Can we engineer social trust?

In the Harvard International Review, Jordan Boslego looks at if we can engineer social trust.

Why does anyone trust anyone else? Excessive risk avoidance closes off the potential benefits of cooperation, knowledge-sharing, and reputation (knowledge that the “game” of trust will have future moves) discourages betrayal. Trust enforces agreements that are either impossible or impractical to reliably enforce by state agencies, such as verbal promises. You may trust your relatives, co-workers, classmates, friends, and even your friends’ friends, but the puzzle of social trust is the idea of trusting strangers. Your only basis for whether to trust or distrust a complete stranger is your social conditioning, which may be influenced by your ethnic or cultural group, the characteristics and values of the society in which you live or grew up, your past experiences, and—more broadly—the historical tradition of your country.

The question is whether some countries do better than others at fostering identities strong enough to promote social trust among all citizens. It is hypothesized that these states will tend to be more democratic than ones with less social trust. It can be reasoned that social trust is important in consolidating democratic regimes, since for a democracy to function, citizens must trust that the elections have been fair, the officials are not corrupt, and that the government is representing their interests. By accepting the results of an election, a citizen is implicitly trusting every other citizen to choose the right candidate. At the same time, a certain level of political distrust keeps government in check, since citizens demand transparency and accountability from elected leaders. Distrust, wrote German sociologist Claus Offe, is not the opposite of trust: practices such as investigative journalism in fact make institutions more trustworthy by serving as a credible outside audit.