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Social trust is necessary for effective interactions within and between states. Social trust is, however, very different from other types of trust. Trust between family members is developed through shared histories and frequent interactions. Individuals within a neighborhood or small town may develop a high level of trust due to their proximity and frequent interactions. Within a state, very few people have these types of affiliations or interactions. They share a common bond through their membership in the political community, but they do not know one another and most have not interacted.

Yet a basic level of social trust ensures that their interactions are civil and fosters the cooperation that allows the state’s economic and political systems to function. Relationships between states are even more distinct, but it is social trust that makes alliances and treaties possible. Because social trust is a foundation for the effective functioning of states and the international community, a breakdown of social trust would have catastrophic consequences.

Social trust has many dimensions, all of which are vulnerable to breaking down. When social trust breaks down between citizens, they are less likely to believe that others will respect them or will help them. They fear being taken advantage of and do not think others will follow the law or adhere to community norms. They are also skeptical that some of their fellow citizens are working for the benefit of the community or that they share the same values. Social trust supports adherence to the rule of law. When it breaks down, people question the basis for the rule of law and reconsider the reason given for adhering to it.

There is also an economic dimension to social trust. When social trust breaks down, people lose faith in the economic system. They do not trust in the stability of financial markets or in the integrity of those who run them. They doubt that money printed by the government has any value as money is nothing more than an expression of social trust. They lose faith in the possibility of improving their socioeconomic status and closing gaps related to inequality. This causes people to view with suspicion the wealthiest members of their communities and the economic systems that produce high levels of inequality.

Politically, significant numbers of people question whether the government cares about and represents the interests of people like them. When social trust breaks down, they may fear the government and its representatives and become less hopeful about the future. They also do not trust political opponents due to suspicions regarding their motives and values. This makes it difficult to convince citizens to put aside self-interest and work together to advance the common good. Trust in other community institutions, such as those institutions that support the community’s education, social, and religious functions, may also diminish.

A breakdown of social trust between states prevents agreements from taking place on important issues like climate change, technology regulation, and poverty. States do not trust other states to adhere to the terms of agreements. This also makes conflict more likely, especially in an era where inequality continues to exist within and between states, natural resource availability is declining, and disasters like flooding and fires occur more frequently and with a greater impact. In a time of diminished social trust, state actions that would typically not draw attention are seen as threatening. There are changes taking place now that, over the next five to ten years, might lead to a substantial breakdown in social trust.

Technology, which has been a great connector of people, has also advanced polarization. It has allowed people to limit their interactions with those who are different. People can express views about others in private groups without being challenged. And technology gives these groups a worldwide reach. It is also becoming more difficult for people to determine what is true. Potential sources of news have multiplied, and they cater to different ideologies using different sets of facts. This makes it difficult for people with different views to have productive conversations and creates obstacles to building and sustaining social trust.

Climate change will continue to negatively impact individuals and states. Whether it’s a shortage of resources like water or natural disasters like fires, floods, and rising temperatures, climate change will make the lives of people and the functioning of states more challenging. Demographic trends will favor the developing world as there will be proportionately fewer young people in the developed world. This will create challenges for the developed world and opportunities for the developing world. Continued automation of work tasks will require a massive reskilling effort for workers, but it is not clear that education and training infrastructures are designed or have the capacity to support this need. Adoption of clean energy will also create significant changes in the labor market.

Government debt may impede governments in addressing the challenges that face them. It will also prevent governments from boosting their economies. This could sustain or even deepen inequality and will result in diminished economic growth. Governments’ ineffectiveness in addressing these challenges may diminish trust in them and other institutions.

The impact of these changes becomes critical when social trust breaks down so much that people question the motives, values, and even moral status of others. Low levels of social trust might lead to fracturing of political communities within states and possibly even violence between different groups. It will certainly undermine cooperation.

A lack of trust in the economic structure may cause people to opt out of the economic system entirely. They may pull their investments and money from the stock market and banks. Impatience with efforts to address inequality may result in civil unrest or even violence.

A loss of faith in the ability of government to address challenges like climate change, inequality, and reskilling may lead to the rise of autocratic leaders who promise to resolve these problems. Because of fear that robots will take their jobs, people may reject technological advances, both the good and the bad.

A breakdown of social trust between states may hinder the level cooperation needed to address climate change and regulate technology. The potential for conflict will increase as states compete for scarce resources and view each other with suspicion because of disproportionate wealth distribution.

Some degree of social trust must exist if people are to live together peacefully and productively as citizens of a state. Social trust is also necessary for effective state interactions as part of the international community. A breakdown of social trust can occur at different levels. This ranges from undermining citizens’ trust in one another to their trust in economic and political structures. It can also lead to states becoming extremely distrustful of one another, which increases the possibility of conflict. These breakdowns of social trust are all potentially dangerous. Changes currently taking place make a breakdown possible in the next five to ten years, although this is not inevitable.

© Chris Mayer 2021

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