Trust, governance, and cultural evolution
Recent remarks at the World Bank debate on the Future of Government
A couple of weeks ago I spoke at the World Bank’s 5th Future of Government Disruptive debate. My apologies for not writing about this sooner - I’ve been busy working on my forthcoming book (tentatively titled “Us: The New Scientific Theory of Everyone” - love to hear your thoughts on that).
In any case, you can watch the full debate here: https://www.worldbank.org/en/events/2021/09/22/how-will-citizens-trust-in-government-be-affected
My opening remarks are around 7:10, but here’s a summary if you don’t feel like watching:
Trust is the glue that binds us into societies. The extent to which we trust each other is the extent to which we are a society. Without trust, we’re separate competing societies living in the same country. But government is a powerful cultural evolutionary tool in the history of human cooperation. If we trust that everyone is subject to the rule of law regardless of who they are, or who they know, or their station in life, and if we trust that governments represent common interests, then we can bypass the need to directly trust all of the diverse groups that we live alongside. But when that government trust fails, we’re forced to fall back on our individual ingroups - our extended family, our friends, our ethnic and religious communities - the local groups for whom trust comes more naturally.
Because there is nothing natural about liberal democracy. There is nothing natural about living in communities with complete strangers. There is nothing natural about large-scale anonymous cooperation among diverse cultural groups. But there is something very natural about prioritizing your family over other people. And there is something very natural about helping your friends and others in your social circle. And there is something very natural about returning favors given to you. These smaller scales of cooperation that we share with other animals are always ready to undermine institutional trust as corruption.
When a leader enriches his family at the expense of the state, it’s nepotism. But it’s also cooperation at the level of the family, well explained by inclusive fitness, undermining cooperation at the level of the state. When your job is based on your connections, it’s cronyism. But it’s also cooperation at the level of friends, well explained by reciprocal altruism – you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours; an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; undermining the meritocracy. More family-oriented cultures are higher on corruption, particularly nepotism. Places that practice cousin marriage, where your uncle is not just your parents sibling, but is related to you along multiple lines, binds groups into large tribes whose politics undermine democracy. Even in the developed world, it’s no surprise that places that operate on old boy networks of friendship or have segregated social networks are more susceptible to cronyism.
If we can’t trust the government, we have to rely on traded favors with friends and family. And this is a vicious loop. It doesn’t just corrupt our leaders, it corrupts our societies. In more corrupt societies, norms dictate that you favor your friends and family, whether you’re a merchant, manager, or member of parliament.
Turning to inequality then, it’s worth noting that we care about absolute welfare—that our lives are improving, but we also care inequality relative to the other groups in our society. There are many factors in play here.
Rising inequality can be a cue that governments have been captured by special interests. Earlier this month, the New York Times ran a piece on the capture of the United States IRS and tax codes by private equity – people earning less than $25,000 per year are at least 3 times more likely to be audited than partnership firms. But will anything change? The Panama Papers, the Paradise Papers, and other evidence of tax avoidance and other unfairness are leaked. A few people lose their jobs, but many don’t and the system doesn’t change. Transparency alone isn’t enough, without repercussions it can be worse than opacity. It can be a cue that the government is favoring the few over the many, and contribute to falling institutional trust. That latent mistrust measurable in polls may not manifest for a long time. Those fractures in society can persist, waiting for the right person or right ideology to coordinate around – a populist politician, a protest, or referendum offering an opportunity to express that frustration. But it’s not the fault of the politician – there are always people looking to take the mic. It’s the circumstances that led to people rallying around them.
That vicious loop also leads to the rise in misinformation. When governments seem corrupted and captured by special interests and their actions are not transparent, people fill in the gaps by listening to those that seem to be in their cooperative group. Trust is also how we learn what is right and true – not through causality or understanding. We don’t have full access to direct evidence for most of what we believe. We believe that the world is round and rotating around the sun in violation of our everyday experience because we trust those who told us. And we believe that a virus caused this pandemic and an mRNA vaccine can help prevent it, not because we really understand germ theory or exactly what messenger RNA does, but because of whom we trust. Trust that we are in the same cooperative group, such that actions are for our mutual benefit.
The two additional challenges I want to mention are resources and diversity. Cooperation requires resources. Inequality isn’t necessarily a problem and can even be incentivizing and inspiring - if there’s a sense that compensation matches contribution and that the playing field is fair – the sense that I could do that too. But when resources are scarce – limited jobs, limited educational opportunities or limited lucrative contracts, your gain is no longer inspiring, it’s predictive of my loss. When wealth isn’t just a product of hardwork and ability, but unearned accumulation through intergenerational wealth transfers that are impossible to catch up to, productive competition turns into destructive competition.
And finally, diversity. Diversity is a fuel for the engine of innovation, it can make us economically and culturally richer, but it also divides us. It’s clear that we can live together despite our differences and diverse perspectives, but it can be more difficult to get on the same page when you don’t agree on the same goals or same assumptions – making democracy more difficult. For example, African countries with colonial borders forcing different groups together have weaker democracies, higher corruption, and are more susceptible to the resource curse. But that same tension permeates any country with latent divisions. Resolving this paradox of diversity is one of the great challenges of our time.
It's not enough to just admire the problem, how do we repair it?