Trust and Society
The Invisible Institution

How did trust come to loom so large in the self-definition of contemporary societies? Philosopher Martin Hartmann presents some possible explanations.

By Martin Hartmann

Many different societies have been grappling with issues of trust for years now – and with surprisingly unabated intensity. It’s as though they were engaged in an ongoing domestic discussion about trust, a conversation conducted sometimes more noisily and sometimes more softly, sometimes more anxiously and sometimes more serenely. Crises raise the volume tremendously, as showed by the Covid pandemic, for it was clear right from the start that measures decided at the top would only prove effective if they reached and were implemented at the bottom. Without trust there’s nothing doing, said former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, or words to that effect, and many people agreed.

If you listen closely to this conversation, you’ll hear a wide variety of different voices. Some say we lack trust: we need it in every domain, but we don’t know how to get there. Politicians and political parties, churches, banks, the scientific community – they’re all competing for our trust, but every crisis, every scandal, every dashed hope seems to shake the very foundations on which trust can be built.

Measuring trust

Others feel we pin far too many hopes to trust. Wherever power is being concentrated or inequality increasing, we need distrust, not trust, we need caution and prudence, not naive optimism. Still others dispense with diagnoses and value judgments, applying their stethoscope to measure the heartbeat of society’s trust instead. “Generally speaking, do you feel most people can be trusted?” This is one such question framed to gauge that heartbeat. Whole societies are assigned a “trust index” on the basis of their responses; entire economies can be differentiated according to their degree of trust.

How did trust come to loom so large in the self-definition of contemporary societies? There are at least two possible – and contrasting – explanations. On the one hand, with more and more ways of communicating and interacting available to us, we have to deal with more and more strangers whose services we require to carry out our plans and projects, but whose behaviour cannot be wholly predicted on the basis of generally applicable laws and norms. Sociologists call this phenomenon “disembedding”, which means upcoupling social relations from tangible local geographic contexts.

Loosening ties and loyalties

In the realm of political action, our ties and loyalties have become more fluid and have ceased to conform to traditional patterns of allegiance. Our trust is no longer permanently tied to a single political party; instead, we tend to weigh up political options based on the ever-changing reputations of political figures. Trust is sometimes said to be the invisible institution of our democracies: it dissolves formalized obligations and is difficult to predict in its fluctuations. The plethora of political scandals nowadays is probably the downside of the growing political importance of trust. We look more closely, judge more harshly and part company more quickly. If trust means giving others free rein and releasing them from constant control and close scrutiny, it’s something that has to be earned and can never be taken for granted. Trust-based societies are as restive as trust-based politics; they hardly ever settle down. After all, there is too much riding on trust to give it away profligately.

The other explanation comes at it from a different angle. As our allegiances become more fluid and the range of available options expands, we increasingly long for the familiar, for compartmentalized microcosms of similarity and clear-cut relations. In this explanatory model, the loss of trust takes a heavy toll if only because there are winners and losers in this zero-sum game of ever-expanding options. While trust may resolve conflicts by facilitating cooperation across dividing lines, it carries its own potential for conflict within it: for if I place my trust in one side, I’m depriving the other side of my trust. Trust may thrive within micro-realms of familiarity, but it puts up walls round them that are held together by the mortar of mistrust and fear of the unfamiliar. We bestow trust selectively.

A rare and coveted commodity

So even if it’s true that modern institutions can’t survive without trust and modern-day politicians must gain our trust in order to be entrusted with power, this doesn’t automatically mean there is a general willingness to trust. After all, trust creates its own vulnerabilities insofar as it dispenses with oversight and control, and not everyone wants to be vulnerable. Some folks are trust-averse or simply confine their trust to a narrow circle of familiars. As a result, trust becomes a rare commodity to be vied for in the political arena, which strip away some of its warm, fuzzy quality. Individually and as a society, what do we want from trust? We should try to come up with an answer to this question before lamenting the loss of trust. That will also help us pinpoint where we need to focus our energies in order to create conditions conducive to trust.

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Trust is the subject of this year’s Kultursymposium, an international cultural festival hosted by the Goethe-Institut from 10–12 May 2023 at various venues in Weimar. Martin Hartmann will be among the speakers. To take advantage of a 20% discount on all tickets, enter the promo code KSWE_ZEITGEISTER. For tickets and the programme, go to: