ‘trust’ to describe commercial exchange for which cost-effective safeguards have been devised in support of more efficient exchange.” Calculativeness, Trust and Economic Organization
He believes that when trust is justified by expectations of positive reciprocal consequences, it is simply another version of economic exchange. This he describes as “calculative trust,” a contradiction in terms. The word trust, he states, should be reserved for non-calculative personal relations between family, friends and lovers.
SHOULD ‘TRUST’ BE SO RESTRICTIVELY DEFINED?
Discussing his US/Somalia comparison, Stephen Knack says he had a broad notion in mind. This is one where, for example, two partners confidently move ahead with business plans, not necessarily because of their personal relationship, but because they operate in a country where the legal system and social relationships provide trust and stability.
The moral molecule
Could the development of modern society have been encouraged by a single molecule? Paul j. Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, believes so. In his book,
The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity, he discusses how a mutation several thousand years ago in the gene that codes for oxytocin, also known as the “love molecule,” helped foster societies that were open to interaction with strangers.
“If you define trust in this manner, it is clear that it is a major determinant of economic success,” he explains. In a series of papers in the late 1990s with Philip Keefer, and later with Paul Zak, Knack investigated the economic payoff of social capital, the reasons why poor countries don’t seem to catch up, and the relationship of trust and growth.
“We make it clear that we don’t define trust, like others try to do, as independent from formal institutions. For us, there is no way to separate them. There are quite a few studies published in the legal and social-science journals suggesting there is a strong interplay between law and social norms. Social norms develop as they do partly because of the legal system in which they exist. Trust is something that comes from legal systems, social relationships and the interactions between the two,” Knack explains.
(1997 with Keefer) outlines the benefits of trust. Individuals in higher-trust societies spend less protecting themselves from being exploited in economic transactions. Litigation may be less frequent, fewer resources need to be diverted to protecting themselves (through security of person and goods or in bribes), and government officials may be perceived as more trustworthy. Does Social Capital Have an Economic Payoff
Low-trust environments can discourage innovation as entrepreneurs devote more time to monitoring possible malfeasance by partners, employees and suppliers, so have less time to innovate. In
(1998), they also note that deficiencies in the institutional environment (that is, in the legal, political and regulatory framework) may reduce investment and the ability of countries to absorb technological advances from abroad. Why Don’t Poor Countries Catch Up
Without these advances, countries may grow more slowly. “I think that until investors can be confident that the government will not expropriate their assets or that other individuals are not going to cheat them, it really is impossible to have a modern economy,” he concludes. “So, from this perspective trust is crucial. Without trust, people’s per capita incomes today would only be a tiny fraction of what they actually are.”
THE MAFIA THRIVES ON THE ABSENCE OF TRUST
One region now well picked over by sociologists and economists in terms of trust – or rather distrust – is southern Italy. The region’s inability to develop both socially and economically during a period when the rest of the nation became one of the richest in Europe has long been an enduring puzzle in developing economics.
“This is a big question, even bigger than, ‘Why is a sub-Saharan African country finding it difficult to develop?’” says Diego Gambetta, a sociologist at the University of Oxford. His fieldwork in the city of Palermo led to his book
The Sicilian Mafia: The Business of Private Protection (1993).
“Deductive reasoning led me to believe that it was an issue to do with trust. But if the level of trust was so low, if the region was so devastated by distrust, how was it that southern Italy still managed to have some level of social interaction at all?”
His intuition was that the mafia, which held great influence in parts of the south, was at its core an institution that exploits and thrives on the absence of trust. “Their activities are the opposite of being socially beneficial,” explains Gambetta.
He argues that the way the Mafia discharges its services, while giving a sense of security to those under its protection, reinforced distrust in the wider population. By providing incentives for people to behave in an untrustworthy manner when under Mafia protection, it drives out all intrinsic motivations for good behavior in business and any incentive to find self-managed cheaper ways to cooperate. “The mafia,” he memorably wrote, “is the opium of distrusting people.”
Christian Bjørnskov, from Aarhus University in Denmark, says it is clear that trust has an economic value. Author of a recent paper,
( How Does Social Trust Affect Economic Growth? Southern Economic Journal), Bjørnskov investigated the exact channels by which trust encourages economic development.
In previous research, it had been suggested that trust could play a role in investments, schooling, governance, international trade and government to promote growth. Bjørnskov’s work suggests there are only two channels of importance: schooling and governance.
“Trust affects how the legal system and bureaucracy works, which affects the economy, probably due to its overall effects on transaction costs. Trust also affects the level of education in a system, which again, of course, influences the economy. Through these, trust can influence long- term growth,” explains Bjørnskov.
Bjørnskov cautions that high trust levels and strong educational and legal systems are not the only means to economic success: other factors are also involved, such as trade policy, that are not associated with trust.
“Economic history shows that there are many paths to wealth. For example, France, one of the world’s richest countries, displays a lower-than- average level of trust on indexes, as do fast developers like Malaysia and Singapore,” he says. “Yet, having high levels of trust in a society seems to make it more likely that the country will experience beneficial institutional and educational development. Beyond this, trust doesn’t do anything else, but this is more than enough.”