If a society desires economic prosperity, political freedoms and genuine human flourishing then it needs more than a good set of democratic and market institutions. It needs something much deeper—a high-trust society that is grounded in a culture that inculcates trustworthiness in children at a young age. That’s the core message of Why Culture Matters Most by David Rose, an economist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

This is a very good book, which I recommend highly. I had the luxury of discussing it with a student reading group this semester (supported by Wake Forest University’s Eudaimonia Institute) and will use it in my Current Economic Issues course in the fall.

Here’s a closer look at Rose’s argument:

  1. If the culture encourages it, trust will be high, which allows for free-market democracy, which generates material flourishing. Culture matters most.
  2. Teaching your (very young) children well is crucial to having them become trustworthy. This “mind control” (Rose’s unfortunate term, which ruffled quite a few feathers in my student reading group) must occur before children can think for themselves. If enough people are trustworthy it becomes the default setting to assume that others are trustworthy, which lowers transactions costs and allows for greater cooperation and prosperity. Teaching that dishonesty is okay is akin to pollution. Parents must teach moral duty-based moral restraint to make their children trustworthy, and society trusting. Children must be taught to reject the very idea of grasping so-called “golden opportunities”—i.e., actions that allow them to profit at others’ expense without fear of detection, such as cheating on a take home exam, cheating on your taxes when there’s no paper trail, or shirking at work when no one can detect it. Our brains must “come to regard opportunistic action as unworthy of consideration,” so they will “literally bypass the cost-benefit calculation state of decision-making when chances to behave opportunistically present themselves” (p. 70).
  3. Like other forms of pollution, dishonesty pollution is worse in large groups than in small groups. Those who cave in to the lure of being dishonest in an honest society can cash in big. This propensity of some to free ride on the trust of others, this tragedy of the commons in under-investing in trustworthiness, rises with group size. Teaching children well is expensive and the benefits accrue to strangers, so parents often underinvest in creating trustworthy children, thus undermining large group cooperation. Teaching children well works best if the whole culture supports it.
  4. Free-market democracies can unravel if parents and others don’t teach enough trustworthiness. And, free-market democracies are unraveling via redistributory and regulatory favoritism and cronyism. This is undermining trust in the system and undermining democratic institutions—and consequently undermining free market capitalism and material prosperity. Trust is not under-produced in large groups only in some theoretical sense—it is eroding and declining right now in many countries, including the United States.

Rose’s broad argument is compelling. Unfortunately, however, he sets his sights too low. Rose acknowledges that defining a successful society is difficult, so he essentially adopts a minimalist approach—success means merely that people are prosperous and free. The WALL-E world thereby fits Rose’s description of success—people are incredibly free and their material standard of living is considerable—but they live their lives doing nothing and turn into blobs. Such a life is free, prosperous, and unappealing.

More importantly, Rose’s vision of success is too modest because it sees trustworthiness as merely a means to an end and not an end in itself. Rose takes an evolutionary biology approach that is purely material. All that matters is matter, not the heart and soul. What about higher-level goods—like virtue? Rose effectively equates good culture with trust and trustworthiness—i.e., not being the kind of person who cheats and takes advantage of others. This is a very narrow set of virtues.

Perhaps this is a trifling quibble, but the term “golden opportunity” (which Rose borrows from economist Robert Frank) doesn’t work. The term already has another, more benign, meaning. The name debases both “gold” and “opportunity.” Gold implies value and purity. Opportunity’s etymology is “toward the harbor,” toward security. Perhaps “gilded opportunity” would fit better.

More importantly, Rose’s analysis implies that such opportunities are easy to detect. Instead, the person who tries to cash in on these opportunities usually also tries to cash in on other almost-gilded opportunities, gets caught and is outed as a cad and a cheat. Honesty has a track record of paying well. The most trusted people and companies get a well-deserved reputation for not ripping others off.

Rose suggests that societies “stumble” (he uses the term six times) upon the beliefs that inculcate trustworthiness. But this is an inapt description. Societies don’t stumble upon these things, just like scientists didn’t stumble on nuclear power. Leaders—moral and religious leaders—purposely develop these ideas. They set about figuring this out. They work collectively to achieve it. They do so because they believe it is inspired work and are happy to bear the costs of creating and spreading these ideas, often because they believe them to be divinely inspired, obtained through revelation. (“What I have learned without self-interest, I pass along without reserve,” Wisdom 7:13.)

Is trust really eroding? Rose’s support is unduly anecdotal. There is almost an empirical vacuum in the book. Data on attitudes about trust are available, such as the question included in the World Values Survey: “do you agree that most people can be trusted?” which Rose relegates to a footnote (pp. 75–76). The numbers show higher trust in some countries that are very successful free-market democracies, such as in Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Australia, but they also show very high levels in China, Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia. Rose asserts that trust is eroding in the U.S., so why not cite the findings of the General Social Survey, which shows the percent of Americans agreeing that “most people can be trusted” fell from about 45% in the early 1970s to about 31% in recent years.

Most importantly, is all trust created equal? Rose breaks trust into a) small group trust (which he sees as fairly easy to achieve because 1/N is large) and b) large group trust of two types—generalized trust in strangers and trust in the system (that the powers-that-be will enact rules fairly and not favor their group or themselves). Rather than this trichotomy, there are probably a large series of trust spheres, each of which has its own logic and boundaries, in each of which trust may be extended quickly or only after repeated interactions. Which strangers do I trust? The ones I meet in a grocery store vs. the auto repair shop? The ones I meet in my church vs. the ones I meet in an airport? The ones I meet on campus vs. the ones I meet in a back alley?

My sense is that one broad type of trust in society is eroding, while another is growing. Rose argues that “economic development is like climbing a ladder. Each rung corresponds to a larger set of transactions through which the gains from cooperation can be derived. Higher trust lets society climb up the ladder by making ever more trust-dependent transactions viable” (p. 5). But such commercial trust seems to be growing. We’ve learned how to trust complete strangers (including software) very well, as we buy things on the internet. This trust arose because we learned that companies like Amazon won’t rip us off and have developed secure systems to protect themselves and us. We’ve learned that small businesses and Uber drivers aren’t likely to rip us off or give us a bad deal—as we’ve developed technologies and social practices that penalize them for doing so. Many of us even let complete strangers have free rein in our homes, via Airbnb. We’ve learned how to monitor workers better. We’ve even forced companies to leave a paper trail so that people cannot so easily cheat on their taxes. And now we have the promise of blockchain technology.

But trust appears to be waning in personal relationships. More and more people don’t trust each other enough to credibly commit to lifetime marriages. They test it out by shacking up first (almost 70% of first marriages are now preceded by cohabitation, see http://weekspopulation.blogspot.com/2018/10/cohabitation-and-divorce-case-of.html). The new technologies make it easier for someone to cheat on a spouse, which undermines trust. And our celebration of unlimited freedom from moral constraints means that such actions are no longer universally frowned upon. Relationships aren’t as permanent as they were and this is a primary factor that produces less trusting and less trustworthy children. Children see that their parents don’t trust each other (and/or are no longer together) and learn indelible lessons about trust. Instead of teaching trustworthiness by positive example (“Young man, how could you have cheated! You know that your father would never do that”), more parents teach by negative example (“Don’t ever be like your no-good father!” “You can’t trust men.”). Oddly, in several places Rose suggests that teaching trustworthiness is primarily a matter of eliminating the negative, rather than reinforcing the positive—eliminating the possibility of cheating others, rather than learning how to care for others. I don’t see how the two could ever be uncoupled.

Finally, is there any way to fix the problem? Rose’s closing thoughts on how to solve the problem of declining trust and trustworthiness are suggestive but don’t go very far. (As one of my students put it: Rose says we’re stuck in a swamp, but doesn’t give us a map to help us get out.) Rose argues that it’s mainly up to parents—that we need to do as Graham Nash’s lyrics extol: “teach your children well.” But our society increasingly denigrates parenthood, seeing children as a burden, not a gift. Rose says very little about how parents teach trustworthiness. He posits that teaching it has a high opportunity cost, but doesn’t explain much about these costs. Actual parents teach trustworthiness mainly by example—and the examples provided by Rose are scarce. We need practical advice! (Perhaps Rose will provide some in his next book?)

Rose argues that storytelling is needed to bolster trust, as well. A culture must inculcate, celebrate, and venerate trust and trustworthiness by telling stories about trustworthy heroes. His icon is the mythical cowboy of western movies and TV shows from the 1950s and early 60s. But we generally don’t tell stories this way these days. The media of today often makes the hero of old out to be a hypocrite. American movie studios were once reined in by the Hays Code, which included a set of general principles that prohibited a movie from “lowering the moral standards of those who see it.” It decreed, for example, that crime and immorality could never be portrayed in a positive light and that if someone performed an immoral act, they had to be punished on screen—the bad guy couldn’t get away with it. Studios also knew that it was box office poison if religious leaders warned about the vices of a particular movie. These restraints were torn off in the 1960s. Before this, Rose’s mythical cowboy rode tall. In 1958–59 six of the top seven top-rated TV shows were westerns, like Gunsmoke. The public demanded it. Then they stopped. How to resurrect the mythical cowboy and other virtuous role models? How to re-inculcate trustworthiness? (This, too, would be a good topic for Rose’s next book.)

Rose suggests there have been other worthy causes that have reshaped the cultural landscape for good—the Civil Rights movement and environmentalism, for example. Can their template be borrowed to fix the culture of eroding trust? Unfortunately, this transfer will be difficult. Both the civil rights movement and environmentalism were led by activists, who often earned considerable rents along the way. The purveyors of duty-based moral restraint generally cannot earn such rents (and they certainly don’t bear the immense costs of some civil rights leaders). Both civil rights and environmentalism were fairly inexpensive on the individual level for many people—a large helping of low-cost virtue signaling could get these projects going. But, if Rose is right, changing the trustworthiness culture means being a role model in expensive ways. Instead of saying, “children, don’t be mean to the minority kids at school” or “Hey, young man, pick up that bubble gum wrapper,” it’s constantly showing children that YOU are willing to do the right thing even if there’s a big cost in terms of time or money. You are willing to closely monitor what they watch and read; you are willing to put down your screen and spend time with them, you are watching, coaching them, and correcting them—not some stranger. And the payoff is iffy due to the acid bath of modern culture plus it takes twenty years or more to fully observe, unlike cleaning up a stream or desegregating a school. (Speaking of the educational system, as a parent I learned that it has almost completely abandoned the teaching of many virtues—trustworthiness among them.)

That brings us to the last hope, religion. Rose argues that religion can play a key role by raising the stakes of being trustworthy or untrustworthy—from merely earthly to eternal stakes, from merely earthly to a heavenly monitor who observes all cheating. Unfortunately, the surest way to undermine religion may be to do as Rose does, suggesting that it is a key to fixing worldly problems. It may indeed solve worldly problems. But, if it is framed this way, it will be regarded as purely utilitarian and nothing but a noble, naïve lie—which seems to be this book’s materialistic interpretation—and will lose its purpose and potency.

Robert M. Whaples
Wake Forest University